Nonviolence training in schools

IssueSeptember - November 2001
Feature by Milan Rai , Andreas Peters

First act

7:45 at a school in Germany. A group of pupils stand outside the door of a school building. One of them needs to get into the building urgently: He needs to use the toilet.

Just then, two trainers from the Trainingskollektiv Kölner (Cologne Training Collective ) approach the door, which is being guarded by a caretaker. Over the next two days they will carry out de-escalation training with a fifth form class. The two trainers reach the entrance hall of the school after passing through the crowd of pupils and the caretaker. When they ask why the pupil wasn't allowed in to use the toilet, the trainers get a brusque answer from the caretaker: he didn't believe the boy. Another teacher who has passed the entrance makes a derogatory comment to the pupils and disappears down the hallway. Later the trainers are told by the pupils that the toilet in the schoolyard remains closed until classes start.

Second act

8.15 in the classroom of the fifth form class. Some of the pupils are restless and the trainers want to introduce themselves. When asked why, some of the boys and girls say that they need to go to the toilet. The teacher intervenes saying that they could do so in the next break, but not now (in accordance with the ground rules, class teachers can participate passively in the training session, but are not supposed to interfere at any stage). After a short consultation the trainers explain that they will only continue with the training session after the children have been given an opportunity to go to the toilet. The de-escalation training had started very concretely and practically for everyone involved. There is not enough space here to explain what happened next. But after several years of experience carrying out training at German schools we can say that these kind of conflict situations—and particularly this way of dealing with them—are commonplace.

Legitimising school?

In many cases school offers a barren and anonymous atmosphere, with time spent sitting around engaged in purely cognitive learning combined with regular tests, all taking place under growing pressure for performance and competition, where the most basic needs of children are neglected and even consciously denied. So it doesn't surprise us that under these conditions conflicts frequently escalate, and that this in turn leads to violent behaviour and the destruction of property. In fact is actually more surprising that this kind of reaction does not happen more often and in more extreme manifestations. In these situations committed teachers and principals sometimes look for external help. But what can de- escalation training do within these human and child-hostile structures, which in themselves constantly generate conflict and escalation? Can we really believe that a few days of training, with a class or a group of teachers, can lead to sustainable changes? Isn't that what our work for a society without violence and supremacy is about? Or is all our effort creating nothing more than a fig leaf, a means of justifying and maintaining the inflexible school system? As trainers for nonviolent action, if we don't want to lose the focus or sense of purpose of our work we have to ask ourselves these questions over and over again.

The school system

Before we look at the development and aims of our training work, we will explain the basic structure of the German School system. Germany has a compulsory education system. After four years of elementary school pupils are divided amongst three types of school and a few schools which reject this tripartite system. There are also several specialised schools for pupils with disabilities or learning difficulties and for children with “ problem behaviour”. Teaching is usually provided in classes of 20 to 35 pupils with just one teacher and “frontal teaching” is still the dominant method. By this we mean that the children sit for up to eight hours a day, in rows or at group tables, facing the teacher at the front.

Obedience to the state?

Alarmingly, the whole framework of the 100-year-old compulsory education system has changed very little in Germany. However, at least there are no longer Prussian officers, as there were at the beginning of the last century, introducing military drill into the classroom. Most teachers are well trained in their profession. But what is lacking in preparing teachers for their role—and this is something they often say themselves—is methods for dealing constructively with human beings who have their own will, and with the resulting conflicts. Even if educating children to be “responsible citizens” is officially emphasised, it is still considered a blemish if a child is called “headstrong”. It seems there is still a long way to go before being headstrong is seen as a quality and not a problem.

Just because today we don't talk about being educated to be an “obedient citizen of the state”, but about a “liberalisation” of school, this does not relate to an increase in personal rights of freedoms, but more to the fact that school has been converted more and more into a supplier for economic interests.

The “Kölner Trainingskollektiv TK”

At the beginning of the 1990s violence against refugees and migrants in Germany became increasingly obvious, and citizen movements and neighbourhood groups who wanted to act against the violence were founded. In response there was a higher demand for training in de-esclating intervention and in developing civil courage. Using the basis of our experience at training for demonstrations and nonviolent actions, we developed training concepts for these target groups and founded the “Kölner Trainingskollektiv” in 1991. Very soon the training was not only demanded by citizen movements, but also by different professional groups, such as teachers, particularly as the issue of “violence in schools” was being discussed increasingly in public. While in previous eras we had stood at the school gates distributing antimilitarist flyers, suddenly we were invited into the schools, to work with pupils and teachers, and we even got paid for it. Had we missed a revolutionary change? What was happening here? Was this a great opportunity or were we being used for something which we hadn't intended? These questions preoccupied us a lot in those early days and still do today.

Aims of our work

For some of us the aim of our work is still about creating nonviolent revolution—if possible in ordinary areas—and where better for this than in school, where education, learning and development takes place. In concrete terms this means: to enable men and women to be aware of conflict situations and violence (and this includes structural violence), to be able to measure it, and to learn how to intervene. The trainings are very action-orientated and we work a lot with practical exercises, with role-plays about everyday situations, using theatre and creative media. At the same time we are not judging what is “right” or “wrong”, but whether solutions are helpful and in keeping with a person's ideas, values and needs. 

A prerequisite for learning

One of the most effective measures of nonviolent revolution is anticipation: the anticipation of what I want to achieve through my daily activities. It is not only the contn't but also the way we work that has the power to inspire change. “I would love to have as good working conditions as you.” This is a typical reaction of teachers, when they hear the conditions under which we offer our training: absolutely voluntary participation, consensus decision-making, circles and small learning groups instead of “frontal teaching”, agreements about the content of the training with the participants and not with the “client”, no marks and no tests. And the trainers working, whenever possible, in pairs or as a team. Few teachers would question that these conditions are actually prerequisites for creating a good learning atmosphere. But the fact that we are making these conditions the basic standard of our work seems to be exotic in what remains a fairly totalitarian institution like a school.

No magic tricks

In the training we have done with teachers, lack of discipline among pupils has often been a topic for discussion. A standard question is: “What can I do to make noisy pupils quiet?” This question offers a good peg for a little theoretical model:
1. The behaviour (of pupils and teachers)
2. Their perception of the situation
3. The context or system in which the situation takes place

Teachers who ask the typical “What can I do, when ...” question often only see the first factor (1) and are searching for recipes or a magic trick which would enable them to sit the pupils in their chairs and to close their talking mouths. (Recently there was a case in the German press, where an English teacher had sealed the mouths of her pupils with a plaster. I guess a lot of German teachers would like to add this to their repertoire.) Sometimes you can see their disappointment when we stress that we do not know any recipes like that, and would not support them either. But still there is a lot that can be done to deal with disturbances in class: so we collect ideas and try things out using role plays. It is important for us that people always distinguish between the disturbance and the disturber. We are always surprised about the disrespectful way pupils are often treated. When teachers experience this themselves in a role play, it initiates a positive change in their awareness. The second form of intervention leads not to a change in behaviour, but in the perception of the situation: the conflict can dissolute, if I see the pupils' noise not as a disturbance to my lesson, but as a vividness, and welcome it. That means that the change doesn't take place outside, but inside. The basis for this is to stop perceiving one's own imagination as the “truth”, but to be respectful towards other truths and to negotiate equally about rules and in finding agreement. Teachers who learn to complete such a change of perspective not only save there own nerves, but practise and support tolerance and respect. The third sphere of activity and the corresponding method of intervention refers to the context, the system. Behaviour which is perceived as a “disturbance” can be seen as a “healthy reaction to a sick system”. It is very easy to show this with an example: put two “peaceful doves” in a cage and within a short time they will start to attack each other. The solution is not that a skilful animal trainer cures them of their apparent aggressiveness, but that a bigger cage is provided, or even better that the doves are let free. Here the political tendency of our training manifests itself most obviously. We contemplate the context which produces this situation and there we look for corresponding solutions which will lead to a change in the school. But the precondition for change is that teachers are prepared to begin this journey, and often that is difficult to combine with the mentality of a state official.

A hopeful thesis

When we work in schools, the participants —the pupils as well as the teachers— always try to create the typical “school situation”, this means they take the usual position of the pupil and try to push us into the teacher role. In resisting these attempts we create friction and conflict. If we are successful in working constructively on these conflicts—and in the best case get the teachers a bit jealous about our working conditions, posture and position—we rattle the perceptions of typical teacher and pupil roles, and perhaps sow new seeds in their imaginations. If we are conscious about the tension that we create while working with a libertarian approach in an almost totalitarian institution, if we stick to our preconditions and are prepared to work through the emerging conflicts, and if we don't let our nonviolent conviction be corrupted by a violent institution, then there is a chance for profound change. We shouldn't be naive, nor pessimistic. Institutions are created, maintained and changed by humans and humans are able to learn and to change. Isn't our nonviolent strategy based on this premise? Schools are a crucial place for societal change and teachers are in a position where they disseminate information to large numbers of children. If we strengthen their desire for change, if the seeds of respectful treatment, of nonviolent conflict resolution and a discourse of a society without supremacy, start to grow in their hearts and minds, then they will spread these ideas a hundredfold during their professional lives. Perhaps someday we will no longer witness teaching staff denying children access to basic needs, like going to the toilet.

Topics: Education, Children