I once had an experience early in my teaching career where I struggled to get along with a particular colleague. A couple of instances of a difference of opinion and some harsh words from both of us when we were emotional put some significant strain on our relationship. I started to find it challenging to work with my colleague and even dreaded running into her in the staffroom. I will be forever grateful for my Principal, an extremely wise and courageous leader, who noticed definite tension in the air and invited my colleague and me to chat to work through things.
I can tell you that while the idea of having this conversation was not something I looked forward to, the Principal very skilfully and respectfully supported us through what I would later come to know as a restorative conversation.
While I went into the room with self-entitled victim status, ready to lay down my side of the story, which would surely show how unreasonable my colleague was, I quickly realised that this was not my day in court. Instead, through the well thought-out and kindly intended questioning from the Principal, I came to see that I had contributed to the damaged relationship with my colleague and that some of my comments and manner had deeply hurt her too.
I can still remember the sting of my conscience and the unpleasant flash of shame. My colleague, tears in her eyes, felt it too. Thankfully my Principal quickly guided us to become problem solvers – how would we fix this up? What needed to happen from both sides to repair the relationship so we could return to doing our jobs effectively? I am pleased to say that we were able to do this very successfully and went on to become great teaching allies.
We learnt how to speak up about things that troubled us before they reached grudge level and ended up teaching next door to each other, sharing the load of planning and assessing and taking our students on joint excursions.
I sometimes wonder how differently this could have gone if my Principal had not deeply understood the power of restorative practice and instead approached our situation as a teacher entrenched in an adversarial system may do when dealing with conflict between students.
We are all familiar with the process that involves the teacher or leader spending copious energy trying to get to the bottom of exactly what happened in a conflict, often losing themselves in the rabbit hole of He said, She said, and dredging up all manner of slights from the past. And after taking witness statements from all and sundry, the teacher is often none the wiser about which version is the actual truth. The conundrum then shifts to which students are to blame or who is more to blame for the conflict.
This often results in the adult attaching seemingly unrelated punishments and sanctions onto one or all students, with varying degrees of ‘toughness’. And most often, one such consequence is to separate the students. They may be told that as they can’t seem to get along and be respectful, they will have nothing to do with each other. The teacher thinks this should stop any of this carry-on in the future and means they won’t need to spend all their non-contact time dealing with another incident like this.
Can you imagine if this is the path my Principal took all those years ago? If she allowed my colleague and I to talk at length about every disagreement, sideways look and rolled eyes? And then, after weighing up our grievances, handed out some arbitrary punishment, including the decree that we weren’t to have anything to do with each other from here on in? Separate eating areas, office areas, the opposite end of the staff room…It really is quite ridiculous to think about.
When our students are having conflict with peers, we have a great opportunity to support them to understand the impact their words and actions have on others and to give them the skills to repair the relationship. When we punish and separate, we simply push the conflict under the carpet and miss our chance to teach the young people in our care some of the most important skills they will carry with them for life.
Check out other articles Kirsty has written here.