When Teachers and Students Fight

The latest viral video comes out of Baltimore, MD, where the Orioles weren’t the ones swinging. This video, a shaky mess that needs watching and re-watching to fully get what’s happening, starts with a student pacing back and forth while the teacher makes a phone call to someone, presumably a parent. The fight ensues when the student throws a binder to the teacher’s face, prompting the teacher to charge at the student. The women exchange a few profanities, and the typical school crowd gathers ’round, further instigating the fisticuffs.

This is not a post where I defend the teacher.

Coincidentally, when I spoke to the producers of This American Life about classroom management, I offered that most of my classroom management is based on conversations. As a teacher of color, students expect me to yell at them, to shame them into getting their work done. While that might be effective in the short term, it leads kids to tune me out, and not take any threats I may dish seriously. Instead, I insist and push the right buttons to prompt them, and when they disappoint me, they know.

In my nine years as an educator, I’ve been in the middle of a few, tight situations. I’ve broken up a few fights, exchanged a few words with students and parents in some heated conversations, and even came close to witnessing some dangerous things happening just outside our school building. At any given moment, there is a human reaction to fight (not flight), and to think it appropriate to up the ante on the hostility we see, but then we have to ask ourselves a few questions:

  • What does fighting create in the long term?
  • Is fighting reflective of an environment of healthy, student-centered learning?
  • Is it professional to take things to the next level?

We all know the answer to the question of whether teachers and students should engage in physical fighting. Even things like martial arts or boxing are dicey without serious supervision. I just also wonder what happened for the teacher to feel as if fighting the student was the only recourse for what may have happened prior to the video. We still have school environments that, despite some adults’ best efforts, feel unsafe, hostile, dangerous. The solution, as far as I can tell, isn’t more police officers or security.

It’s the proactive conditions we create that assure a high sense of respect and responsibility. This might be easier if the students already have a certain sense of responsibility or structure they come in with, but it’s disorienting to know that we can’t teach all of our children self-empowerment and healthy life habits.

Most teachers I know have had some point of conflict, where fingers are waved, voices are raised, and stares burn holes through students’ heads. Yet, the difference between successful and unsuccessful teachers in those situations wasn’t just common sense; it was a set of alternative ways to approach the situation. Besides, teachers have a lot more to fight, and our own students shouldn’t be on that list.