Blessed are the peacemakers: bringing conflict to heel in the classroom
In some ways, the whole human story is one of conflict. Every man and woman occupies their own agendas, their own visions and dreams, and attempts, as much as they are able, to create a reality from their intentions. And in a world of solitary, carefree abundance such a strategy may bear fruit. But in the world which we inhabit, this is a selfish fantasy- everything you desire puts you into conflict with others; even walking along a pavement will put your path at odds with another, soon enough. The choice left open to us then is to step aside, to carry on, or to compromise. The one thing we cannot do is pretend others don’t exist.
The classroom and the playground are no exceptions. One teacher stands in front of a few dozen children and attempts to persuade them to act in a very clearly defined manner, often very at odds with each other, naturally, inevitably. One says ‘sit and work’; the others say, ‘We suspect not, sir: do you have anything in sandpits and mobile phones?’
Dealing with conflict is one of the keys that unlock learning; not because your job is to keep warring clans apart, but because convincing and persuading others will be a constant process. Every lesson you inhabit will be an endless stream of micro-expressions of persuasion, keeping the children, however biddable, on the righteous path you prescribe. And that’s not just the ones who will set their shoulders against you - even your fans in the classroom will require some measure of cajoling, if you’re doing your job right. Because your role isn’t simply to allow the kind, industrious children to stroll at their default pace, however brisk it is, but to drive their gait in ways they hadn’t thought was possible. Every child’s next target should be a heartbeat out of their grasp.
How is this fabulous world of your vision to be achieved? Because make no mistake, it is your vision that needs to endure and prosper. Many children will share your goals, or be sweet enough to assume them; but many, many children will raise the drawbridge and force you to lay siege to their ambitions - or lack of them.
The first route is often the quickest: make them an offer they can’t refuse. You don’t need a horse’s head. This is the authoritative model of assertive discipline. Put simply, you are in charge; you model the behaviour you expect, and you set the boundaries that love, ambition and rigour require. This is the strategy that I recommend all new teachers, or teachers new to their context, adopt, simply because it is what children expect, it’s what they need, and it’s what they deserve. They absolutely deserve an adult and an authority figure to provide them with a safe, structured learning environment where they can flourish to their best extent. It is absolutely an abdication of our responsibilities as adults to forget to set guidelines and structures for them; our regulations and prohibitions are a skeleton, a climbing frame for their aptitudes, that eventually becomes (we hope) a launch pad for their prosperity.
The reason why this should be the backbone of the teacher/ student relationship is because it expresses a paradigm that has endured, like a perfectly evolved organism, for as long as human relationships have breathed: the adult prepares and initiates the child into adulthood; we are the guide, the pathfinder, the midwife. If we are conscientious, and patient, and kind, and concerned, we take them as far as we have gone, before finally letting them find their own ways, farther than we have travelled before them. If you ignore this model of supportive restraint, you do so at your peril, because you deny your charges the guidelines that have helped you get where you are. Unfettered freedom is an affliction to a child; it is a privation, an imaginary gift that bites the hand that reaches out for it.
So, compassionate control is the best, most immediate remedy to conflict: it anticipates and staves off the worst excesses of dispute, while necessarily entailing that it generates a constant stream of it. This is unavoidable; to do otherwise would be to shirk our duties towards them, often in the name of democracy and respect, but always to the effect of disorder. It is cowardice.
But conflict is not always best resolved through confrontation: as a teacher develops a relationship with children based on trust, manners and compassionate boundaries, he or she can learn to temper absolutism with other strategies that also have their time in the Sun.
For the bad-tempered and the obstinate pupil, the need is to train them into better behaviours: in this circumstance, the best tactic is to make sure that the teacher is displaying, and therefore modelling the best behaviour possible; that means polite, measured responses to rudeness, even if it is designed to elicit the opposite response. Many children are habituated into patterns of attention seeking and confrontational dispute that have only one aim: to antagonise, for whatever reasons. The teacher would do well to refuse to rise to the challenge: even if your riposte is witty and poignant, if it is retaliation, then the pupil has dictated the terms of the conversation, and the learning relationship is lost. In addition to any punitive measures you may employ, the trick is to get the pupil away from the audience, and away from the lesson: get them out of the lesson. If you remove a student, the aim is to return them, so make the time out short, five minutes or so, and always as a tactic to get the student to reflect and calm down. Don’t use the time out as a punishment, because most children won’t see it as one - many aim to be sent out as a way to escape the lessons. Some of them even synchronise their watches to do so.
If the student’s behaviour is so confrontational that the lesson can’t proceed in any meaningful way, then the removal needs to be to a pre-arranged safe room, a cooler, whatever. The aim is the same: remove the catalysts of the combustion, in this case, the pupil.
Other negotiations should be possible. When you have a student alone, it is common for many teachers to employ the age-old tactic of ‘the chat’. This is usually one of a million variants on ‘I’m disappointed/ you let the team down/ you let yourself down/ do you have anything to say,’ meme, so beloved of pedagogues everywhere. This is a fine arrow in your quiver; don’t queer it by making it a relentless bollocking, or equally pointless, a hand-wringing pep talk. You need to communicate the wrong that has been done; you need to express that you expect better; you need to express that you believe that better is possible from the student. If the student feels either worthless or blameless by the end of it, the talk itself has been a waste, and you haven’t done anything to amend similar behaviour in the future. Communicating compassion and authority simultaneously, is one of the most powerful techniques we have for motivating and directing students towards successful behaviour.
In all cases, deterrence and prevention are, as always, far more effective tactics in the long haul: providing a class with a room subject to law, and brimming with your ambition for them will, in my experience, create a community far more concerned with learning and flourishing than a Disney Land of pipe dreams and bunny hugging, or a prison built from your vanity and insecurity.
If students openly start to defy each other, getting right in there from the instant the fuses are lit is essential. Don’t ignore banter, or a whispered, hissed cuss: sparks catch in the kindling of their egos, and unless you enjoy using dynamite to blast disputes into the vacuum, hose down any enmity as soon as you smell smoke. Intervene; separate; seat students as satellites to each other, issue firm reprimands attached to conditional escalations if they don’t comply. These are the points when prevention is worth a bale of cure, and your blood pressure will thank you. If the disputes persist, then you need to be proactive as a peacemaker. Bring a little Kofi Anna into their lives, and speak to them away from the oxygen of the class’s attention. Let them sweat out their distress in a context where face isn’t an issue any more- it’s amazing how much angst melts like snow in February when nothing has to be proved.
Or they might not. You can never solve all their problems for them. You can make the classroom somewhere they feel they don’t need to raise them; you can make it a safe place where learning and growing are the most important targets. Sometimes that’s all you can do. Sometimes that’s enough. Sometimes that’s all that counts.
Defusing the bomb: resources that aim to resolve, anticipate and respond to conflict
- A large, and very sweet collection of ideas and links about ways to get to know your class the first time they come to ‘big’ school. Charming. Warning: Bunnies WILL be hugged.
- An oldie (is 2 years old? Probably. Not like the old days) but a goody: pdfs and resources to raise the profile of cyberbullying, one of the tried and tested ways of reducing it.
- Interesting argument for the integration of LSUs with mainstream schools.
- My ideas for intervening in the cyber world of the bully
- A huge issue in mainstream education: the needs of the few and the needs of the many often conflict- understanding is key to resolving the tension
- Nothing prevents conflict more than a well organised group dynamic, physically defined. Break up the friendship groups and turn a youth club into a classroom
- My article that describes the tactics you can employ if the worst happens in the classroom