In the midst of the debate over who was most to blame for the school resource officer forcefully removing a student from her desk and throwing her across the room, it’s been easy to miss the larger issue: the need to understand how to deescalate tense situations in the classroom.
As a former high school teacher, I can remember many incidents in class that made me angry. It could have been a disrespectful remark, a student refusing to obey or a student simply not paying attention. However, when I actually responded in a moment of frustration, it usually resulted in a less-than-productive environment. I never threw a student across the room, but there were times when I dealt with problems during the class that would have been handled more productively once my frustration had subsided and I could think more clearly.
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The same applies to students. The best time to deal with problems with students is not at their most tense moment. The goal should not be for the teacher to prove he was right but to actually change student behavior and, ideally, a student’s outlook toward education and life. Perhaps dealing with a problem in a moment of tension can temporarily modify behavior, but it usually results in increased antagonism — and does little to actually reach students.
I am guessing there were numerous chances for the tension in the Spring Valley classroom to be diffused. Was a cellphone violation and the subsequent disobedience serious enough to warrant a police officer coming into the room? If it really was that serious, the other students certainly should not have been in the room. There should be no police action taken in the middle of a classroom unless it is of the utmost urgency.
Could the solution have been as simple as the teacher waiting to deal with the problem after the class had ended? I don’t mean to castigate the teacher; between teaching a class and dealing with student misbehavior, it is difficult to always take the best action. All teachers struggle with this. However, it is necessary to continue to examine how to deal with problematic behavior.
And do we know what the student may have been going through? It is easy to see the student’s attitude as the problem, but perhaps it was a symptom of personal problems that we cannot even begin to comprehend.
Tensions escalate when we start seeing the individual as the problem instead of seeing the behavior as the problem. We divide students up into well-behaved versus poorly behaved, respectful versus defiant, and hardworking versus lazy. We label and group students, and in the process we rob them of their humanity and forget the societal factors that shape behavior.
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Many want to demonize either the resource officer or the young girl, based on preconceived political and social beliefs. It is sad if that is all we can take away from this unfortunate incident. Instead, it should help us seek a healthier way to deal with tension and conflict.
If we stop looking at individuals as problems and instead start seeing them as complex human beings with intrinsic worth, perhaps we can begin to create more peaceful classrooms and a more peaceful society.
Mr. McCorkle, a former Greenville High School history teacher, is a doctoral student and education instructor at Clemson University. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.