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In Your Learning Space

Reacting to Violence

A learning space can be a classroom, a community literacy program, a library, or anywhere that people gather in some kind of organized way to do the work of learning, in large or small groups, or even one on one.

All our teaching and learning aims to take the impacts of violence into consideration more often and more effectively. Memories and stories of violent incidents will arise in our learning spaces. But what happens when a violent incident actually erupts—in real time—in that space?

What can you do if you are a witness to, or involved in, classroom fights, bullying, harassment, or stalking?

Every situation will require a different response, but one general principle has to do with visibility and transparency:

  • Be public, and be clear about being public. One of the positives of working in institutions is that they have rules (codes of conduct, Human Rights codes, etc.). Violence surely transgresses the rules. So: inform teachers, supervisors, coordinators, colleagues—anyone who can support you—about the situation. Then get that support; you are not doing this alone. There are mechanisms to deal with this; you do not have to take it on alone. Do not let shame, embarrassment, or intimidation stop you. And be clear with the individual/s doing the violence that this is what you must do/intend to do/are doing. Document everything.

    There may be a time, however, when you must face violence directly and/or unexpectedly in a learning space. In the adrenalin-rushed, accelerated moment of actual acts or threatened acts of physical violence, it may be necessary to make very quick decisions about what the “right thing to do” is. Obviously, calling for help is a priority. Beyond that, though the best courses of action will again vary, here are a few guiding principles:

  • Breathe. Stand up straight, relax your neck and shoulders, and breathe as slowly and deeply as you can, before/while responding.

  • Clarify. Ask questions such as “What is happening here? What is going on right now?” If you are a third party, questions such as “How can I help? What do you need?” Focus as you listen to the answer and echo it back verbally to show you have heard. Calmly describe what you see/hear.

  • Create space. This is one way of talking about “de-escalation”; another is to say create time. You want to make choices about how to react as slowly as is reasonable or safe. For example, if you need to call for help, say “I’m going over to the phone/door. I need help with this and I’m going to call for X.”

  • If the person is armed, stay low, and create barriers between your body and theirs. Move slowly. Continue to verbally clarify everything that’s going on.

There are no surefire formulae for peak incidents; we all have “fight, flight or freeze” impulses at work in crisis moments. But breathing, de-escalating, and, especially, reaching out to others for help, are useful touchstones.

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Learning in Peace: A model for violence free adult literacy programs by Jenny Rizk with Anne Moore
A model to create a culture of peace, safety and respect.

How Safe is your Program?
Some questions to prompt discussion about creating safety.

Getting Prepared: Practice Scenarios (PDF file)
It can be very helpful to have thought through the sort of scenarios you fear might happen before they occur in your classroom. With your colleagues you could choose any of these scenarios and think through together how you might respond and what you could do in your program or school to be prepared.

Exploring Compassion Fatigue and Trauma in the South African Learning Environment (PDF file)
This article by Gloria Marsay and Craig Higson-Smith looks at educators’ exposure to trauma in the classroom – they explore the ways schools and educators deal with the effects of this trauma, and what more is needed to support educators given the realities of their work lives.  

Peace Education
Advice on creating non-violent classrooms by Gloria Marsay.

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