As an instructor, I sometimes deal with awkward moments during a class. One of the most cringe-inducing moments happens when a student raises her hand and says something like, “I had an incident. This is what happened ( ____ ). Did I do the right thing?”
It can be even more awkward when she asks, “What should I have done?”
On one hand, I love these moments because they are so powerful. It’s real, it’s personal, it happened to someone we know who’s sitting right here. We can ask her about it and see it through her eyes. How much more powerful can a teaching moment get?
On the other hand, questions like this create an emotional and—in some senses—even ethical dilemma for me as I stand at the front of a class full of students.
The emotional dilemma should be obvious. We are talking to, with, and about a survivor. She went through a terrible experience and she trusted us with the story. She almost certainly needs affirmation, and the worse her experience was, the more strongly she’s likely to need that affirmation. How could we, how dare we, say anything even slightly critical of the things she did? She was there, we weren’t. She faced the dragon, we didn’t. Whatever she did to survive, she survived. Good for her. If she made any mistakes, she doesn’t want to hear about them. No matter how bad any those mistakes may have been in some objective sense—she survived. So there’s a great big emotional bear trap right there, just waiting for us to fall into it.
The ethical dilemma flows almost directly out of the emotional one. Some choices are, in actual fact, better than others. Sometimes someone lives through an event because of sheer good luck, not by doing the things that give her the best chance of surviving. Her situation is already past, and she may need reassurance to put her nightmares to rest—but you have other students. And you have a responsibility to those students. There may be someone sitting the class who really, really needs to hear how to make the right choice.
It would be awful if one woman’s story led another woman to make dangerous choices that lead her into a bad situation, or that make a bad situation even worse. Luck happens, but we should never count on it.
It’s an unusual instructor who hasn’t faced a moment like that with her students.
Every situation is different and the dynamics of every class are different, so I can’t give you any one size fits all solutions to these dilemmas. But I can tell you the one important thing I’ve learned: in moments like these, it’s more important to listen than it is to talk. Most of the time, the student already knows what she needs to hear, even if she doesn’t consciously realize it. If you listen hard enough, you will hear her say it or not-quite say it. Then you can repeat the important lesson back to her. She will think you are brilliant, and will think you have taught her something new. But you will know the truth: that she taught both you and herself the thing she and the other students needed to learn from her situation.