A Teacher’s Power to Stop Violence Is Rooted in Relationships

School violence is something most of us worry about, but it’s not something that is addressed very much. However, a recent study from the University of Michigan found that the largest predictor of whether a student was violent or aggressive, or whether a student was likely to be violent or aggressive was the relationship they had with their teacher.

Protecting a student from violence is one of the most difficult challenges for teachers and administrators. The best way to handle any violent situation is to prevent it from happening in the first place. A teacher’s power to stop violence is rooted in relationships – teachers must build relationships with students, while also building relationships with parents and the school’s principal.

In the 15 years I’ve been teaching, I’ve led many fights. I was hit so hard on my ear that I fell asleep later that night; I was hit in the face and saw that my glasses were on the floor. I kept the children in my care, taking the blows meant for them and trying not to let the fight get out of hand; I made sure the stranger used me as a human shield and my neck hurt for weeks.

Despite all our efforts at damage control, there are guns in our schools – every teacher knows that. One of my favorite students once cut himself with a razor and bled to death while seeking treatment. Although I was never involved in fights beyond man to man, the opportunity to use a weapon was always there. We all live with this knowledge. And yet, in one fight after another, teachers don’t bat an eye – we simply intervene to protect our students. It’s just part of the job.

One day I was coming out of the bathroom when I came across an argument between two of my students. The two 17-year-olds were taller than me. The boys stood nose to nose, screaming at each other, their faces inches apart. The crowd of spectators grew, their volume increased, and I forced my way through them, trying to get close enough to catch up.

When I asked the boys to watch me, none of them looked in my direction. So I intervened. Tyler took off his shirt. The crowd exploded.

I turned to Tyler and put my hands on his chest, trying in vain to push him away. Behind me, Kevin continued his verbal assault. He managed to stay in Tyler’s head even though I kept their bodies apart. Behind Tyler, I could see the students coming up the stairs after lunch; what had started as a modest crowd had turned into a mob. We were surrounded by a hundred teenagers.

I kept squeezing Tyler, but to no avail. I called out the standard adult phrase that I needed to leave, but the crowd roared and muffled my voice. Tyler’s kinetic frame rested against me – I knew he could slide in behind me when he felt ready. The crowd, straining to see what was going on, closed the circle of bodies around us. Every movement of the crowd increased the possibility of violence.

I looked around frantically and realized I was the only adult.

Like many other high schools, mine had and has police officers. For a long time they were employed by the Atlanta City Council; later the school police became a separate department of the Atlanta Public Schools. The presence of police officers in school buildings is controversial: Some argue that they are necessary for safety, others that their presence increases the likelihood that a minor altercation will escalate.

For my part, I can say that all the officers I had to work with were attentive and friendly, and tried to keep the peace and keep the students in school. Maybe it was because the officers were always black – our student population was over 95% black – or maybe it was because the environment of southwest Atlanta was specific.

I think that with the money spent on police officers, three or four more teachers could have been hired, and given that fact, it could be argued that we could have done without police. However, I must say that the men and women I worked with cared about the students as much as the teachers.

But at that very moment, as Tyler and Kevin stood in the hallway trying to stop the commotion, the school agents were nowhere to be seen. At a time that seemed tailor-made for police in schools, I was still alone.

Suddenly, Tyler started walking towards me and I had no choice but to walk away. Kevin followed us and we danced a weird tango in the hallway.

Until we came to a door. Now we’re at an impasse.

Although Kevin would rather retreat than let me go, he doesn’t want to come out now. Walking out the door would be cowardly. Tyler almost fell on me, my arms holding him back, not by physical strength, but only by the thin thread of his respect for me.

Somehow, the crowd grew even larger – at fifty feet, the two-sided corridor was completely filled with students. I can’t hear what Tyler and Kevin are saying because of the noise.

My voice is shaking, my hands are covered in Tyler’s sweat. I know it’s only a matter of time before the crowd pushes him on Kevin and we get into a fight. As much as Tyler respects me, once contact is made, there is no going back.

My glasses are slipping off my nose and I have no free hand to adjust them. I think they break when they touch my face. I scream Tyler’s name in his face over and over again. He’s ignoring me.

My adrenaline is dropping, and Tyler’s is rising. My attempts to push him away fail. The crowd is insatiable – students are still walking up the stairs after lunch and no one has entered the classroom. There were probably more than three hundred people crowding around to see what was going on.

We are stuck in a strange trifecta in the corner – none of us can afford to get out, and yet there seems to be no way out.

Suddenly, out of nowhere, a colleague makes his way through the crowd. He hugs Tyler from behind, which gives me the chance to turn around and grab Kevin.

I push Kevin through the door and slam it. I immediately turn to my colleague to help calm Tyler down, but he has already recovered.

In his soothing ruminations, he whispers something almost imploring in Tyler’s ear. Tyler – who had suffered a stroke moments before – collapsed in his arms, clinging desperately like a child to his father. My colleague quickly drags her out of the hallway and into the office, whispering. I’m surprised. The boy seems to be crying.

This remains one of the most inspiring things I’ve seen firsthand: the power of relationships to break the bonds of violence.

I am aware that police officers are confronted with situations that go far beyond what I have argued in the hallway; I am not so foolish as to think that the words in this essay can be applied to their work without further ado. But the memory of the day my colleague picked Tyler up and carried him off in complete surrender makes me believe that strength is not always in the most powerful weapon. There is power in words spoken in a whisper, in hope for the future, even in love.

That’s what teachers do. Our strength comes not from our bodies or our weapons, but from our relationships. Perhaps there is a lesson to be learned for the police on our streets.

This source has been very much helpful in doing our research. Read more about the two domains particularly sensitive to equity according to the textbook authors are: and let us know what you think.


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