The Art of Teaching Awkward Subjects

Awkward subjects come with the territory of being a teacher. From sex education to history’s horrors and societal issues like drug abuse, teachers are often the gateway to difficult topics—sometimes even before parents are involved!

Whether directly involved in your specialist subjects or not, chances are you will be called on to address material that could be seen as taboo. Whether this is in or outside of the curriculum and whether you find it daunting or not, we’re here to help you make awkward subjects easier to handle.


Treat the Subjects with Respect

Sex education should not be considered taboo. Neither should death or slavery. If you don’t think a potentially uncomfortable topic should be seen as taboo, don't make it taboo. The best way to avoid making a subject unmentionable is to approach it with respect and tackle it head on.


If you teach history or English literature, a range of difficult subjects will inevitably come up. Rather than dance around issues like racism or gender equality and making them awkward in the process, be straightforward and answer appropriate questions.


A helpful way to introduce a significant but challenging topic is by openly admitting that it may not be easy or particularly fun to learn about, but it’s something we should all be aware of and begin to explain why.


Of course, there’s a time and a place for these conversations, and don’t be afraid to tell students that. For example, you don’t need to go into sex education when you’re meant to be teaching algebra, but you could take a student aside if

they come to you for help or advice.


Treat Your Students with Respect

Put simply, talk to your students like you would talk to an adult. That’s not to say you should open up like you would with your friends in the pub, but don’t simplify or trivialise delicate subject matter through too fine a filter.


By being frank and forthcoming, students are more likely to trust you and genuinely listen. If you treat them as mature individuals, they will pay far more attention than if you don’t.


So don't alter your tone of voice while saying words that could lead to a comedic flashpoint (think swear words, genitalia or, in fact, any reference to balls during PE). Don’t use “air quotes” either. And, whatever you do, don’t just move on at the first sign of difficulty.


State facts like you would state any other fact. Talk to students like it's no big deal and is actually entirely normal. If you do, everybody concerned will be more comfortable and your classes will be more open to getting involved and asking necessary questions.


Be a teacher, not a preacher

There’s a lot to be gained from making learning about difficult or complex topics an involved process for pupils, rather than just talking to or lecturing them.


It’s important you know your class and whether opening the floor will lead to insightful discussion or chaos and tension, but try turning the conversation over to your class and intervening whenever an explanation, summary or correction is required.


Try to facilitate debate and exploration by remaining neutral, providing a platform for discussion and moderating when necessary. If it remains factual and respectful, there is little that can go wrong.


Another option is to share your screen and show students how to seek information rather than rely on what they readily see and hear. This could be as simple as using a search engine, just reiterate the importance of qualifying sources and seeking both sides of a debate.


Also, depending on the subject matter, you may want to consider what you search for!


Always remember, when addressing controversial or polarising topics, keep your personal views close to your chest. You’re there to teach, not preach, so try to encourage self-discovery instead of just giving a lecture.




Approaching anything awkward can be a worrying moment, but if you involve students and treat them and the material with the respect they deserve, you’ll take down sensitive subjects without too many blushes.

Back to the common room

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