A 10-Step Guide to Having Difficult Conversations With Students

Raise your words, not your voice

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As a teacher, you’ll sometimes need to hold difficult one-on-one conversations with students who are not meeting expectations. This could be for ongoing bad behaviour, a bad attitude or poor quality work. For the inexperienced, this can lead to unfortunate arguments which are exhausting and leave you both feeling sour. In order to avoid flared tempers, here are some steps I’ve learnt that have helped me speak to students with more curiosity and patience:

Step 1: Share the facts

Facts are persuasive because they’re undeniable and are unlikely to prove controversial.

Step 2: Tell your story

Your story is your interpretation of the facts. It’s important to make sure that this is presented as a possible story and not a concrete fact. For example: ‘In my opinion…’ or I’m not sure whether you intend to mean this, but I’m beginning to wonder if….’ Or ‘Maybe you think…’. Afterwards you can ask them to clarify: ‘Is that what’s going on?’

Step 3: Contrast

Make your view clearer with contrasting statements. You could say words to the effect of ‘I know you care about…’ etc. ‘My only issue is…’. Be careful here not to apologise for offering your point of view.

Step 4: Ask for their facts and story

Ask the student to share their view. Make it clear you really want to hear what they have to say: ‘What am I missing?’ ‘Do you see it differently?’ or ‘Don’t worry about hurting my feelings. I really want to hear your thoughts.’

Step 5: Encourage testing

If they seem hesitant, play devil’s advocate. Model by disagreeing with your own view: ‘Maybe I’m wrong here’.

Step 6: Mirror

If they seem hesitant, play devil’s advocate. Model what this sounds like by disagreeing with your own view: ‘Maybe I’m wrong here’.

Step 7: Paraphrase

Re-phrase, without repeating word-for-word, what they’ve told you to acknowledge that you have listened to them. Do this is in a tone that validates their point and doesn’t not ridicule it.

Step 8: Agree or disagree

Say that you agree when you do. Add any details that have been left out. Compare where you differ. This might sound like: ‘I think I see things differently. Let me describe how.’

Step 9: Decide and assign

It’s best when a consensus is reached where you both support one decision, phrased something like ‘Moving forward I need you to… and I will…’. Make sure you’ve answered: Who? Does what? By when? And how will I follow up? Write these down to show that you’re committed.

Step 10: Hold them accountable

Refer back to your notes. If either the student (or yourself) has failed to live up to the promise they made earlier you’ll need to have another conversation, repeating the steps above.

What might this look like?

Let’s say a student of yours, Stephen, has failed to submit three homework tasks in a row. You’ve used the school behaviour policy of setting a detention each time (which they attended), but their behaviour is not changing and they seem to have become resentful resulting in a few small arguments during lessons. It’s time to have a difficult conversation:

Teacher: Stephen, you haven’t handed in the past three homework tasks [sharing the facts]. It seems that you’re struggling with the topic. Is that what’s going on? [telling your story]

Stephen: No, I get the topic. I don’t know why I don’t do the homework.

Teacher: I know you care about your GCSEs. My only issue is that you might not get the grade you need to do what you want to do next. What am I missing here? Don’t worry about hurting my feelings. I want to hear your thoughts. [asking for their facts and story]

Stephen: I dunno. I’m just lazy, I guess. What’s the problem? I come to the detentions, don’t I?

Teacher: Look, maybe I’ve got the wrong end of the stick. Maybe you are motivated to do the work, but there’s another issue stopping you from doing it? [Encouraging testing] 

Stephen: I just find it boring. It’s not your fault, it’s just the subject. I don’t really care that much about Macbeth to be honest.

Teacher: You seem unhappy about that. [Mirroring]

Stephen: Well, I know English is important. I’m worried that I’m going to get bad results.

Teacher: So you’re feeling anxious about doing well in English? [Paraphrasing]

Stephen: Yeah, I suppose.

Teacher: Year 11 is a difficult year, certainly. Everyone in the class feels under pressure to perform. [Agreeing] Not doing the homework is only going to make your feeling of anxiety worse [Disagreeing]. You have a homework task due for next week. You know that homework is non-negotiable so I expect that to be attempted. [Deciding] You’ll need to do the task by next Monday. [assigning]

(next Monday) Teacher: Stephen, can I see your homework? [Holding him accountable]

Stephen: Sir, I did the first two questions, but I didn’t do the last one.

Teacher: The homework task was to attempt all the questions. That’s what it says on Show My Homework. [sharing the facts] (Notice how this is the beginning of another difficult conversation and the steps should begin again. Although the situation hasn’t been perfectly resolved in the first instance, progress has been made, which is what you should be aiming for).

Ten steps may seem like a lot to remember in what will probably be a three-minute conversation. To begin with, you could have the steps printed off in front of your to refer to, but the more you do this, the more natural it will be. And the more you engage students in these difficult conversations, the better your relationships will be.

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