The School Mediator
Peer Mediation Insights From the Desk of Richard Cohen Vol. VIII, 2/09

in this issue

Educators Resolving Conflict

Response to "Peer Mediation's Missing Stage...Increase Understanding"

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The School Mediator's Field Guide:
Prejudice, Sexual Harassment, Large Groups and Other Daily Challenges
by Richard Cohen
more info

Students Resolving Conflict:
Peer Mediation in Schools

by Richard Cohen
more info

Welcome to the February issue of The School Mediator, the first issue of 2009.

This issue explores the importance, not of students resolving conflicts, but of educators resolving their conflicts with one another.

Please send along your thoughts and experiences. It is always a pleasure to hear from you.

Wishing you the best, wherever you are,

Richard Cohen
Founder and Director
School Mediation Associates

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  • Educators Resolving Conflict

  • There is one class of school-based conflicts that consistently fly over the radar of most peer mediation programs: those that involve adults.

    For the most part, this is by design. Peer mediation's primary focus is on empowering students to resolve their own conflicts.

    There are many reasons for this student focus, not the least of which is that schools tend to exaggerate the normal, human hesitance to resolve one's conflicts.

    I don't claim to understand this, but it seems that many factors--the stress of the job, the chronic feelings of powerlessness that many educators experience, school structures that can isolate individual teachers, perhaps even the types of people who are drawn to education--combine to create a "conflict-averse" culture in schools.

    If getting educators to agree to resolve their own conflicts was a precondition for implementing peer mediation programs for their students, there would be very, very few peer mediation programs.

    I am convinced, however, that one relatively straightforward and cost-effective way to improve schools is to encourage educators to resolve their interpersonal conflicts.

    Many educators are quite skilled at resolving the inevitable disputes that arise at school--either on their own or with the help of trusted colleagues.

    But many are not so inclined.

    In almost every building there are educators who have difficulty getting along. And in some schools in which I have worked, teachers or administrators have not been getting along for a decade or more. These educators bring conflict avoidance to a high art!

    Of course, avoiding conflict can be a sound strategy. When you won't see the other party regularly, when you don't feel strongly about the issues involved, when you need time to collect yourself, when you are certain the dispute cannot be all of these instances and more, avoidance can be a wise approach.

    But in too many schools, educators avoid interpersonal conflict to their own, and their schools', detriment.

    The most profound price is paid by educators themselves: their enjoyment of their jobs, their ability and desire to devote themselves to their work, even their performance...all can be negatively impacted by living with prolonged interpersonal tension.

    Fellow teachers and administrators also suffer when peers are deadlocked in conflict. It is stressful to be a bystander, watching colleagues behave badly, not knowing exactly how to make it better.

    Ongoing interpersonal conflict among educators also likely affects students. For one, the more that educators respect, trust and support one another, the more they will be able to generate these same feelings among their students. And compelling research suggests that students perform better academically when they feel connected to and supported by their teachers.

    But take heart! The good news is, first and foremost, what readers of this newsletter know very well: mediation and conflict resolution processes work.

    I have had the privilege of facilitating many mediation sessions for educators. Whether the focus is on understanding an often misinterpreted history--why did you make that comment?, not include me in that project?, not invite me to that party?, embarrass me in that meeting?, not return those materials?--or exploring sincere differences in educational philosophy and practice, the results are usually quite positive.

    Most often, educators are glad they chose to participate. Many report feeling "lighter" and able to devote more of their creative energy to their work.

    Even more exciting: In part because of the increasing reach of our own field, more administrators and teachers:

    1. understand the importance of helping their peers resolve conflicts, and
    2. have the skills and the courage to do so.

    It takes a sensitive leader to effectively encourage others to resolve disputes, even more so given the unique obstacles (union implications, time constraints, space limitations) in schools. These leaders need the skill to hold fellow educators to a high standard while also maintaining strong, trusting relationships with them. (What our restorative friends at IIRP call "high control/high support.")

    It is not easy for anyone to seek assistance to resolve an interpersonal conflict. These school leaders work to transform this act from one associated with shame and humiliation to one that signifies courage and maturity, professionalism and commitment.

    The current economic climate will only increase the challenges educators face. Budgets will be reduced. Class sizes have to go up.

    Leaving a bad situation for a position in another system will not be an option for educators. Fewer will choose to retire.

    In these times--in all times--school leaders must help their peers resolve the interpersonal conflicts that prevent them, and their schools, from being the best they can be.

    Thankfully, more school leaders are doing just that.

    What are your thoughts? Please respond so we can all learn from you...

    Look for additional information from School Mediation Associates on this topic in the months ahead.

  • Response to "Peer Mediation's Missing Stage...Increase Understanding"

  • We received many responses to the last issue of The School Mediator. A number of them follow below...

    This month's newsletter really struck a chord with me. I agree completely.

    In training adult peer mediation coordinators, I have found it difficult yet important to convey the idea of sitting back and letting the disputants talk to each other. I think there is a fear of losing control over the situation.

    If the disputants don't have the opportunity and encouragement to talk to each other, however, not only do they have difficulty understanding each other, but they also don't have a chance to practice negotiation--an important life skill.

    Thanks for bringing attention to this.

    Leigh Jones-Bamman, State Education Resource Center

    I loved this month's newsletter. As a Transformative Mediator, the "missing stage" is our core theory: creating understanding is all about empowerment (self) and recognition (other).

    When parties are clearer about their situation (feelings, behavior, needs, choices and resources) they become stronger and more open to understanding those things in the other parties. As empowerment and recognition build, parties become more able to use their own problem solving strength to brainstorm, be creative and make decisions. I believe this is the most powerful way to support conversation between the parties.

    At our Center, we use this core theory to inform all of our conflict management work. It is hard to train young people in this approach: to give them structure (we don't use a step system) without taking the parties' own natural structure away.

    Still, self-determination is more likely to happen when mediators can be clear about their role and support parties' compassionate strength.

    Linda Hendrikson, Conflict Management Consultant
    Conflict Resolution Center
    Grand Forks, North Dakota

    The peer mediation model that I have used and refined over 20 years on Cape Cod, Massachusetts includes an "increase understanding" stage that I call "The Exchange." It is all about getting the disputants to actively listen, restate and mirror each other.

    Peer mediation is one of the best programs I have ever been affiliated with because it allows me to "teach a man to fish." I walk away, and the program continues.

    I just retired after 20 years as Youth Program Director for the Barnstable County Sheriff's Office. Now I'm doing substance abuse treatment for another agency as well as working in the county jail (where we have introduced peer mediation into the drug treatment unit!).

    John Clarendon
    Barnstable County Sheriff's Office
    Mashpee, Massachusetts

    I read with great interest about the experiences described in The School Mediator and hope to learn from them.

    With respect to your mention of an additional stage within the mediation model, I absolutely agree with the concept of both parties trying to have a better understanding of their adversary's point of view. When all is considered, their lack of understanding may have a lot to do with why there is a dispute in the first place!

    I have a greater understanding of the importance of listening now, albeit much later in my life. I don't mind admitting that for my first 54 years, I only heard and did not listen. Through my studies, and in conjunction with a huge attitude change, I am becoming a better listener, and subsequently learning so much more.

    Teachers who take the time and effort to educate the younger generations in the skills of mediation, are doing them a great service, providing them with tools and the understanding to assist them throughout their lives.

    Robert Tilbrooke
    North Queensland, Australia

    As always, I enjoy The School Mediator.

    In response to the latest issue, I'd hate to think of "increasing understanding" as a discreet stage of the mediation process. I think we do our best work as mediators when we encourage students to engage directly with each other throughout the process.

    Opportunities to hear and be heard are present from the moment parties walk in the door until the time they leave (and beyond)!

    Melissa Brodrick
    Lexington, Massachusetts

    You got me involved in this issue of The School Mediator with the heading about "the missing stage."

    I know you are aware of what I am going to say, but I can't resist adding to what you said: when the Increase Understanding work is done well, the mediator lets go of control of the process and the parties then take themselves through the remaining steps with the mediator following.

    Sally Pope, recently elected Town Councilor
    Southampton, New York

  • About Us
  • For twenty-five 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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