The spectre of physical violence in the classroom is an extremely ugly one. So ugly, in fact, that just thinking about it is enough to make my heart rate increase and my stomach lurch.
No teacher wants to see their students fighting. It's stark, visceral evidence that something has gone very wrong. We like to think we can prevent things from escalating to the point of violence, but we have to prepare ourselves for the possibility of a fight breaking out, no matter where we work. That's not to say you should expect it every day, but rather that it's worth taking some time to consider what you would do in that situation. Panicking will only exacerbate the problem.
But can we ever really prepare? After all, every situation is different: the students, the context and your own confidence on that particular day will vary enormously. I have been involved in stopping a fair number of fights during my career and I know there is no master plan to follow. That said, although a point-by-point strategy is out of the question, it is possible to offer a rough guide to tackling these situations. And it looks like this.
Do your homework
You should know your school behaviour policy and the actions that are expected of staff when a fight occurs. Whether you work in a pupil referral unit or a quiet suburban grammar school, you need to be familiar with the institution's systems, such as the accepted methods of contact - for example, should you attempt to restrain students? If there is any ambiguity, check with a member of the team responsible for safety and pin them down (pun intended) on the dos and don'ts and all the details. Don't accept any vagueness. It could trip you up in the post-fight fallout.
Send for help
Armed with the above knowledge, advance towards the fight. At the same time, you need to send for help. Let's assume your establishment doesn't use radio contact. You can't leave the area, so send a student who can be relied upon to keep it together. It's a good idea to preselect not just one student but three for this task. Why so many? Because there's a chance that the first or second choices will be involved in the fight; life's funny like that.
Try to break it up with words
As you move towards the students who are fighting, use strong verbal commands to try to calm the situation. Unfortunately, you have a relatively brief window when this will be effective. This tends to be when the fight is just starting - success depends on the students looking for a way out of the confrontation without losing face. But if they are fighting in a classroom, knowing full well that a teacher is in close proximity, they probably aren't looking for a way out; they're looking to hurt each other. If the verbal commands do have an effect, you can take it from there. But if they don't, there are now other things to consider. The safety of the other students is a major one.
Protect the class (and yourself)
If chairs and limbs are flying then it's time to get the rest of the students out. This has the added benefit of minimising the audience and getting rid of any antagonistic hangers-on who are trying to escalate matters for the sheer hell of it. You may choose to leave the classroom (staying just outside) if you don't feel that you're having any effect or if you suspect that your personal safety is in jeopardy. This decision will partly depend on what is expected by your school.
Make a personal choice
I have a huge problem with standing back as two children try to do irreparable damage to each other. But using the term "children" conjures up images of small, frail things and, as any teacher knows, that isn't always the case.
Assess the situation. Assess what will happen if you intervene. Assess what will happen if you don't. Make the decision and act. The result might be that you decide you have the physicality to stop something in its tracks. Alternatively you might recognise that you would just become another body to pummel if you stepped in.
Whatever your decision, be sure that it is based on sound judgement, not a panicked reaction. You will need to justify your actions later, so the reasoning must be solid.
Tom Starkey is a teacher based in Leeds and has worked in secondary, further and special education. His column about ed tech appears on page 44 and he tweets @tstarkey1212