Every classroom is a tiny world in itself. Even if your class is small, the conflagration of different ideas, ways of living, personalities and traits are all fertile ground for conflict. If you add up diversity into the equation then the chance for conflict multiplies.
Conflict is a constant of life – an unavoidable beast that shows its head often, even in the most caring relationships. It is usually pretty small at the beginning, but, if allowed to grow, it can reach gigantic proportions and have nasty consequences. Friendships are lost, families are strained, marriages dissolve, people get killed and countries go to war – all because of unresolved conflict.
At school, conflict can have serious consequences as well – from academic disruption to escalated violence.
While there is no way to completely avoid conflict, there are some strategies to help our students – and ourselves – cope with the stress and reach common ground.
I will focus on prevention first. A well-managed classroom with clear expectations for everyone, a resourceful teacher and a good social climate are less likely to breed conflict. If kids learn to manage their own emotions and actions, even when conflict arises, it will be much easier to resolve.
Emotion plays a huge role in conflict. Minds are stubborn, emotions are contumacious. Minds can be brought about using strong, reasonable arguments. Emotions are relentless. An emotionally unstable individual lives in constant internal conflict. Grievances with others are even more difficult to resolve. If we promote a culture of emotional well being in our classrooms, not only conflicts will diminish: we will all be happier. Getting to know each other in the class and creating strong human connections are key. Mindfulness, meditation and yoga can also help. And remember: As a teacher, you should care for your own well being as well.
Storytelling and role-playing.
Either as part of a dedicated curriculum in conflict prevention and resolution, or using examples from history to illustrate how conflict shaped important outcomes for humanity – many times in positive ways – students can learn that we grow not by avoiding conflict, but by learning to handle it in life. The advantage of using story telling and role playing is that, being emotionally unattached to the characters represented, our minds can easily let reason flow. At the same time, we can feel, through empathy, the emotions that the characters on both sides of the argument felt while in conflict.
Once conflict arises we should acknowledge it and holding it from escalating. When I was a starting my teaching career I used to disregard conflict. In those days I thought that delivering the curriculum was my most important responsibility, and I was unwilling to devote the precious time it took to address conflict – time I was “robbing” from instruction. So I succumbed to the popular belief that if we let children resolve their own problems, they usually do.
Only they don’t.
Many children (and, should we say, adults) lack the skills to successfully resolve conflict. If left to their own means, it is very likely that the stronger-willed student will prevail. Yes, most disagreements will not escalate into conflict – but if the do, we need to be ready to step in.
I’ve read about many schools that have adopted this approach, in which voluntary students are trained to facilitate the resolution of disputes among their peers. I can’t say I’ve tried it, but, at least informally, many times a student or group of students have helped dissolve conflict.
Write about it
Other times I’ve asked the involved students to write about the conflict. They should include not only their side of the story and how they feel, but also what they believe the other person is standing for and what could be the possible solutions. Writing forces them to self reflect and organize their ideas in a way a third person can read and understand. It also gives them the time to cool off.
Can we make it work?
It is human nature. There are some issues in which we might never be able to see eye to eye. But even in those instances, we can “agree to disagree”, we can find common ground through tolerance and respect. Yes, we can almost always make it work – not by thinking alike but by recognizing the right that each of us has to our identity and beliefs.
I now know better. Delivering the curriculum is not, by far, my most important job as a teacher.
It is to teach my students to embrace who they are, respect others and forever strive to grow.
As part of C.M. Rubin’s Top Global Teacher Bloggers, this is my response to this month’s question: how classrooms are teaching the skills to resolve tensions and conflicts so as to find the “common ground” in an increasingly diverse world?