By Teachers, For Teachers
“What did you say? Are you talking to me?”
As I had my back turned toward the class for a moment to write something on the board, I heard this statement ring out like a bell at a boxing match.
“Alright let’s do this …”
A second voice responded. I turned around just in time to see two students from opposite sides of the room stand up and begin to walk towards each other. My heart raced as I suddenly realized what was going on: They were going to fight! I didn’t know why. I didn’t have time to ask questions. I only knew that if I didn’t do something instantly, there would be blood on my classroom carpeting.
Fortunately, I was able to intervene and the students backed down without fighting. It took about two hours for me to stop feeling my heartbeat in my temples. Being in only my fourth year of teaching, I was still new enough to get rattled by the situation. I got lucky that day, but even though there’s a lot that went right, there’s more that went wrong that I learned from too.
Here’s what you should keep in mind when it seems like a fight is about to erupt in your own classroom, hallways, or cafeteria:
Yep – I know it’s “Easier said than done.” But seriously, a cool head prevails. Be smart, be proactive, be firm. But do not freak out.
Remember, students don’t want to fight.
In the majority of cases, students are looking for a reason not to fight … and you stepping in, knowing how to stop a fight, just might be that reason. If the students are not already tearing each other to pieces, then you know that they’re looking for a way out of the situation without appearing weak and “backing down.” When you step in, you give them a reason to back down and save face.
Don’t go it alone.
If at all possible, don’t be the sole adult around when the fight takes place. If you’re rushing to the scene, say “Hey, follow me!” to any adult you see. You can even tell students, “Go next door and get adults here now!” Do NOT leave the scene of a fight to get help – your priority is knowing how to stop a fight, not getting someone else to stop it for you.
They can’t fight what they can’t get to.
What would happen if you tried to punch someone five feet away? You’d miss, big time. Same thing happens with students when there are desks and garbage cans in their way. If possible, drag something big and heavy between the fighting students to make it that much more difficult for them to get at one another. If possible, don’t let that big, heavy object be you – your face is too precious to be punched by a teenager.
You have a big voice – use it.
It doesn’t take long for a teacher to develop that “big” voice that students can hear across a noisy cafeteria. A fight would be an appropriate time to give your deepest, loudest voice of authority and command those students to “Stop!” Remember, regardless of what the students are doing, you are still the one in charge and disobeying you is not optional.
Touching a student might just be the right thing.
When push comes to shove (no pun intended), you may just have to roll up your sleeves and get the kids off of one another. This is not something to be done haphazardly: You run the serious risk of getting hit yourself, and possibly even being accused later of causing harm to one of the students. But trust your gut and ask yourself, “Will a student get seriously injured if I don’t pull them apart?” It may be best to check with your school’s policy and administration to get specific advice and when you might need to intervene in this way.
It’s essential we make sure we also have preventative measures in place before the fight occurs.
Don’t be an idiot like me.
I assumed that all of my students were polite, mature, respectful students who were not involved with gangs, violence, or any other vice. So when it turned out that two of my students had been flashing gang signs at one another for about a month before their “incident,” I was floored. My sweet little innocent gems? Yes dude, your sweet little innocent gems. Lesson learned: Students are not sweet little innocent gems. They are dangerous, emotional, irrational, and ready to fight for something silly like pride, a girl, or a cafeteria seat.
Set the expectation; lay down the law.
I don’t know where you teach, but I’m willing to bet next year’s salary that somewhere in your school’s policies it says: “No Fighting.” Do your students know this? Do they know what will happen to them if they do fight? Make sure they know the rules, and that they know the consequences WILL be administered.
Set the atmosphere.
Students need an environment where they feel safe. I have overtly told several more aggressive students “No fighting in this classroom. I don’t allow it at all. Understand?” Any time they think about fighting, they remember your little chat and hesitate to act. Beyond a chat, though, make sure that any disrespectful behavior that leads to fighting – like aggressive gestures, heated emotions, or cursing language – is not allowed either. Fights take a certain amount of “lead-in” time before erupting into fisticuffs, but if students can’t do any of the lead-in behaviors, then they can’t get to the actual fighting.
Give Respect to Get It.
It’s weird but true that if students like you and your classroom, they won’t fight in it. Be a consistent, undaunted model of respect. Love your students and treat each of them like you would a niece or nephew. Smile at them and encourage them daily. When those emotions get heated and they feel their fists revving up, your presence and respect just might be enough to help them maintain control.
So how did I get those students in my class to back down? I stopped the lesson immediately and said, “NO! This is NOT happening now.” I pulled an empty desk in between them and stood there myself. The students did not back down here, but verbally taunted one another. But I didn’t back down either and looked at one of them and said, “Go into the hallway and cool off, NOW! GO!” I repeated this to one and he took two steps back. I turned to the other one and said, “Go sit down over there, NOW!” and pointed to the corner of our room. To my shock, they obeyed. I talked to them separately and got their stories afterwards, helped them both cool down, told them I was disappointed, and reported the incident to their administrators. I got lucky here for sure, but thankfully did a few things right as well.
Every situation is different, but if you are assertive and proactive, you can comfortably deal with the majority of physical confrontations in your school.
What training or experiences have you had with fights in your school? What can we all do that will prevent fights or end them quickly? Share your thoughts in the comments below!
Jordan Catapano is an English teacher at Conant High School in a Chicago suburb. In addition to being National Board Certificated, he also sits as the District Leader for the Illinois Association of Teachers of English and serves as a school board member for a private school. You can follow him on Twitter at @BuffEnglish, or visit his website ACTWritingTips.com.