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Oops...Did I offend my student?

Quora Question: What would you do if a student found something in your classroom offensive and confronted you about it?

I have had this happen and I will explain what happened and how I handled the situation.

I was teaching about the skeletal system and I had a real human skeleton in the classroom, not a plastic model. Our school had this skeleton for years and used it as a teaching tool. One of my students was not comfortable with this. She raised her hand and voiced her concern.

This is how our exchange went:

Student: “Is that a real skeleton?”

Me: “Yes, why?”

Student: “I cannot be in the same room with a real skeleton. In my culture we believe that the spirit of the person is still with the bones. It is disrespectful for me to be in the same room with it.”

Me: “I understand and respect that but still want the other students to benefit so I’ll call the science teacher next door and ask her if you can be in her room until we are done with this part of the lesson. Are you comfortable with that?”

”Student: “Yes! Thank you. I really appreciate that.”

I wanted to honor and respect my student’s cultural beliefs while also continuing with the level of learning that I wanted for my other students. A real skeleton has more to offer in learning than a plastic model because of the bony changes. This particular skeleton was a female and you could see that she had at least one pregnancy. Here is an article that describes the bony changes associated with that:

My student studied the skeletal system from paper resources that period and I swapped the real one for the plastic model after all my other students had already had the opportunity to compare the two. I wanted them to learn from the differences and yet not offend my one student.

Another example:

One of my students came to me upset about something. When I asked her to explain she said that another teacher had a poster of a Sports Illustrated swimsuit model up in his classroom. The model was very thin and had obvious breast implants. The teacher had put a sign up on the poster that read, “A model to strive for.”

My female student was slim and healthy and after seeing the poster with the message the teacher had written she was worried that her breasts were not large enough. Clearly this was an extremely offensive and wrong message that this teacher was sending.

I did my best to assure my student that she was absolutely beautiful just like she was and that I would go talk to this teacher. I did. The poster was on his wall by his desk and I proceeded to have a very serious discussion with him. I waited until he took the poster down before I left his room. How any principal had missed this was beyond me. I preferred to handle this on my own with the teacher rather than go to administration but this situation became a topic of discussion for my students.

Our discussions were about being healthy and recognizing that we are all different and yet beautiful. We also discussed not judging the model for her personal decision to change her body surgically but also not judging others for deciding to be happy with their body the way they were born. After this learning situation female students started coming to my classroom during lunch tutorial to ask me a variety of questions about whether they looked o.k. just like they were.

Final Thought: Listening to students and taking their feedback seriously is important. If a student is brave enough to voice their concerns about something they find offensive in the classroom then this can lead to a healthy discussion and a teachable moment.

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