How to Be an Upstander: Four Guiding Principles for Difficult Conversations | Facing History & Ourselves
Picture of two students talking.

How to Be an Upstander: Four Guiding Principles for Difficult Conversations

This piece outlines four pillars that can help us navigate challenging discussions in the classroom.
Last Updated:

With everything that has occurred over the last several years, we are having difficult conversations all over the world.

About race. About identity. About the meaning of democracy and where we go from here. Tanya Huelett shares what she learned from leading difficult conversations at Facing History & Ourselves. These guiding principles can help you as you try to navigate the current climate or the latest tragedy. 

Difficult conversations are a big part of my life. For almost nine years I’ve helped teach about atrocities and injustices in the past and present. I should have felt prepared when asked to facilitate a webinar on "navigating difficult conversations" for classrooms in Baltimore City Public Schools. Instead I felt overwhelmed and hesitant.  

In the wake of Freddie Gray’s death in police custody in 2015, the subsequent city-wide unrest and the trials to come, the school system wanted to equip their teachers with the tools and resources needed to create safe spaces for students to discuss the events around them. Facing History’s theories and practices for doing this are strong and effective, but I was unsure how well they would hold up under the weight of such profound, painful, and local events.

I was cautious about conflating larger national conversations surrounding similar events with the particular experiences of people in Baltimore. Moreover, I wondered how to talk about justice in ways that inspired students to appreciate the importance of civic participation without unduly influencing their responses to local events. And yet I knew that people wanted to bring the conversations that dominated the world outside into their classrooms, to provide calming and constructive outlets for students who were experiencing a range of emotions.

I found comfort and clarity in four guiding principles for approaching difficult conversations of all sorts.

Trust Yourself and Your Partners:

Your community, teachers, and students know what’s best for your classrooms, schools, and larger communities. From a distance I couldn’t know the personal connections to recent events. I had to trust that participants who knew the local climate would create safe and productive spaces to have these conversations.

Think Critically:

We must think critically about the messages we send to others. For this webinar we considered resources on justice, nonviolence, and stereotyping. The materials on nonviolence could provide examples of how to address injustice through nonviolent direct action. But we worried that some might think we were assuming that violence would be a part of their reaction to events in their community. It’s important to share concerns like this and to examine the messages that might be embedded in resources you share with your community.

Find Appropriate Resources:

As leaders of difficult conversations, we should constantly evaluate our go-to practices, and make sure that we have the right tools for each unique job. This self-examination ensures we are creating the best possible space for others to process difficult events and emotions.


We must regularly practice building and honoring a safe and productive community so we are better prepared to discuss topics that may pull more heavily on hearts and minds. We need practice having these conversations with one another so we can better see where the need for structure and sensitivity is, and more easily guide other people through these conversations.  

How do you navigate difficult conversations in your classroom or in your own life? What lessons have you learned? Share them with us!