Picture this: Your students have settled in, and you are about five minutes into your lecture. A late student stomps into the room with a scowl on her face, muttering obscenities under her breath. She takes a seat, leans back, crosses her arms, and sighs dramatically. “This is total bullsh*t!” she says, loudly enough so that the rest of the class can hear it.

You, my friend, are the lucky recipient of a hot moment — a sudden eruption of tension or conflict in the classroom, lab, or studio.

And you have a choice. You can say or do something now, later, or never. Even better, you can find a way to turn your hot moment into a learning opportunity for your students!

Types of Hot Moments

Hot moments come in many forms, and it can be useful to think through your responses to each type ahead of time. To that end, here are a few of the types of moments you might encounter, in your classroom:

  • Discussion that becomes antagonistic, racist/sexist, abusive, etc.
  • Individual student disruption (yelling, crying, loud sighing, etc.)
  • Unwanted visitors or protestors
  • Violence between students
  • Microaggressions: slight, subtle offenses that cause harm and reinforce negative stereotypes
What Can I Do?

Emergency Responses
If there is a particularly disruptive student in class, consider giving the class a short break and quietly talking with that student about their current state of mind. If necessary, you may want to call GTPD for assistance (404-894-2500).

If unwanted visitors or protestors arrive, or violence breaks out between students in your class, you should immediately do the following:
  • Dismiss the class (casually, if possible, by saying something such as “I think we’re reached a good stopping point for today”).
  • Call GTPD immediately, at 404-894-2500.

Responding to Problematic Discussion Contributions
Suppose a student makes a sexist joke during class, or makes a comment about “lesbian tennis players” – or when two students get into a heated debate about whether American Evangelicals are Christians (and so on and so forth). How might you respond?

  • Aim to remain calm. 
    • This will help your students steady themselves as well.
  • Breathe deeply.
    • Take time to steady yourself if you need it.
  • Don’t personalize remarks made by others.
    • It’s not about you, but about the student and their feelings and thoughts.
  • Know yourself and your own biases.
    • This will help you devise strategies in advance, for managing yourself and the class when hot moments arise.
  • Acknowledge what has happened.
    • Even if you don’t feel prepared to respond to a particular comment, question, topic, or behavior in the moment, explicitly note it as something the class will come back to – and then take time between classes to prepare yourself.
  • Try to figure out what is behind the words, offer correction where necessary, and pursue lines of questioning that help students articulate their thoughts more responsibly.
    Often students can’t articulate clearly what they are thinking. After double-checking our impressions with the student, we can use this information to further the conversation.
  • Turn discussion from an individual to a topic.
    For example, you might say something like, “Many people think this way. What do you think are the reasons behind these views?” – followed by an examination of the reasons behind alternative views.
  • If necessary, talk with students outside of class.
    In particular, consider talking with those students who were most embroiled in the hot moment. Help them think about the different perspectives and positions that are present, and how they can voice their thoughts in ways that are conducive to open discourse.
  • Allow students to remove themselves from the situation
    If a student breaks down as a result of the original outburst, or looks as if they are about to, offer the student the opportunity to leave class early if they would like. After class, find the student and ask if you can be of assistance.
Responding to Microagressions: take ACTION

Sometimes problematic discussion comments take the form of microaggressions – which arise when someone’s comments are laced with subtle, often unintentional discrimination against members of a marginalized group. These comments often reinforce negative stereotypes (e.g., “…all the black people who are gang members these days …”, “…definitely a woman driver…”, etc.) and can damage the learning environment for individuals in the relevant group.

Tasha Souza (2018) coined the acronym “ACTION,” to provide us with a useful way to respond when microagressions arise during in-class discussions:

Ask clarifying questions.

Sample response: “I want to make sure that I understand what you were saying. Were you saying that…?”

Come with a perspective of curiosity not judgment.

Sample response: “Can you please help me understand what you mean by that?”

Tell what you observed.

Sample response: “I noticed that…”

Impact exploration: ask the student to describe the potential impact of their comment on others.

Sample response: “What do you think people will think when they hear that type of comment?”

Own your own thoughts and feelings about the impact.

Sample response: “In my experience, that comment can perpetuate negative stereotypes and assumptions about …I would like to think that is not your intent.”

Next steps: Request appropriate action on the part of students.

Sample response: “I’d appreciate it if you’d consider using a different term because it is inconsistent with our course agreement regarding X”.



Responding to Difficult Moments:a curated set of resources from the University of Michigan Center for Research on Learning and Teaching.


University of Michigan Center for Research on Teaching and Learning (n.d.). Responding to difficult moments. Retrieved from crlt.umich.edu November 2017. Souza, T. (2018). Responding to Microagressions in the Classroom: Taking ACTION. Faculty Focus. Magna Publications.