Teaching Moments: Working Through Conflict

Last week, I saw an ugly side of one of my young students.

English name of Brian. He is normally very cute and engaged during class (and I may even subconsciously favor him sometimes..). He just has the kind of attractive personality that makes you want to call on him all the time.

But last week, he made a boy cry. And not just any boy, but his best buddy Jack.

Jack cried out of frustration, because Brian made up a rule during an in-class game that you had to say the word “start” in English in order to leave the start space on the game board. But Jack didn’t know how to say “start” in English (because we haven’t learned it). Brian and the other boy did. So Jack had to sit on the first square of the board the entire game while the other two boys went around.

I probably would have cried, too.

I pulled the three boys out into the hallway for a little chat.

I have discovered that sometimes all I need to do is get kids in conflict into a room by themselves for everything to be resolved. I just ask them what happened and let them talk it out. I usually don’t even understand most of what is said, but by the end, everything has been set right.

This time, that didn’t work.

They argued for a bit in front of me, and it was two-against-one, Jack the crier being the odd one out.

Nothing was being resolved. Instead, Brian was stoically maintaining his stance that he had done nothing wrong. He shrugged and said, “What am I supposed to do if you don’t know the word?”

His nonchalance in the face of Jack’s tear-stained face shocked me. They were buddies! Did he feel no remorse?

I saw flashes of kids I had encountered when I was young. Kids who seemed perfectly comfortable stepping on the dignity of others. My heart shivered. What should I do? Slap the hard-heartedness out of him?

“That’s frustrating for Jack,” I finally said in my limited Korean.

I don’t particularly like Jack. He is the loud, obnoxious boy in the class who has a hard time refraining from talking and even screaming while I am trying to teach. He isn’t nearly as charming as Brian. But in that moment, I felt like I was a mama bear and Jack was one of my cubs.

How dare you put him down and then make him feel like it was his fault?!

“Winning isn’t everything,” I said, mixing Korean and English, hoping they could understand the general idea of what I meant. “Relationship is important. Friend relationship.”

The three boys looked at me blankly.

I retrieved my phone from my classroom and looked up the word relationship, convinced I had mispronounced it. But I hadn’t. Clearly the whole concept was just over the heads of these ten-year-olds. “Friends,” I said desperately. “Friend relationship is important!”

Suddenly I realized that rule-maker Brian was crying into his hands. I blinked in surprise. So he did know what he had done wrong. He had known all along.

“Um, does anyone have anything they want to say?” I asked. They shook their heads.

 

I was about to herd them back into the classroom when Brian mumbled something to Jack. What did he say? I mouthed to the third boy. I couldn’t tell whether it was good or bad. But the other boy seemed to think I was telling him to follow suit, because he quickly repeated what Brian had said and touched Jack’s arm in a gesture of contrition. Apparently, they had both just apologized.

When I first became a teacher, I was completely intimidated by the realization that I had to be some kind of moral authority over my students.

But now, I am increasingly embracing it. Those moments of helping my students’ develop character are priceless.

Everything may have gone back to normal between the two buddies without the confrontation. Kids are often pros at forgiving and forgetting. But Brian wouldn’t have had the chance to learn how to admit and repent of a mistake. And Jack wouldn’t have had the experience of feeling understood. And deep down, I don’t think their relationship would have been the same. I saw the look of betrayal in Jack’s eyes when Brian shrugged at him, and I saw the hardness in Brian’s eyes. And I saw both disappear when Brian cried and apologized.

Wow. As a naturally confrontation-averse person, that was really good to see.

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Elizabeth is an American living in South Korea who believes in destiny, miracles, and living life intentionally. She holds to simple faith in a complex world, values the beauty of the everyday, and strives for vulnerability with other imperfect humans. She is always learning, laughing, and finding herself in awe of grace.

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