Constructive Confrontation

[ An extract from Conflict and Confrontation in the Classroom by
Sean O'Flynn and Harry Kennedy

Given that humans are biologically programmed to compete for power and status, it is not surprising that confrontation is an inevitable part of our lives. It occurs in families, in politics, in business, in sport and very definitely, in schools and classrooms.

Confrontation is an unavoidable part of the teaching dynamic, because if the teacher is not in control, the students will be. Teachers therefore, need to be able to confront students in a way that minimises negativity and leaves them in a position where they can continue to command the respect of their students.

Constructive confrontation is a strategy for dealing with student misbehaviour, that enables the teacher to manage the situation without having to resort to authoritarian or coercive methods. When executed correctly, it can be very effective in dealing with difficult students, in a way that allows teachers to get what they want, while at the same time, preserving the self-esteem of all concerned in the interaction.

It takes time and practice to appreciate the subtlety of this strategy and to get it right. The actual mechanics of the skill are simple enough to understand. However, the longer we have been applying it in classrooms, the more appreciative we are of its complexity and value. It demands of teachers that they be entuned to both their own feelings and those of their students. Neither of these requirements can be taken for granted. It also demands that when we enter into conflict, we do so with an open mind about the eventual outcome; that we accept the fact that the student has ideas or feelings that need to be respected or heard, and that they have some control over the outcome. This requires that the teacher move outside the punishment/reward model, that is dismissive of the person.

We offer this strategy to readers, as another way of dealing with student misbehaviour, to complement but not replace their existing practice. Needless to say, it will not work with every student on every occasion.

There are six steps involved. Here we outline the essential features of each step and then take the reader through some case studies based on our own teaching experience.

Step 1: Stating the Facts. The teacher begins by stating the facts in a clinical, non-evaluative, unemotional manner. A teacher might say something like "Just now Martin, you said……... ," or "Thomas, you threw a piece of paper." It is important that this statement merely states the bare objective facts of the matter, as a video camera might record the event. At first, this appears to be a simple thing to do but it is not as easy as it seems. Consider for example the following remarks made by teachers in response to student behaviour and decide whether they are statements of fact or not.

(1) It is 9.12am and the lesson has started. Johnny Leary enters the classroom. The teacher turns around and says,

"Johnny, you’re late."

(2) Mary Murphy contradicts the teacher and the teacher responds by saying,

"Mary, you‘re being cheeky."

(3) Groups of students are laughing in the corner of the classroom. The teacher says,

"Stop sniggering, you lot over there."

(4) Timmy Mc Carthy is banging his ruler on the desk. The teacher says

"Timmy, you are disrupting my class."

(5) Paul kicks Alan’s bag across the corridor. The teacher says to Paul

"Just now you kicked Alan’s bag across the corridor."

(6) The teacher has corrected and graded Catherine’s homework. When returning the homework the teacher says

"Catherine, you could have made a greater effort and done a lot better than this."

Which of these six statements, do you consider to be a statement of fact?

In the first case, "Johnny, you’re late." is not a statement of fact. It is a value judgement made by the teacher. A dispassionate security camera would not record lateness. A non-evaluative statement of fact might go as follows: "Johnny, it’s 9.12am and you are coming into class now." Note the difference in tone between the two statements. The use of the word ‘late’ in the first statement implies blame and may well provoke a hostile response. The second statement, on the other hand, is a statement of fact that cannot be refuted and is less likely to elicit a defensive response. Some readers may argue that "Johnny, you’re late." is a statement of fact but even if we allow this, it cannot be denied that such a statement tends to set the stage for a negative exchange. Most teachers would find it provocative if their principal confronted them in such a manner, on the occasions when they are the ones who are late.

The second example "Mary, you are being cheeky." is clearly judgmental. A statement of fact could be "Mary, just now you said ………" repeating exactly what Mary said.

In the third example, "You appear to be amused," might be a more accurate statement of fact than "Stop sniggering you lot over there." The use of words like sniggering or skitting are likely to stir up resentment or anger. In the same way "Timmy you are making noise tapping your ruler on the desk," is an example of a statement of fact which might apply in the fourth case, as opposed to the highly evaluative comment "Timmy, you are disrupting my class." The fifth sentence, "Just now you kicked Alan’s bag across the corridor," is the only statement of fact on the list, when you apply the sharp focus that is required to employ this strategy correctly. In the last case "Catherine, in your homework assignment you completed Questions 1 and half of Question 3," is a statement of fact that cannot be disputed. Unlike the one we give in example six above, it does not put the student down.

In ordinary circumstances, some of the original six statements qualify as statements of fact, but in the volatile atmosphere of teacher-student interaction, they can set the exchange off on the wrong foot from the beginning. A bald judgement such as "You’re late," can trigger hostility and resentment, leading to what teachers refer to as ‘cheek’. The student might answer smartly "No! I’m not late. The Principal told me to pick up the papers in the corridor, before I went to class."

It is very easy to get Step 1 wrong. The statement of fact must be expressed in such a manner that it cannot be refuted. At this stage fault finding and judging are unhelpful. The object of Step 1 is simply to allow the teacher and the student to agree about what happened. This helps both teacher and student to avoid getting caught up in a web of confusion, defensiveness or denial, that often has little to do with the incident involved.

It is not necessary to be as tentative as this, all the time, in our interactions with students. The care and sensitivity we are asking for just now, is particular to Step 1 of what we call constructive confrontation. It is important because it maximises our chances of achieving the optimum outcome.

Step 2: What I feel: At this point the teacher shares his feelings (regarding the behaviour described in Step 1) directly with the student involved.

In this step an honest and direct expression of feelings tends to ‘humanise’ the exchange and enhances the possibilities of a positive outcome. If we can say "John, you are tapping your biro on the table and I’m becoming frustrated," we are more likely to make meaningful contact with the student than if we begin, for example, in a manner like "John, have you any consideration for others?"

Many teachers fear that they are giving their power away, if they share their feelings with students. They feel that this kind of disclosure is likely to diminish their authority. Ironically, the converse is true. Contrary to what one might expect, our experience and that of other teachers, suggests that such disclosure is a very powerful strategy when dealing with difficult students.

Disclosure of feelings can often be difficult because it is not easy to express accurately what we are feeling, at a particular point in time. Sometimes when we feel sad and vulnerable, we make jokes or laugh. When we feel insecure and afraid, we sometimes try to regain power and control by aggressively displaying anger.

Feelings like irritation, annoyance, anger, outrage are, in effect, ‘secondary’ feelings. On reflection, it is very likely that such feelings are a reaction to more ‘primary’ feelings like frustration, sadness, anxiety, exhaustion, fear, or embarrassment. Primary feelings, when shared, tend to bring people closer together because they establish a common bond, even in the most unlikely circumstances. On the other hand secondary feelings divide us and may set the scene for conflict. They imply an element of blaming and can give rise to defensiveness and resistance in the student. See Appendix 2 for more examples of primary and secondary feelings. When in a confrontation with another, the sharing of any feeling will have a humanising influence, especially when employed in this technique.

Step 3: Why I feel. The third step, in a constructive confrontation, is to reveal to the student, the tangible effect his behaviour is having on the teacher or the other students in the class. The word ‘because’ is invariably used. The teacher points out to the student that his actions have negative consequences. If, for example, a student is talking in class and we confront him in terms of some rule, he is less likely to co-operate than if we can show him, in a non blaming way, how his behaviour is negatively affecting us, in some practical way. The tangible effect of a student talking, might be that the teacher could not concentrate on a difficult piece of work. Students resent the imposition of school rules, if they feel that it’s just teachers bossing them about and no more.

Step 4: We have a problem. The fourth step is simply a clear statement that "We have a problem here and we need to work together, to find a solution that we can all agree on."

Step 5: Silence. This can be difficult for the teacher to maintain but it allows the student to make an input to the discussion, at this point, if they want to. They may need to vent their feelings and it is helpful to allow them do so. However, the teacher must not be sidetracked and must keep the focus on the common goal of finding a solution to this shared problem.

Step 6: What plan can we make to fix the problem? This final step involves working out, with the student, a solution to the problem. This may involve an apology and such action that will make restitution for any damage caused. It may involve defining exactly what is required of everyone.

The teacher should hold back from telling the student what needs to be done. It is better if the student offers suggestions, as to how the problem can be solved to everyone’s satisfaction. He may need help in realising the extent of the problem he has caused and the lengths he has to go to fix it. When negotiating with the student, the teacher should not settle for half measures or accept the first offer the student makes. "I wouldn’t be entirely satisfied with that," is a useful phrase to use when, for example, the teacher wants the student to go further than merely to agree to apologise for his behaviour. In fact, apologies are of little value, unless they come spontaneously from students who are really clear about the difficulties they are causing and are taking responsibility for their part.

Students who break school or class rules need to be confronted regularly, on the basis that they are infringing the rights of others. They may need to learn a better way of behaving, that will meet their own needs. This is time consuming, but it is real education, and in reality, is no more energy sapping or more depressing than chasing around after these students with report cards, detention notes and punishment slips.

Case study 1:

‘It is 3.35pm on a sunny Friday afternoon in May. Mr. O’Keeffe is teaching Math’s to Class 5.3 as their final lesson of the day. It is his eighth class that day. Despite being tired, he is trying to explain a difficult concept to the students. On turning from the blackboard, he observes Colm Murphy throwing a balled up piece of paper at Timmy Scanlon.

What options are open to Mr. O’Keeffe?

What would you do in that situation?

There are a wide range of responses open to a teacher ranging from ignoring the incident to sending Colm Murphy to the principal’s office. How a teacher will respond to an incident is a function of many variables, such as, the time of day, the academic expectations of the students, the normative behaviour of the class, or how the teacher is feeling at the time. A constructive confrontation might go as follows:

Step 1: "Just now, Colm, you threw a piece of paper across the room."

Step 2: "I feel frustrated," [Note use of primary feeling.]

Step 3: "because I’m trying to get this piece of work finished, so we can all get out of here on time."

Step 4: "Colm, we have a problem here."

Step 5: Silence.

In this actual case, used to illustrate the technique, there was no need to go to Step 6, because without being even asked to do so, Colm got up from his seat, walked to the back of the class, picked up the paper, put it in the bin and returned to his seat. The lesson continued without further incident.

This student, incidentally, had a proven record of being difficult to manage. Mr O’Keeffe noted that he had been "pleasantly surprised" by the student’s response.

Case Study 2.

A young ,female, temporary teacher was teaching geography, to a class of third year boys. She had completed a piece of work on the blackboard and asked the students to copy it down, into their notebooks. The teacher stood aside but was still blocking the view of one rather tough looking, sixteen-year-old student, who called out in front of the class, "Move your ass!" The teacher was completely disconcerted; and didn’t quite know what to do. The bell signaling the end of class sounded and she left the room upset.

Later in the staffroom, when she had recovered somewhat, she wrote out a ‘Report Card’ on the incident, but realised that the full import of what had happened, was not conveyed in print. She feared that the principal would not understand the full significance of the incident; that he might conclude that she could not handle the class and that she might end up in a worse situation. She decided to try a constructive confrontation with the student. If that failed, she felt she could still fall back on the disciplinary report card system of the school. She spent some time preparing what she would say. She reflected on how she was feeling and what strategies she might employ in order to secure a satisfactory outcome. She located the class on the timetable, went to their classroom and with the teacher’s permission, she called the student outside. The constructive confrontation went as follows:

Step 1: The facts of the matter were clear enough "Towards the end of my class you called out --‘Move your ass’ --."

Step 2: The teacher had originally thought of saying "I am angry about this," but on reflection, she realised that deep down she feared that if she let this comment, with its sexual innuendo, go unchallenged, there was no telling where it would lead to. She said

"I felt afraid when you said that."

Step 3: ‘because I feel that if I let a remark like that go, students will take it that it’s OK to say things like that, or even worse."

The student interjected that he didn’t mean anything by it and was ‘only messin’.

Step 4: The teacher accepted that he was not aware of the full implications of his remark but she insisted that: "We have a problem here."

Step 5: In this case, there was no need for silence because the student had already accepted that there was a problem.

Step 6: The student offered his apologies for any hurt caused. The teacher thanked him but said that she wouldn’t really be satisfied with that. After some discussion, the student offered to apologise, in front of the class, at the start of her next lesson. The teacher checked if he would be able to do this, indicating that she felt it would take courage to do so and that she would not like him to do that, if he could not do it sincerely. He said that he could handle it maturely and they agreed on a format. The next day the student stood up and apologised to the teacher in front of the class. The teacher thanked him and commended him for doing so. She then took the opportunity to explain to this class of boys, what it felt like to be at the receiving end of such comments, and spent a little time on the subject of sexual harassment. The class then proceeded as normal.

How do we evaluate any method of dealing with teacher/student conflict? How can we judge the success, or otherwise, of any teacher intervention, when a confrontation takes place? The following criteria are useful in assessing the success, or otherwise, of an intervention:

(1) Behaviour. Is the student’s misbehaviour likely to stop? If it had been a regular occurrence in the past, is the frequency of the student’s misbehaviour likely to be reduced?

(2) Esteem. Has the esteem of the student been raised, as a result of the interaction with the teacher? Will the esteem of the teacher, as a professional, be improved, as a result of the interaction with the student(s)?

(3) Relationship. Has the student-teacher relationship improved, as a result of the confrontation? Will the teacher’s relationship with the whole class be better after the constructive confrontation? Will there be a more positive, respectful, co-operative atmosphere in the classroom afterwards.

(4) Class atmosphere. Will the level of student negativity towards teachers and the school system be reduced?

(5) Responsibility. Will the level of the students’ responsibility for their own actions be increased?

(6) Modelling. In the interaction, is the teacher modelling an acceptable way of relating in life?

When teachers are asked to assess the outcome of the second case study in terms of these criteria, they tend to agree on a number of things. They feel that the student is unlikely to repeat that kind of behaviour. Secondly, they feel that because of the sensitive handling of the situation and the teacher’s praising of the student’s response, it is likely that his self-esteem will increase. The same can be said in relation to the teacher, who has successfully managed the incident herself. It is also felt that the teacher/student relationship will improve and that the whole class will be more positive than if he had been punished. Similarly, it is felt that the students will be more willing to take responsibility for their actions in this kind of emotional climate. Finally, most agree that the handling of this case models a positive way of dealing with relationship difficulties, in a general sense.

Later, when she thought about it, the teacher noted how different the outcomes were, between constructive confrontation and resorting to the disciplinary code of the school. She felt that by using the constructive confrontation method, some real education had taken place. The relationship between her and the boys had improved and it was unlikely that a further incident of that nature would occur. If she had resorted to the school discipline system and reported the student to the school principal, the student, bearing in mind his record, would have been suspended. He would have learned nothing and would have availed of the first opportunity to act up in her class, in order to get even. The teacher’s relationship with the class would have deteriorated and her difficulties, in teaching them, increased.

We cannot emphasise enough that constructive confrontation is a subtle technique, that requires practice. When learning to play golf, a minute incorrect inflexion can send the ball flying off into the rough. So, too, in this technique, it is easy to get it wrong, particularly in step 1, by setting an accusatory tone. From start to finish, the whole approach needs to be strong, while remaining tentative and flexible, as opposed to being rigidly used as a tool for manipulation.

As we said at the beginning of this section, constructive confrontation does not always work. The whole approach can become a mockery, in the hands of insensitive people. It will not work in a hostile atmosphere, where there is a negative relationship between the teacher and the students. Sceptical readers can dream up any number of impossible ‘what if’ situations’ for which the strategy will not work. Teachers who are heavily invested in the authoritarian mode of relating to students, for example, are unlikely to succeed in applying constructive confrontation. Our experience is, that it is a very useful method of confronting difficult students and of getting them ‘on side’, without the use of coercive methods, that inevitably lead to more difficulties for all involved.