My eyes look up as I try to finish correcting students´ math quizzes. As a few of them wait in line to receive their feedback, I notice two students approaching my desk, both of them looking upset, nervous, and affected. One of them holds a purple pencil sharpener in her hand while the other one says, ¨Ms. Lina, she took my pencil sharpener and it´s mine!¨
This is probably one of the most frequent situations you´ll find yourself facing if you work with students at the primary level. A situation that gets complicated rapidly when the other student follows with a ¨No! It´s mine! She took it!¨ This is all accompanied by two very distressed and anxious faces of students who have watery eyes and fidgety hands. For a few moments, they try to convince me that it was their classmate and not them who were the wrongdoers. This is where I, as a teacher, become Sherlock Holmes and begin looking for clues to determine who was involved, when it all happened, how it happened, and who did what.
This is how we teachers spend a big part of our days in the primary grades, trying to solve mysteries where all the students involved in the conflicts feel that they are the victims. Victims, whose egocentrism, characteristic of their age, makes it difficult to look at situations from somebody else´s perspective and consequently find solutions that would meet needs of the other people involved. To make matters even more difficult, the ¨perpetrators¨ avoid being discovered at all costs! The teacher becomes the detective and judge who ultimately determines who the ¨offender¨ was and who the ¨victim¨ was.
In our School Family, I have found a much better way of dealing with these everyday conflicts that has resulted in students feeling empowered and has turned out to be a better alternative than I having to become Sherlock Holmes. A way in which everyday conflicts, that may appear easy to solve, are not seen as interruptions to the lesson being taught but as opportunities for me to teach and for my students to grow and learn.
The first thing I do to work on solving these conflicts is to refer to my class as our “School Family” on a daily basis. Even though this may seem like an unimportant difference in terminology, the fact that we call our class our School Family has many important implications. Just as a regular family, our School Family is made up of many individuals (including the adults) who each have their own histories, personalities, likes, and dislikes. It is the main responsibility of the adults (teachers) in our School Family to keep the children safe both physically and psychologically in the same way parents would in a regular family. The children´s main responsibility is to behave in kind, helpful, and safe ways in the same way that they would in their own families. Lastly and most importantly, in our School Family all members are accepted, appreciated, and loved regardless of their needs, actions, and mistakes, the same way that we all are in our regular families. In our School Family, we always see the best in others and because of this, students feel that no matter what problem they have, they can always count on adults to help them find kind and helpful solutions and they know that they will always be accepted, appreciated, and loved by others, regardless of their actions.
Teaching student to wear their “loving glasses” helps them see the best in others when finding helpful solutions to everyday problems.
This is why, when these two students could not solve this problem between themselves, they came to me for help. After listening to both sides of the story and realizing that both of their sharpeners looked alike, I guided our conversation away from the idea of who was “guilty” in taking the pencil sharpener and in the direction of helping both students work together to find a fair solution. Instead of having us play a blaming game, we started thinking about ways they could both use the pencil sharpener which, for each one of them, seemed to belong to them. After a brief but deep conversation, we decided to try looking for the other pencil sharpener in case one of them had misplaced it. When they saw that this solution didn’t solve the problem because they couldn’t find it, we thought of another solution together: taking turns daily in keeping “custody” of the pencil sharpener and making sure the other student would be able to use it whenever she needed to. This was proven to be a fair solution for both children and their faces lit up as they tried to decide who would take the first turn. When they decided, both of them carried on with their academic activities feeling like successful problem solvers. Problem solvers who could find solutions to conflicts that to them seemed to be impossible to work out. I did not need to become a detective! Instead, all I needed to do was guide my students through a thinking process that looked for solutions instead of pointing a finger to blame.
Thanks to this process, these two students were able to learn a powerful life lesson: Communicating their needs using words and thinking about helpful solutions is always better that looking for someone to blame. As I watched them go back to their desks with smiles of satisfaction on their faces, feeling empowered and pleased with the outcome of the situation, I felt proud of them for being open to thinking about solutions that felt good for both of them instead of looking for me to act as a judge who would decide whose mistake or fault it was.
This is how we handle everyday conflicts in our School Family. The adults in the class see these daily conflicts as opportunities to teach students how to become problem solvers and think about their own solutions to their problems instead of seeing the adults as judges who rule on their cases. Whenever a student cuts in line, accidentally drops somebody else´s pencil box, or argues with another one because of a toy, we guide them through this process. We see the value in these situations. We see them as lessons which may not necessarily be outlined in our lesson plans, but are definitely important lessons that help our students develop character which will enable them to become well-rounded and responsible global thinkers in the future.