Saturday, December 14, 2013

On Kindness and Conflicts

I have been doing some thinking recently about kindness. In recent years, I am glad to say that I have always opted for being kind, during a conflict when others are scathing towards me. This has happened on several occasions when colleagues or student parents have come at me with misinformation, and because there is no hard evidence in my favor, they choose to interpret things in the worst possible light. Generally, I find that when an opinionated person reaches a conclusion,  it is pretty much not helpful at that point of the conflict to try and convince them that they could be wrong. So, instead I have embraced a kindness policy. No matter how personal they try to make their attacks, I keep my end purely professional and courteous. I try to emphasize that we are all on the same side, wanting the best for the kid, and I almost always offer to do something extra to help the situation. (Anyhow I am always doing extra for everyone, so it is not at a cost to me to offer. But, it does make it seem like I am making concessions,  which depending on whom you talk to and what their conflict style is, could either be seen as generous or weak.)

The result of this policy is generally good. Last year, one of my colleagues eventually recognized his own fault in the conflict,  and although he never outright apologized for his inappropriate and condescending emails insinuating that I was dumb, I knew he came around to being grateful for the way I had handled the conflict, because he started being extra nice to me specifically. He would pull chairs, pour water for me, and even came to chat to me about his newborn for a good thirty minutes. (It was weird because we didn't have a personal connection like that. But because I had already actively let go of the disrespect, it was ok for me to enjoy the civility that had been a product of my choice to be kind.) I have enjoyed similar outcomes with very aggressive parents. One time, one of my students plagiarized part of his work, and during our investigation, we didn't have hard evidence so we let him eventually off the hook after grilling him on content he couldn't really explain. His mom tried to force me to apologize to her son, and was super aggressive and unreasonable. Her son was so embarrassed by her behavior, that he ditched class the next day and told a trusted adult that he couldn't face me after witnessing that conflict. Later, at the next parent meeting, despite me feeling anxious leading up to it, the parent came in ready to apologize. It is crazy, but often kindness begets kindness, and to me it is the only way to approach difficult people.

This year, there are a few students who have, for reasons I cannot fathom, adopted a sarcastic attitude in class that is toxic. People who know me know that I don't have it in me to be sarcastic, and that I am a straight-shooter. I have tried to reach them with kindness, and I don't think it is working. I think the root problem is that the material has really stepped up in difficulty, and as have my expectations for them in terms of homework, writing, working with assigned people, and retaking quizzes. The few kids who are having a hard time either with the topics or with the (actually very modest) workload are reacting not in a self-reflective way, but are shutting themselves off emotionally and intellectually. As I am going over again the calculator skills in class that will help them self-monitor accuracy on the requiz, for example, those few kids are busy snickering in the audience and one kid said, "Oh I just love math, especially this year." Their attitudes are preventing them from making real growth. As I see the other kids ramp up in their abstract reasoning and written accuracy and effort, I see this group potentially falling further behind, if they continue to close themselves off to the possibility of themselves needing to improve. I also see it splitting the class into two groups, those who think class is going fine and are in a way defending me, and those who don't want to contribute to a productive process. (Sarcasm seldom leads to productive discussion or outcome. It is a classic choice of easy cleverness over the harder choice of kindness.)

So, I am going to embrace this situation with as much kindness and firmness as I can balance. I would like to have a frank discussion with my class about this toxic attitude, not only to address it with those kids but also so that their peers can see me model what it is like to embrace a mean-spirited conflict with authenticity and kindness. But, I am going to be cautious about this and to invite another adult into the room (someone I trust and that those kids fear a little), in order to help keep the discussion productive and to not let those kids turn it into an opportunity to be nasty. I don't know if this is going to work. In fact, here is the hardest thing about choosing to be kind: you never do know how people will react to kindness, and it is possible that they will walk away thinking that they've won and not seeing what you are trying to achieve in the long term. But, it feels like the right approach for me, in line with who I am. Wish me luck!