10 In the Classroom

Cathryn van Kessel

Once you are aware of and its accompanying defensive compensatory actions, you then are faced with what you can do in your classroom.
Drake meme regarding defensive compensatory reactions
C. MacCuish, 2019

Prevention of Harmful Defensive Actions

  • teach your students about and
  • set up a classroom that attends to “emotional correctness” (see Sally Kohn’s TED talk on emotional correctness)
  • talk through defensive reactions and strategies to prevent them from harming others

Considerations Regarding Emotional Correctness
By D’Javon Brown, 7 December 2019

As a teacher I think it is important for us to understand and employ emotional correctness in our classrooms. We are in an environment where we are dealing with young people who have yet to fully develop opinions of their own. Much of what students bring to class will be from the media, their parents/guardians, social groups and social media. Should a student make a remark that is insensitive or out of ignorance, it is my job as an educator to attempt and provide them with either the correct information or a means to gather it. Even during my first teaching practicum, I was already confronted with this situation.

Should a student make a remark that can be dangerous or hateful it would be my responsibility to call attention to it in a manner that respects all parties involved and ensure that the student or students understands that it is not ok and why. As a teacher we must employ a different persona in the classroom, we will be dealing with vulnerable citizens that will often require guidance and understanding. Terror management theory has been helpful as now I have a theory I can apply when contentious issues are discussed, and an individual’s worldview or perspectives can potentially be threatened. I have come to understand that discussing and attempting to teach contentious topics is a process. As teachers we will often have to ease students into learning, especially when the subject matter is controversial. We cannot drop a heavy topic in students’ laps expecting them to either adopt a different perspective or share their ideas and opinions instantly. We must first get them into a mindset where they are willing to receive the knowledge, later allowing them to expand their own personal views and understanding of the world around them.

In my personal life, however, I don’t believe I would employ emotional correctness to the same degree that I would as a teacher. I have been in situations where I am often required to educate strangers on how to properly behave in a civil manner and I am unfortunately tired of doing so. I do not believe it is my responsibility to consistently correct ignorance when met with it, especially when we live in an age where information is so readily available and the proper ways to behave have become simple common sense.

I consistently hear how so many people are not happy with how politically correct the world has gotten, but I am honestly ok with it. I have no problem with people having to monitor what they say, do or type. I think that it provides those who have been unfairly confronted with hate in the past with a small degree of protection. I also believe that when social issues do arise there will always be a group of overly sensitive people who are able to garner a large amount of attention. And with the help of social media, their concerns or disdain can often become magnified to seem as though a majority of the world agrees with them, creating the cancel culture we see today. I believe this is just a phase in which our society must go through to evolve and improve. With the introduction of social media paired with the ever-changing social landscape we operate within, we, as a people, are just attempting to navigate and manage our experiences in this unfamiliar terrain. While society is going through some growing pains at the moment, I do not believe this is where it will stay. I see this in my classrooms. Today’s students are far better at understanding the world that exists around them and are better adept at handling the nuances that we all must operate within.

Understanding Why Humans Group Themselves Together in the First Place

  • Check out this teacher-tested Sticker Activity!

Exercise: Sticker Activity

Materials: stickers of different colours and shapes/sizes (I use stars of a variety of colours in two different sizes). Ideally, you want (at least close to) the same colours if there are different sizes.

Inform the students that the class is going to do an activity where a sticker is placed on their forehead.  Allow students to abstain from participating, but inform them that they cannot influence what the others are doing.

Have the students close their eyes. Place a sticker on their forehead. For a class of 20, try to have at least 2 or 3 people with the exact same sticker, and at least 4 people with the same colour of sticker.

Once all the stickers have been placed. Tell the students to open their eyes, but to remain silent.  Without using their voices (or looking in a mirror to see their own sticker), have the students place themselves in groups (they can use gestures, though).

Likely, the students will organize themselves by those with the exact same sticker (but however they organize themselves is fine).

Tell the students to “try again”, organizing themselves in a different way. Again, note what organization they choose, and tell them to try again. Repeat as often as you like.

Different organizations include: same colour/shape/size, same colour (but different shape/size), same shape/size (but different colour), everyone together as one, everyone on their own, etc. etc.

Students will get frustrated, perhaps even shoving students out of ‘their’ group in order to get the ‘right’ answer. This is obviously an entryway to an interesting discussion on a variety of points.

Eventually, stop the activity and debrief the students:

  • How did you feel when you knew what group you you part of?
  • Did you feel lost when you didn’t know where you belonged?
  • To what extent did you rely on other people to tell you where you belong?

According to Becker and TMT, our self-esteem relies on being a meaningful, contributing member to the group that shares our worldview. By living up to the cultural values held by this group, we earn a sense of self-esteem. When we belong, our anxieties about our own finite life are reduced.

Teaching Students about the Process of Working Through their Defenses

  • The Oatmeal does a step-by-step guide (in comic form!) to dealing with information that has an emotional impact (“the backfire effect”). It’s in a U.S. context, but should be relatable in other places, like Canada.

Diffuse Potential Worldview Threats with Humour

Sigmund Freud (1905) argued that humour is a defence mechanism: “(Humour) scorns to withdraw the ideational content bearing the distressing affect from conscious attention as repression does, and thus surmounts the automatism of defence” (p. 169). Neil Elgee (2003) has written on humour as a defence against death, allowing us to release tension (humour can deny our existential situation and ostracize others, so we’ll focus on helpful uses of humour here).

One method is to use flipped narratives (e.g., South Park’s take on the Washington Redskins). The absurdity of the flipped narrative allows us to release tension while still discussing the potentially worldview-threatening information.


Elgee, N.J. (2003). Laughing at Death. The Psychoanalytic Review, 90, 1-23 doi:10.1521/prev.90.4.475.23917. Retrieved from http://ernestbecker.org/new/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/LAD2010.pdf
Freud, S., & Strachey, J. (1960). Jokes and their relation to the unconscious. New York: Norton.

(Created by C. van Kessel, 2018-2019)


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The Grim Educator by Cathryn van Kessel is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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