Field Guide

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Excerpted from Chapter 6: Mediating Conflicts Between Students and Teachers in The School Mediator's Field Guide: Prejudice, Sexual Harassment, Large Groups and Other Daily Challenges by Richard Cohen

Many promising reconciliations have broken down because while both parties came prepared to forgive, neither party came prepared to be forgiven. — Charles Williams

Don't limit a child to your own learning, for he was born in another time. — Rabbinical saying


Mediator Selection

  • Select mediators carefully. In student-teacher mediation, having an adult and a student co-mediate and "mirror" the parties is usually preferable. Using solely student or adult mediators tends to make the non-represented party uncomfortable and hesitant to invest in the process. Some additional ideas:

    • It can be awkward for student mediators to work with teacher parties. Student mediators must present themselves confidently and not be too deferential. "Ms. Chung and I are experienced mediators and we look forward to serving you today" is better than "Thank you for letting me [a lowly student like myself] serve you."
    • A special caution for teacher mediators: Only if they have the appropriate relationship with the teacher party (a relationship characterized either by great trust or by little contact) will they be able to remain unbiased without angering their colleague.

Although not preferable, using only adult mediators has been effective when teachers will not accept student mediators.

During the Session

  • Support parties' efforts. Mediators always encourage parties, but this is even more essential when students and teachers mediate. Students need courage to negotiate with teachers who are typically much older. Take extra care to make them feel comfortable. As the ostensibly more powerful party, teachers also take risks by participating in the process. In addition to mediators' support and encouragement, teachers need acknowledgment that though they may be equals in the context of mediation, they have unique levels of responsibility and experience within the school.
  • Practice "cross-communication." When "cross-communicating," the adult mediator addresses and summarizes the student party's concerns while the student mediator does the same for the adult party. This practice builds parties' trust in the mediators and ultimately in each other.
  • Prepare for an imbalance in communication skills. Teachers are generally more confident and communicative than students, especially younger students. Mediators manage this imbalance in a number of ways. Some encourage students to speak first in the joint session to ensure that their initial mediation experience is not sitting and listening to their teacher complain about them. Others, expecting student parties to feel intimidated initially, ask teachers to give an overview of the situation before inviting students to speak. Private sessions are also a helpful and sometimes essential tool. Be sure to hold sessions in a neutral setting and sit parties as equals around the table.
  • Keep the discussion as specific as possible. One challenging aspect of student-teacher mediation is that parties tend to make broad generalizations about one another. Students assert that they have a "bad teacher"; teachers say they are working with an "unmotivated student." This can have disastrous consequences if allowed to persist. Help parties focus by asking: "What specifically does he do as a teacher that you don't like?" or "Describe a specific time that you felt Polly behaved inappropriately."
  • Remain aware of both your own and the parties' biases. This can be one of the biggest challenges in these cases. It is common in student-teacher mediation for student mediators to identify with the student and adults mediators to identify with the teacher. Student mediators might also identify with a teacher's perspective because they have been socialized to accept teacher control of students. Guard against this.