On fostering dialogue

There were days when my favorite high school math teacher, Mr. B, rarely taught math. One of those days was April 21, 1999, hours after Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris had murdered 13 people before turning their guns on themselves. Mr. B. started class by describing the sleepless night he had spent thinking over how he was going to address the event the following day. I remember him saying something like, “There’s no right or wrong way to respond; each of us processes differently.”

And then he invited us to share reactions. He listened, and by listening, he said, I respect you, I value you, you are part of a community.

Eight years later, I tried – inexpertly – to channel Mr. B. when my own high school students returned, shaken, from an April school vacation that witnessed the massacre of 32 people at Virginia Tech. We talked about what was known, what was not known, about mental illness, and about guns. Above all, I tried to listen.

We need teachers like Mr. B. more than ever in this precarious and violent summer, when both the news and the political rhetoric foment division, not dialogue. Great teachers are experts at difficult conversations, read the headline in Chalkbeat. I could not agree more. From Adrian Pruett, a teacher in Houston, to Tanya Huelett, a program associate at Facing History and Ourselves, some of the most powerful reflections on Orlando and Baton Rouge and Minnesota and Dallas and Baton Rouge (again) have come from educators grappling with ways to foster dialogue among students.

This is a skill not easily learned. Most teachers learn it over many years, from more experienced educators and from their own students as informal advisors and guides.

But programs preparing teachers can still equip novices with foundational skills for talking about difficult topics such as race, hate, and violence. Some of those skills include:


  • Knowing yourself. At Relay Graduate School of Education, a full quarter of the competency-based curriculum is devoted to understanding “Self and Other People” by raising candidates’ awareness of their own identities, sources of bias, and the socio-cultural context of schools. For educators everywhere, the Relay library maintains a great blog with recommended reading within this curricular strand.
  • Seeking to know others’ history and context. When our Deans for Impact team visited the Boston Teacher Residency earlier this year, nearly every resident and graduate we interviewed spoke about the transformative effect of a single course – Language, Power, and Democracy – where residents explore the living history of segregation, busing, and racial violence in the city.
  • Creating a sense of belonging. There is a substantial research base concerning the relationship between social belonging and academic achievement, particularly among students of color. When educators create classroom communities and personal relationships with students grounded in principles of trust and support, they not only create climates that support student academic growth and achievement, they also build the foundation for difficult conversations.

Mr. B. retired this year. And in the coming years, thousands more experienced, master educators will retire. As our system of educator preparation grapples with the need to better prepare teachers who are good on day one and great over time, we must remember that great teachers create communities where young people learn to engage in dialogue so essential to a vibrant and inclusive society.

Right now, this dialogue feels especially vital.

Peter Fishman

Vice President of Strategy

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