5 best practices for teaching challenging subjects

Here's how to help students develop empathy, emotion management, and other SEL skills

One of the most effective ways to cultivate skills such as empathy, problem solving, and emotion management is to help students productively struggle through an examination of the real and complex subjects that have and continue to face the world. Conversations on topics like racism, genocide, school shootings, and other forms of violence are not easy; however, honest dialogue can lead to increased understanding and compassion for the human experience.

As a former high school teacher now working with Echoes & Reflections, an organization that helps middle and high school educators build their confidence and capacity to teach the Holocaust effectively, I’ve discovered some best practices for teaching challenging subjects.

1. Prepare academically and emotionally
Teaching complex subject matter without the right tools and guidance can be detrimental to students’ understanding. Teachers can avoid this with equal parts emotional and academic preparation.

To start, become a student again. Commit to learning through reliable and trusted resources. Attend in-person and/or online trainings with subject-matter experts, and read many texts from different credible perspectives. It can be tough to balance your own emotional reaction to teaching atrocity, so challenge yourself to the extent that you can.

Once you’ve mastered the content, explore alternative materials like movies, poetry, and survivor testimonies. These are the stories that ground your teaching practice in truth. The humanities discipline engages the core question of what it means to be human, so seek to find your own humanity before teaching students.

2. Develop support systems
Creating or seeking a professional learning community is paramount to effectively teaching the Holocaust and other difficult topics. Either through your school, district, or professional development opportunities, having a group of people with whom to bounce ideas, brainstorm, and gain knowledge is critical in forming effective pedagogical techniques and teaching rationale.

In our Echoes & Reflections training sessions, we include time for teachers to consider how to answer inevitable questions from students. While it’s impossible to anticipate everything, we explore what might come up and allow educators to exchange and consider answers in a safe environment.

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