Conflict: the engine of fiction, the ruin of the world, and the bane of teachers’ lives.
Here are three conflict scenarios with three different types of student, plus some attempts to manage the situations.
Scenario 1: Kick it out
I coach kids’ soccer (“football” to us Brits). Recently, one of my 8-year-olds was proving to be recalcitrant, to say the least. The other kids followed instructions perfectly and seemed to enjoy themselves, but this one child — I’ll call her “P” — whined frequently and did her finest teapot impression: hands on hips, pout in place of spout. P was sweet most of the time, but clearly needed attention.
Commentary: I guessed that something wasn’t right at home and, sure enough, P’s parents were going through a messy divorce.
Action: I praised P a lot and refused to lose my temper despite the provocations. Whenever P began demanding too much attention to the detriment of others, I temporarily ignored her. I also used P for “special” roles, emphasizing that I thought she was the perfect person to hold the cones or roll the balls back or demonstrate how to do a throw-in.
Result: P seemed to respond well to being made to feel special, and the whining decreased.
Conclusion: I found it best to stay calm and get to the bottom of the problem. It turned out to be nothing to do with me or the group. It was a personal issue.
Scenario 2: Netiquette failure
A colleague, who is a tenured professor in the School of Education at the university where I teach, received an abrupt message from an online student: “I don’t understand how to access the module. I need help.” No greeting or sign-off, no please or thank you.
Commentary: The student was a practising teacher who was studying for her Master’s. She should have understood the effects of language use and the importance of respect.
Action: I suggested that my colleague send a link to an article about email etiquette between students and professors. He did so, but he also modeled a polite response, including a greeting and closing phrase.
Result: The student apologized and explained she’d been stressed and short of time and just hadn’t thought through her message, instead reverting to “textspeak.”
Conclusion: It may be a “Millennials” thing. Some say Millennials have different ways of communicating and different views of hierarchy. In any case, the teacher needs to set the tone and emphasize what is and isn’t acceptable. This particular professor provided a model of respectful communication rather than responding in a similarly rude manner. His response was much better than my suggestion because it illustrated civil discourse rather than just referring to it.
Scenario 3: Who’s the boss?
A female colleague was teaching EFL to a class that included an older male student. He was from a country in which women’s roles are extremely restricted. The student was unable to give any female the “final word” in a discussion and he sometimes belittled the teacher’s views. For him, the authority figure should never be a woman; for her, the student should never question the teacher’s credentials.
Commentary: The teacher had already modified her teaching methods to avoid pairing this student with a female. Now she felt that any more modifications would work against her communicative teaching style.
Action: The teacher provided a reading about cross-cultural values and initiated a discussion with the whole class. The text looked at gender roles in society, belief systems, and ways of negotiating across cultures. She taught vocabulary such as beliefs, tolerate, and diversity.
Result: The student’s behavior changed perceptibly, and two weeks later he was able to move to a class with an older male teacher.
Conclusion: It’s difficult to question our deeply-held beliefs. They are part of our make-up. But when faced with a radically different worldview, we have no choice. We need to bring the issue into the open, which may involve engaging in dialogue, referring to articles and other texts, or using role plays to bridge the cultural divide.
And finally …
Anyone who watched the Clinton-Trump presidential debates on TV will see one extreme way of dealing with conflict: keep interrupting and shout down your opponent.
A better way might be to question the roots of the conflict — how and why did it start? — and then add further questions: what aspects of the conflict are negotiable? What is beyond your control and what aspects can you change? How much of the conflict is due to personality and how much to context? And if all else fails, philosophize. Here’s author Terry Goodkind on conflict: “Knowing when to fight is just as important as knowing how.”