Tuesday, 4 February 2014

The use of soft-skills by teachers can help reduce violent tendencies in students

The recent incident of a school boy killing a teacher teacher and a police officer dead in a Moscow school highlights the issue of violence in school as a global phenomena not limited to the Columbine incident, or for that effect the stabbing of a school teacher in a Trans-Yamuna school in Delhi a few years back. While preliminary reports point towards a conflict between the accused and his Geography teacher in the Moscow incident, the incidents that took place in Delhi a few years back was because the teacher wouldn’t allow the grad eight student to cheat in the examination. The student stabbed the lady teacher with a sharp object-a knife in all possibility. What connects both the incidents is that it was a clash or a conflict between a student and a teacher.
It goes without saying that teachers should also be given regular training in soft skills rather like the training that School Counselors and Human Resource Personnel are given in the Corporate Sector. The difference however between the school environment and the environment in the Corporate field is that the while the HR executive has to deal with grown ups and adults who might be more amenable to reasoning, the teacher however has to deal with students who are neither adults nor children, and moreover they would be struggling with the process of growing up, hormones playing spoil-sport with their minds, and the pressure to conform to popular and accepted trends among peers. Perhaps some training in soft-skills might have averted both the incidents that have been described above!
While experts suggest that an “emotional breakdown” might have been the reason for the school boy in Moscow shooting his teacher, the result of a long period of a clash of egos and points of view, in the Trans Yamuna school it was a more spontaneous out come of frustration at not being able to cheat in the exam. Two different incidents, separated in time and Geography and perhaps even the fact that one was pre-meditated while the other was spontaneous; but then linked together by the nature of the violence! The problem of violence on school campuses would be tackled very differently by moralists, counselors, or even those who are trained to handle difficult people like Cabin Crew in airplanes, and those dealing with a large number of the members of the public, as for example those manning ticket booths, or bank tellers. One can go on to suggest that successful public servants who are able to diffuse difficult situations before they turn ugly are either born pacifiers loads of patience, or they have received a training of soft skills or for that effect it is a combination of both. I have seen Cabin Crew attempting, quite successfully in most cases, to pacify irate passengers on board airplanes, and the same might be said of Public Relations officers who with their suave demeanor and soft tone are able to satisfy their clients.
The situation in schools could be more challenging than those that I have mentioned above for the very reason that students, especially those who are passing through the phase of puberty and hormonal changes are very difficult to handle through a confrontational attitude. It is never a good idea to enter into an argument with a student in class even if you have to make a hasty retreat to try another day and convince him about the right answer. It has been observed that students who get into an argument with the teacher soon forget the matter within moments and often they realize their mistake if the teacher backs out of the argument gracefully with his or her honor intact a difficult task, no doubt! This, incidentally is what marks the teacher as being more mature than his student, in  a category that marks him or her as a true teacher of life and not just theorems and tense forms.Child Psychologists will point out repeatedly that students have frequent mood swings and tempers that flare up only to fade away as if they never existed!
So, what then happened to aggravate the matter in both the incidents? As far as the Geography teacher in Moscow is concerned,  it could very well be that he had ignored the signs of discontent and feelings of having been affronted in front of his classmates in his students and probably stuck to his guns! As far as the lady teacher in the Trans-Yamuna school, it could have been that she didn’t read the signs of extreme aggression in the student an pressed on to ensure that he didn’t cheat. This doesn’t mean that she should have tolerated a case of cheating, rather she could have called for back-up or handled the issue in a more tactful manner, standing at the head of the row quietly, a battle of patience, wits and the dignity of being a teacher. There are levels of  escalation in such cases, where the teacher doesn’t confront the student directly. The first stage would be to stand before the student, the second stage of handling the situation would be a non-verbal signal, a raised eyebrow, the third would be  a  whispered verbal warning, and the last stage would be calling for back up. In many cases, this process would still result in aggravation in the student after school hours. To handle this scenario, it would be pertinent to take the Principal into confidence. The final note is that the teacher should not, in any case confront the student who refuses to stop from unfair means in exams.
A case study that deserves to be considered is a situation that takes place in a grade eight class. This was a lively class and students were eager to answer questions that had been put up by the teacher. One particular girl, a student who has issues in her family, a mother who has taken ill constantly raises her hands, the teacher gives her a chance to answer the question and then moves on to the other students.  After some time, (this student keeps raising her hands but the teacher ignores her because he wants to give others a chance to answer questions) the students break downs in class ( apparently the result of stress from the situation at home). A few of her classmates gather around her to comfort her. The first thing the teacher does is to shoo away the other students.He asks why she is crying, and she answers that the teacher was not listening to her. Very calmly, he bends down to maintain an eye level contact with the student. He doesn’t in any way pat her since the school maintains a “no touch policy”. Next he talks to her and tells her that he cares for her but then he has to listen to the other students who need to be listened to. After he sees that she has softened down, he tells her that she should now dry up her tears! She feels happy for the attention that the teacher has given to her. Things go back to normal and the class resumes. The trainee teacher who was observing the class expresses her amazement at how the situation was handled. It did not require rocket science to handle the situation involving a girl student who perhaps wanted some sympathy and attention from the teacher, all for herself!
Take as an example another case study. The students of a more senior class, grade nine, take up the issue of why the teacher had cut marks for not citing sources, references for a book review, or for that effect, a list of suggested reading. In this case, their regular teacher had left them quite suddenly. The rubric clearly mentioned the inclusion of a list of references in the rubric for the book review.The teacher quietly listened to the complaints of the students, then very firmly he told the students that the school did not tolerate plagiarism, and that the least they could do was to cite the sources that they had used to draft their book review. The dissenting voices were stilled, since most of them had plagiarized from the internet. Firm but gentle reminder of plagiarism, and the threat of running the reviews through the net to check for plagiarism quietened them a great deal. Finally, there was total silence in the class and the task in hand, a debate exercise could take place, but not before the teacher told the students that he had nothing personal against them, and that he thought they were capable of better work especially as he had a high opinion of them. The dissent in this case was quelled through a right dose of firmness which was fair, since the teacher had reminded them about the rubric which included the need to cite references. The students of this class have worked very hard to be really good debaters, especially with the teacher moderating the debates in a judicious manner. No doubt, it was a battle won through fair means specially since it was based on firmness based on set principles an an honest communication of the fact the teacher thought that this was not personal, it was not based on partiality, but that it was based on principles.
One case study that suggests that the student was handled badly, however relates to a student who came to school with a bottle of liquor. The class teacher handed him over to the Principal of the school. The Principal then went on to berate him and threatened to call his parents. The student somehow managed to escape from the Principal's room, went to the roof and flung himself down to the ground. An unhappy ending which might have been averted if the teacher had kept a more watchful eye on the student, not allowing the matter to reach such proportions.
Yet another case study relates to a student who was not given his admit card in grade twelve for the board exams because of shortage of attendance. The student came to school, had an argument with the Principal, went and smashed his fists into a window pane. He had to be rushed to the dispensary and ultimately was given the admit card. This did send a wrong signal across to the other students in the school that you can get away with a display of violent behavior.  Ideally, this situation could have been averted if the class teacher had given constant feed back about the low attendance of the student to his parents and even taken a written undertaking from the parents that they would ensure that their ward would come to school regularly. Perhaps more counseling would have averted this situation from taking such a bad turn.
In yet another case, a student came to school with a bread knife purportedly for cutting a friend's birthday cake. Later investigations suggested that he had brought the knife wrapped in paper and kept in his bag to warn or threaten a student who had been bullying him. The knife itself might have been for intimidation only, but then who knows what could have transpired during an altercation or a confrontation between both students. The father of the boy who had brought the knife to school was called and he gave his son a good tongue-lashing. The Principal however didn't let the matter rest, and he kept a constant rapport with the student, counseling him and guiding him in the best possible ways. This rapport helped the boy overcome his sense of frustration, and more over the bully who had been troubling him backed of after being given appropriate counseling along with a stern warning.
It is clear from the above case studies that it requires a judicious mix of strategies to ensure that students do not in any way feel slighted or that the teacher has adopted a partial attitude towards them. What matters here is an honest communication and the ability to connect to the students in the class. It doesn’t harm if the teacher communicates honestly the challenges before him and that he expects the students to cooperate to make the session as fruitful and interesting as possible! The takeaway in the second case is that teachers need to be honest communicators who are firm and yet tolerant. The students have a new respect for the teacher. In this case the teacher was not intimidated by the combined voices of the students and he stuck to his guns because he was able to convince the students that not citing sources was a major weakness, and the fact that plagiarism was a major factor in their not getting the marks that they would have got.
Human nature is complex and no single strategy can be pegged as being the best strategy for quelling dissent in students. Often however, it is a combination of just firmness backed by accepted protocols, a dose of appreciation based on reality and positive conditioning based on appreciation for accepted behavior that really work in the favor of the teacher. In all these cases, a less pro-active and balanced approach would have resulted in the distancing or alienation of the teacher from the students. It is often the case that students are not born aggressive, it is rather the circumstances that make them garrulous and aggressive. It is for the teacher to identify these problem areas and work on them. The ideal teacher in any case is one who has immense stores of patience, and the ability to lend an ear to students who might feel neglected and in some cases affronted or ignored.Teaching in any case is not about the teacher displaying his superior knowledge, rather it is about the teacher showing willingness and patience to listen to the students’ point of view, mulling over it and then tactfully giving his observations in such a way that the student sees his error in better light. When a student realizes that the teacher cares for him, he or she automatically tries to reciprocate the same with respect. In times when the role of the teacher takes over the role of a mentor or a parent figure, it becomes all the more important for him or her to develop a ranges of soft skills which include patience, the ability to listen to better ideas, and a firm understanding of the fact that the teacher is today more a facilitator than a store house of knowledge and information!

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