There’s No Easy Protocol for Handling Classroom Conflict. We Must...

Voices | Social-Emotional Learning

There’s No Easy Protocol for Handling Classroom Conflict. We Must Challenge Ourselves.

By Jennifer Yoo-Brannon     Feb 4, 2022

This article is part of the guide Voices of Change.

In my early years as a teacher, I would read teaching books desperately looking for bulleted lists and numbered paragraphs. I sought out gray boxes at the end of chapters with a “Try This” heading. I wanted steps to follow, procedures with track-records of success. I wanted a step-by-step manual on how to be a good teacher. I wanted to do everything the right way.

Like many who are now teachers, I succeeded as a student in school, and I approached teaching with the same research-based mindset, implementing all the strategies I could find. In my experience, this approach works, until it doesn’t.

The truth is, when it comes to navigating the interpersonal conflicts that tend to arise in schools—shaped by trauma, cultural and racial tensions, and broken trust—there is no quick fix or 1-2-3 protocol to follow.

It’s 2009, I’m a third year teacher talking to a group of ninth graders about the historical context of the novel “Of Mice and Men.” At one point, George tells Lenny that in their idealized future, there wouldn’t be “no more runnin’ round the country and gettin’ fed by a Jap cook.” This reference to a “Jap cook” gives me an opening to talk about the history of anti-Asian sentiment in the West. We’re discussing (OK, let’s be honest, I am telling students) about a 1854 California Supreme Court Case that decreed “that the testimony of a Chinese man who witnessed a murder by a white man was inadmissible, largely based upon the opinion that the Chinese were ‘a race of people whom nature has marked as inferior.’”

“So,” I say to my students, “You could basically get away with murdering a ‘Chinaman.’”

One of my students, who I previously thought wasn’t paying attention, pipes up, “That’s firme!”

A mix of nervous laughter and impressed silence fills the classroom. Firme is Chicano slang for “cool.” I look directly at Samantha (a pseudonym) and ask, “You think it was cool that people got away with murder because the victim was a Chinese migrant?” My tone is incredulous and demanding. I really believed that if I put it in that way, she would respond, “No, that’s not cool. I didn’t mean it.”

Instead, she returns my stare and says, “Yea, Miss. That’s firme!”

I look back at Samantha and then at the class, mostly Latinx and a handful of Asian students, and then ask Sam to step outside. She casually pushes back from her desk, puts on her backpack, gives her friend a quick dab handshake and leaves.

It’s difficult to remember exactly what I said in that conversation. I think it was something like, “You must not have meant what you said and you must not realize that there was also anti-Mexican violence during that time as well. What do you think your Asian classmates thought when you said that? What are you saying to me as your Asian American teacher?” I stopped and waited for answers. She didn’t make eye contact. She didn’t apologize. It was like she was just waiting for me to stop talking and send her to the office. I didn’t know what to do, so I sent her to the counselor with a note.

I felt like a failure. I felt like I was supposed to know what to do and what to say at that moment, but I didn’t. My teacher prep program did not prepare me for these moments. There wasn’t a bulleted list I could recall from any of the teacher strategy books I had read. I didn’t see Sam the next day but followed up with her guidance counselor.

I think back on that incident now and wonder how I would have handled that moment differently. How could I have been prepared to respond to that moment?

After the first 5 years of my teaching career, I turned to a different kind of research. Instead of researching strategies, I committed to researching the students in front of me, the community in which I teach and the ways in which individual students learn best. I also turned to a different kind of professional reading that shaped my beliefs about students, learning and the purpose of education.

In her book “Other People’s Children,” the author Lisa Delpit writes that, “We do not really see through our eyes or hear through our ears, but through our beliefs.” The reality is, when it comes to the really important stuff that happens in schools, it’s not about strategies, it’s about what we believe about learners—their cultural and linguistic backgrounds, their capabilities and experiences and how much all of that matters in the classroom. These beliefs determine the mindsets that prepare us for the critical moments of conflict that teach us the most.

Teaching and instructional coaching has forced me to confront my own beliefs about learners and to build new mindsets. It is not always easy to do. I connect with Delpit when she writes that putting our beliefs on hold “is to cease to exist as ourselves for a moment,” and how we must be willing to see ourselves “in the unflattering light of another’s angry gaze.”

I can’t give myself or anyone else a one-size-fits-all playbook to handle every tense situation that arises in the classroom, but these are the mindsets that have, for me, been the most hard-won, the most difficult to maintain and the most impactful:

Remember the ABC’s: In any effective learning environment there are 3 elements present: Autonomy, Belonging, and Competence. In other words, for real learning to happen, learners must be given choices (autonomy), they must feel like they are part of a community (belonging) and that they are getting better at something (competence). So much of the conflict that happens in the classroom is really about the lack of one or more of these key ingredients.

I didn’t recognize Sam’s need for autonomy. I only gave Sam one choice, the choice to do what I asked in the way I wanted her to do it. I did not understand her need to belong to the peer group she was so desperately trying to impress and I did not give her a way to make things right, so she could feel her own capacity to make amends. Instead, I wish I had known about restorative questions. I wish I knew to give Sam the power and time to think about her actions and let her make the choices she needed to make in order to restore and repair relationships.

Equifinality: This word has many different meanings across different disciplines, but I simply use it to say that there are multiple ways to get to the desired end state or goal. If my students or the teachers I coach do not do things in the way I prescribe, that doesn’t mean we won’t eventually get where we need to go. This takes letting go of ego. It requires me to say, “This won’t happen the way I want it to but it can happen in a way that creates progress for all.”

The counselor told Sam she could return to class when she wrote a letter to me apologizing for her comments. In her letter, Sam said she didn’t really mean to hurt my feelings. She was friends with the Asian students in class, but the words came out of her mouth because she wanted to look “hard.” She regretted what she said but felt she could not back down. I wanted her to learn from this experience and repair the rupture between us. My prescribed path was that I would explain to her that her comments were offensive, she would apologize and that would be the end. That path only took into consideration my feelings and asked her to make amends for a slight against me.

I think now about how my own ego played a role in that entire lesson. I didn’t need to lecture about the anti-Asian history of California. I could have designed more student-centered activities for students to engage in the historical context of the novel. Neither did I have to create this moment of confrontation with Sam. I could have given her and myself some space to think first before upping the stakes by calling her out in front of her friends. I could have waited before sending her away from the classroom.

Don’t take it personally: Teachers, it may be hard to believe this, but your most difficult students are not trying to make your life hard. They’ve got their own stuff going on. Good teachers pay attention to their students, who they choose to sit with or how their behavior changes over time, but keeping score of every little infraction and seeing these infractions as intentional slights against you serves no one.

Weeks before the incident, I noticed Sam starting to change. She was slower to start her work, she began dressing differently to fit in and seemed to challenge me in little ways just to show defiance. I didn’t like it. I felt like she was sending me a message. Whether I was conscious of this or not, I was really saying to Sam, “I see what you’re doing here and I don’t like it! You are not a gangster. You are a good girl!” I didn’t realize it then, but I was placing my beliefs about who she should be onto her. I wanted Sam to accept my vision of her.

Instead of approaching that moment with a curious, Sam-centered mind, I found myself making it personal, as if Sam was choosing this moment to rebel against me specifically. She wasn’t trying to hurt me as her Asian American teacher, she was trying to look tough in front of her friends. Learners, especially adolescents, test boundaries and try on new identities and personalities. We must let them. We do not own their identities or determine how they express them.

I have played out different scenarios in my head about how I would have handled that interaction with Sam now, but none of them seem to completely satisfy me. I don’t know how the ideal teacher would have responded at that moment. I have no 3-step protocol to give teachers, but I know that beliefs create mindsets and mindsets determine the choices we make. Classroom conflicts will reveal what we really believe about students. We must all commit to doing the difficult work of examining those beliefs and adopting the mindsets that will help us meet those difficult moments with compassion and wisdom.

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