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School Mediator's Field Guide:
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Peer Mediation in Schools
Welcome to the March issue of The School Mediator.
This month I discuss the importance of teachers
and students making a personal connection.
As always, please send along your thoughts and experiences.
Wishing you the best, wherever you are,
Founder and Director
School Mediation Associates
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Call Me Richard
I always ask students to refer to me by my first name
when I conduct peer mediation trainings. This is most
comfortable for me.
In addition, being on a first-name basis is a signal
to trainees that we will be equal partners in learning
(something that is especially relevant when teaching
mediation, a subject fundamentally concerned with
issues such as trust, power, and fairness).
Students appear to get the message. Although calling
my colleagues and me by our first names takes getting
used to, they report that it relaxes them and makes
us more approachable.
We invite the adults who participate in our trainings
with students--teachers, counselors, administrators,
parents--to use their first names as well if they
prefer. (Students agree to use adults' first names
only during the training.)
Usually, a few educators jump at the chance, shedding
their surnames like uncomfortable clothes. A few others
clearly would not use their first name if we paid
The majority of teachers, however, are flummoxed.
They hesitate, they look at their colleagues awkwardly,
they huddle to discuss whether they should break with
It truly makes no difference to us. First names or
surnames, we don't really care.
But there is more to this issue than meets the eye.
The practice of referring to teachers by their surnames
is deeply rooted in cultural notions concerning respect
for elders, deference to authority, a formality in
the educational process, and the appropriate social
distance between teachers and their students.
It is the last issue, the social distance between
teachers and their students, that especially concerns
For in my experience, many teachers simply don't
"know" their students: they don't feel comfortable
in their presence, they don't share any personal warmth.
This is not necessarily educators' faults, as the
modern school tends to conspire against this kind
of interpersonal attachment. Can an algebra teacher,
who works with 125 students a day, in groups of 25,
for forty-five minute segments, come to know any individual
student very well?
But a climate of disconnection, of not being known,
makes school less enjoyable for teachers and students.
In addition, students perform at a lower level
academically when they feel like their teachers don't
know them and care about them personally.
During SMA's three day peer mediation training, we
have the luxury of creating a genuine, though short-lived,
learning community. Our diverse group of learners--adults
and students, of every grade, ability, racial group,
clique, and religion in the school--work hard together,
share meals and social time, and even enjoy a bit
of fun and games.
Participants delight in working with and coming to
know one another almost as much as in learning the
important skills that we teach.
At each trainings' conclusion, when we gather to say
our goodbyes, inevitably one of the adults earnestly
reports how happy they are to learn that "we have
such a bright, compassionate, committed group of students
in our school."
My first thought is always: "Your entire student
body is composed of such bright, compassionate, committed
In fact, we could have randomly selected any 20 students
to participate in the training and you would say the
I doubt there is a significant correlation between
teachers who use their first names and a greater degree
of warmth between teachers and students (although
private schools who advertise "teachers and students on a first name basis"
certain appear to think so).
I know dozens of phenomenal teachers who use their
I suspect that there are terrible teachers who go
by their first name.
But there is no question that both students and teachers,
in the United States at least, would benefit from
having a more personal connection.
Please share your thoughts and experiences...
Response to "Coordinators: Please Leave The
A few of the responses we received to the last issue of The School Mediator are posted below. That issue
urged coordinators not to remain in the room during
mediation sessions. Thank you to all who responded.
It has never been a consideration that I would remain
in the room during a mediation session. I am overwhelmingly
confident in our mediators' abilities to serve their
peers with integrity and impartiality, as I am with
their sincerity and empathetic understanding during
I do understand that an explosive incident between
disputants may occur, and that my being present in
the room may prevent this situation. But the overriding
sense of empowerment and social responsibility our
mediators experience would only be diluted if an adult
If I could have "eyes" in the mediation room during
a session, it would be to determine when the mediators
have a greater passion for reaching an agreement than
the disputants they serve. Many times a less experienced
team will continue to put forth great effort while
the disputants choose not to be sincere and/or honest.
During the mediators' post-evaluations, they come
to realize that the agreement they helped to forge
is sometimes flimsy and tenuous.
Ed Donnelly, Coordinator/Instructor
Peer Mediation Program
West New York School District
West New York, NJ
After five years of leading peer mediation workshops
in schools in northern England, only in the summer
of 2004 did a teacher contest my training input that
it is not essential, nor even desirable, for staff
to be in the same room as the mediators and parties.
In fact, it has never been an issue; all have, outwardly
at least, been able to accept the role of the mediators
as all important, though enabling them to have rapid
access to an adult if circumstances warranted it.
Typically, the mediators conclude a session and then
consult the adult if they feel a need for disclosure
or require other advice.
Recently, a colleague in a position of senior responsibility,
understandably reflecting the concerns of her school,
was adamant that pupils could not accept nor be given
this level of responsibility. OK, I thought, it's
her school and I felt no need to make an issue of
it. I did reassure her that others have taken up the
challenge who are of a similar age to her pupils.
I shall now refer her to your article.
Out of Conflict Ltd.
Morpeth, Northumberland, UK
Concerning your recent question about adult supervision
of peer mediation sessions: Are we talking about elem.,
middle or high school peer mediation sessions?
Having been a coordinator at all three levels, my
opinion is that at my present elementary level, we
would be in big trouble in my district if we left
four students, aged 10 and younger, alone in a classroom.
There is a safety/supervision issue at the elementary
level that has nothing to do with peer mediation.
In addition, my elementary peer mediators are very
well trained, but have asked me and my faculty advisors
many times if we will "be in the room?" They are just
not ready to be in a classroom alone for a myriad
When more informal elementary peer mediation happens
on the playground at recess, the supervision issue
is less of a problem, because there are always teachers
on recess duty if any problems arise. My more seasoned
peer mediators often take it upon themselves to mediate
conflicts at recess, as they arise, without that being
a structured or standard part of our particular program.
I am very proud of them.
Thanks and I love your newsletter.
Rachel Schwab, Elementary Guidance Counselor
Athol-Royalston Regional School System
Interestingly enough, my colleague and I recently
trained about 22 high school students as mediators
and now the guidance counselor has come back to us
and said the mediators think it might be more effective
without an adult in the room. The guidance counselor
wanted some pros and cons and our thoughts on the
subject. Your newsletter is perfect! It is good work
you are doing.
Eileen M. Rowley, Agency Director/Ulster County
Dispute Resolution Center (serving Orange, Putnam,
Sullivan & Ulster Counties)
twenty years, School Mediation Associates has been
devoted to the application and promotion of mediation
in schools. SMA's mission is to transform schools
into safer, more caring, and more effective institutions.
Our books and training programs have been utilized by tens of thousands of people
around the world.
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