A guide to preventing classroom fights, and how to strike the perfect balance between Mister Rogers and General Patton.
It's a Tuesday and class has just started. Cody still hasn't started the bell-ringer. So I quietly ask Cody to get started on his work.
"YOU want ME to get to work? You get to work." Cody jokingly says to me.
I know he's joking, but...
Immediately John speaks out with, "Why don't you just shut-up and do what she says?"
Cody responds by abruptly shooting out of his chair...
UH OH!!! OK people this is not a drill! There is going to be a fight in this classroom, if you do not have the appropriate response right NOW!
So what do you do?
A. You do nothing, its been a boring day anyway...
B. You sit at your desk and yell at the two of them to "Knock it off!"
C. You know you can't handle it, so you send a student to find security.
D. You quickly move towards the more aggressive of the two students and calmly explain "Cody you are OK. I care about you, and I promise I am in control of the situation and you do not need to be. You are not in trouble, and I would really like to talk to you some more in the hallway, would you please come outside with me?"
I'm guessing I don't need to explain which answer is correct.
This really happened in my classroom and I would love to say I handled it with the utmost calm and composure... but I didn't. I did say something close to those words in answer D, but I may have been a little hysterical about it. I did fail to mention that I knew Cody is a boxer, so this added to my panic.
I was able to get Cody out of the room and into the hallway by slowly walking/herding him out the door. I know this would not have been possible if I had not already established a good relationship with him.
I hadn't had a possible fight in my classroom in years, and this one took me by surprise! When I walked back into the classroom the other students commented that they were surprised I was able to handle the situation and end the fight before it started.
THEY WERE SURPRISED!!! I was in awe, "What do you mean you were surprised???!!! Of course I was able to handle that." and I meant it, I knew I was in complete control of the classroom... but they didn't.
What I realized is that it's not enough for YOU to know you are in control. Your students need to know it too. John told Cody to listen to the teacher, because he didn't know I was in control. John thought HE had to control the classroom in order to keep himself and everyone else safe.
OH NO! I had gone too far Mister Rogers.
Too far Mister Rogers? My Mister Rogers side is the caring, understanding, relationship building teacher who takes the time to listen.
My students thought I only had a Mister Rogers side, and let's be honest Mister Rogers is not who you want backing you up in a street fight! I think you would agree.
So you need to have a commanding, leading, I am in complete control at-all-times side too. That's my General Patton side.
My students didn't know I had a General Patton side. How did this happen?! I used to only have a General Patton side. If a student said I was nice, I would respond with "Why do you have to say such rude things about me?" I had worked hard for that reputation of the mean teacher, and I was not alright with people saying I was "nice."
But then I learned about Trauma Informed Teaching, the vast amount of people affected by trauma, and how the behavior of traumatized students is a symptom of their trauma, not a personal reflection of me or my class.
And in my zeal to create positive, caring relationships with my students I went too far Mister Rogers. So I had to figure out how to strike this perfect balance.
Learn more about my transformation in my post How a Conference Changed My Life
There are awesome lists out there about what to do in case of a potential fight, like this one from intervention specialist Jim Wright:
Remove agitated students from the classroom or redirect their attention to an activity they enjoy.
Move closer toward defiant students without invading their personal space or appearing that you want to overpower them.
Stay calm and avoid giving the impression that you're angry, shocked, or scared.
Take a few seconds to relax and consider the most appropriate response before reacting to a student who is provoking you.
Use nonverbal behavior such as softening your voice, sitting next to the student, maintaining eye contact, and slowing your speech.
But I don't want to ever get to this point, I want a classroom where anger, agitation, and anxiety doesn't exist.
So for me, a better question is:
how do I create a classroom environment where students feel safe, calm and have the unwavering knowledge that the teacher is in complete control of the classroom?
The answer lies in the perfect balance between Mister Rogers and General Patton. In her book Help for Billy, Heather Forbes says this perfect balance is "a hybrid between Mister Rogers and General George Patton-someone holding strong limits and boundaries (General Patton) but presenting them with softness and compassion (Mister Rogers)."
But, how do I do that?!
1. You must develop a positive relationship. None of the rest is possible if the student doesn't know you really care about them.
Your students need to know you care about them as a student and as a person.
Each day choose a student and ask them what their hobbies are, how their weekend was, ask them why they weren't at school yesterday and tell them you missed them. Ask them anything!... just take a few minutes to make one kiddo feel important.
Take time to listen to students, be empathetic, if you haven't see Brene' Brown's video on empathy it's worth checking out!
Ask students to write "I Wish My Teacher Knew" letters. A letter that let's you know everything they wish you knew about them.
Above all be positive, have fun, and never stop telling your students how important they are.
2. You must be in tune with your student's mood. PLEASE greet each student at the door so you can get an idea of their current temperament. If any student seems off in any way (won't look you in the eye, won't say hello, seems agitated or upset) don't ignore it. You have a couple of options here depending on the student:
*You could talk to the student immediately, "Hey Chris, you didn't give me my usual high five, is something bothering you? I'm here to listen." *Or you can get the rest of the class started and ask the student to step outside with you so they can have your undivided attention. If ignored these behaviors will intensify, the student is begging for someone to notice, give them the attention they are asking for.
Continue to monitor your classes mood throughout the day...things can change quickly.
3. You must be in complete control of your classroom, and the student must know you are in control. When students don't know the teacher is in charge, they begin to believe they must be in charge.
Some of our more difficult students have homes where the parent is not in charge. This can be for an endless number of reasons, but the result is the same, the child has become the person in control of the home. These kids may be in charge of younger siblings, they may have to go grocery shopping and make dinner, pay the bills ...you get the idea. Being in charge has become the norm, it has become a necessity to keep themselves and their families safe.
As the teacher you have to make it clear they don't have to be in charge in your classroom. They need to KNOW you are in complete control.
I recommend, along with posting classroom expectations, teachers post "Teacher Expectations," what the students can expect from you as their teacher. My teacher expectations poster:
It will take repeatedly telling students you are care about them, showing you care about them, and constantly reminding them you are in control of the classroom, for them to let their guard down and be able to learn. I promise the time and effort it takes is worth it. When students are calmly working in class, safe in the knowledge you will keep them protected from danger, it's a beautiful thing. They will begin to trust you, share with you and grow as a person; it's so amazing to see the transformation!
Be the Light in your student's life...
Please leave a comment about how are you creating a safe, stable, empathetic classroom/school for students?