Teaching & Learning Resource Center

Calling in Classroom Conflict

Shadia Siliman, Instructional Consultant, Michael V. Drake Institute for Teaching and Learning
Shadia Siliman, Instructional Consultant, Michael V. Drake Institute for Teaching and Learning

Instructional Consultant Shadia Siliman describes a time when a student made offensive comments about transgender identity in her classroom:

"Several years ago, I was teaching a session of Introduction to Gender Studies which focused on transgender experience. My students were completing a silent activity using the Genderbread Person and Gender Unicorn worksheets when one student interrupted our work time.

'Let’s say I think I’m transgender, but maybe I also think I’m a cow,' announced the student.

Before he could continue, I cut in:  'Hold on, I don’t want us to compare being trans to thinking you are an animal.'

I then asked the class as a whole, 'Why?' "

Imagine this scenario happening in your classroom. How would you respond? What strategies or resources would support you to redirect and maintain a respectful discussion? 

Read the full example to learn how Siliman navigated this moment of conflict.

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An instructor speaks to a class of students.

Navigating Classroom Conflict

As higher ed instructors, most of us will experience a conflict between students or an offensive comment made by someone in class. We are often unsure how to respond and may choose to ignore the moment and resume with our planned lesson. However, classroom conflict interrupts learning. Whether the conflict has a direct connection to your course content or is unrelated to your material, when you leave conflict unacknowledged or unresolved, student learning suffers (Ogunyemi et al., 2020).

In contrast, when you address classroom conflict directly and effectively, new learning opportunities may arise.

"When handled well, classroom conflict can create the dissonance essential for significant learning, permit new and different voices to be heard, clarify important differences, raise issues to a level and place where they can be seen and addressed, and provide students with models for creative engagement and problem-solving" (Pasque et al., 2013).

As referenced in this guide, classroom conflict includes offensive or hurtful statements made by students towards each other or towards a specific identity group. We’ll provide concrete guidance you can use to navigate these incidents and “call in” conflict effectively, productively, and compassionately.

What is "Calling In"?

What exactly do we mean by “calling in” and why should you practice it?

College classrooms are important playgrounds for students’ ideological reflection and experimentation. There will inevitably be incongruity and disagreement between students as they share their perspectives and experiences. Whether deliberately or not, students will make statements that offend and hurt others, especially as they discuss current events that impact their lives, such as the COVID-19 pandemic and continuing police brutality against people of color in the U.S.

You may be familiar with the concept of “calling out” problematic comments, which usually includes publicly pointing out that a person has committed an oppressive action. “Calling in,” on the other hand, is a consciously compassionate practice of pulling back in those who have strayed from their community. Calling in allows space for individuals to make mistakes with positive intentions, meaning there is plenty of room for everyone involved to learn, evolve their thinking, and improve their behavior.

In this guide, “calling in” can be understood as a strategy of resolving conflict in which grace is extended to those who have acted and/or spoken in an offensive way that creates division between themselves and others in their community. When calling in, positive intent is assumed from the offending person, and opportunities are offered for them to correct and learn. Ngoc Loan Trần, a Việt/mixed-race disabled queer writer, explains that calling in helps those within a community re-establish their common ground:

"I picture ‘calling in’ as a practice of pulling folks back in who have strayed from us. Calling in as a practice of loving each other enough to allow each other to make mistakes, a practice of loving ourselves enough to know that what we’re trying to do here is a radical unlearning of everything we have been configured to believe is normal."

Your Role as an Instructor

Though it may seem challenging or uncomfortable at first, it is your responsibility as an instructor to call in conflict n your classroom.

  • First, addressing conflict models responsible behavior. You are not only delivering content to your students, but also training them how to be responsible and respectful members of a community.
  • Second, calling in can reflect your course curriculum and ideologies. Perhaps an underlying theme of a course is that students must be accountable to their communities or take a stand against inequality. You should behave in a way that adheres with this theme and help students practice that behavior as well.
  • Third, you should confront offensive or hostile comments so the responsibility for responding to them does not fall on the shoulders of minoritized students.

Below we outline several direct approaches to help you call in conflict during future class discussions.

Strategies for “Calling In” During Discussion

Whether you are teaching in person or online, you are likely to engage students in class discussion. It is also likely—particularly if your course deals with controversial topics—that some students will make potentially offensive statements during discussion. How can you prepare to address conflict?

There are three stages at which you can address these statements: before discussion, during discussion, and after discussion.

Before Discussion

These strategies will help you prevent conflict and prepare students to respectfully handle disagreements that arise.

  • Make boundaries clear to students from the start of the semester by including guidelines for respectful discussion in your syllabus. Discuss them with students on the first day of class.
  • Consider authoring a classroom agreement or set of community norms with the class. Shared ground rules are essential to keeping interactions productive. This can be a living document which students review ahead of complex discussions or add to and adapt throughout the semester.
  • Equip students for respectful dialogue prior to potentially challenging conversations or “hot topics” by clarifying appropriate language and etiquette.

Read more about setting a positive tone and fostering open discourse in Shaping a Positive Learning Environment.

During Discussion

These strategies will help you and your students respond to offensive statements, redirect negative language, and de-escalate conflict.

Pull the positive intentions out of what might be well-meaning but awkwardly-worded comments. Help students rephrase their statements more respectfully.

  • “What do you mean?”
  • “Tell me more about that.”
  • “I think this might be what you’re saying; correct me if I’m wrong…”
  • “I would encourage you to use other words…”

Avoid engaging in direct conflict with an individual who makes an offensive comment. Instead, turn the focus back to the group and community accountability. Remind all students of the classroom commitments or guidelines they have authored or agreed to, and they should be respectful to others present. You might also try turning the issue over to the class for feedback and dialogue.

  • “Let’s be thoughtful about the terms we use.”
  • “Can we try to be more careful with our words around this topic?”
  • “Let’s remember that we don’t know what experiences people are bringing with them to class.”
  • “What are our thoughts on that statement?”

Take a breather if conflict or tension escalates.

  • Rearrange seats if possible. For example, have students move their desks from rows facing the front of the classroom into a circular formation.
  • Pause the conversation and agree to come back to it. You could say, “We’re not prepared to talk about this today. Let’s return to this topic after some reflection and preparation.”
  • Be honest and communicate hurt and offense as a community matter. Explain why a given statement is inappropriate or inconsiderate Use “I” statements, rather than statements such as “you said/did this” or “you think this/that way.” Statements which begin with “you” can feel accusatory or commanding, which risks escalating an already tense situation.
    • “I’d like you to consider how your words impact your classmates.”
    • “Speaking like this breaks our classroom guidelines.”
  • Be clear with students that disagreement is not wrong or prohibited. However, making comments that are rude and insensitive is.

Read more about fostering productive discourse in Facilitating Discussion.

After Discussion

These strategies will help you and your students reflect upon conflicts and take steps to improve future interactions.

  • Debrief not only with the student(s) who made a hurtful comment, but with the entire class. Reflect upon the experience rather than ignoring it.
  • Consider adapting your classroom agreement or community norms based upon the experience and students’ reflections.
  • Acknowledge if you should have addressed a moment of conflict or tension in class but did not. Remain open to being called in yourself as an opportunity to set an example for students.

To learn more, view this recording of the Calling in Classroom Conflict workshop offered by the Michael V. Drake Institute for Teaching and Learning.

When “Calling In” Doesn’t Work

An instructor facilitates discussion with students.

In the opening anecdote, a student repeatedly made transphobic comments in class. The instructor, as well as the student’s classmates, tried to call him in using several of the tactics described above. In this case, the student turned down the “calling in” invitations and continued to make offensive comments. Because he persisted in behaving disrespectfully to the classroom community, the instructor ultimately asked him to leave class.

Though we encourage students to learn and grow by calling in, not all students will take us up on the offer. It’s important to remember that we invite students to participate respectfully, but we cannot make them do so. If you must, ask a disrespectful student to leave.

If a Situation Escalates

Above all, we should value the safety of our students and ourselves in class. If calling in is not working and you are worried that a conflict will escalate, choose the safest option possible to resolve the conflict before resuming class sessions.

  • If a student(s) refuses to leave class when asked, consider dismissing the entire class to de-escalate tension.
  • If you think a conflict between two or more students will pose a risk during class, cancel the session. No concept or course content is more important than the safety of you and your students.
  • If you feel unsafe interacting with a particular student(s), do not meet with them individually. Inform at least one supervisor of your concerns and make sure you are accompanied if you do choose to meet with them.

Document all hostile interactions or conflicts you have with students and share them with at least one supervisor. This includes incidents that take place before, during, and after class.

Consult the following Ohio State resources for more guidance:

Examples

Summary

Calling in conflict—and teaching students to do so as well—is crucial to ensuring your classroom is a safe and welcoming space for all learners. It can help you transform difficult moments of discord into new learning opportunities. Disagreements during discussion are unavoidable, but the strategies outlined above will help you foster respect, reflection, and a space in which students are supported to grow and learn from their mistakes.

By adopting a practice of calling in, you set a positive example for students to follow not only within your classroom, but in their communities beyond the classroom as well.

References

  • Loan Trần, N. (2016, August 1). Calling in: A less disposable way of holding each other accountable. BGD. https://www.bgdblog.org/2013/12/calling-less-disposable-way-holding-accountable/.
  • Ogunyemi, D., Clare, C., Astudillo, Y. M., Marseille, M., Manu, E., & Kim, S. (2020). Microaggressions in the learning environment: A systematic review. Journal of Diversity in Higher Education, 13(2), 97.
  • Pasque, P. A., Chesler, M. A., Charbeneau, J., & Carlson, C. (2013). Pedagogical approaches to student racial conflict in the classroom. Journal of Diversity in Higher Education, 6(1), 1.