New Jersey

Cops Can Learn Something From Quality Teachers About Building Relationships and De-Escalating Violence

I’m not a cop, have never been a cop, don’t have a family member who’s a cop, and have no interest in becoming a cop. But I do have experience de-escalating my fair share of conflict.

For nearly 10 years, I taught more than 100 teenagers a day, navigating the emotions, moods, feuds, malaise, conflicts, dramas and traumas students brought with them into my classroom. In between these classes, during the transitions that saw hallways filled shoulder-to-shoulder with kids, I stood outside my room, chatting and joking with students, feeling the air for that unmistakable feeling of conflict.

Experienced teachers know the signs when they see them. They can tell when side-eyes, sucked teeth, and under the breath mutterings are harmless and when they denote the potential for violence. And experienced teachers know they can’t wait. Elevated students can be invited to take a walk and cool down. Feuding students can be invited to have a moderated sit-down to cool down any tensions. 

Sometimes, though, despite best efforts, things get out of hand. Beefs brewing on social media, like powder kegs, are sometimes set alight. Fights break out in the hallways and bathrooms.  When these things happened, my amazing colleagues and I would jump in, break them up, and de-escalate the situation. And no students died. No students were shot. No students were choked. No students were tased. No students stood by and watched their friends get murdered.

Two big factors account for these differences: the goals and the tools.

In well-led schools staffed with teachers who have done the self-introspection work necessary to identify and mitigate their implicit biases, the goal is safety. These educators know that learning literally cannot take place when a child does not feel safe. 

They have learned to table their own preoccupation with power, understand that the best tool in building classroom culture is an engaging lesson, take responsibility for all of their students, and do whatever it takes to avoid students facing harsh discipline. The de-escalation, mediation and support utilized by experienced educators are done to maintain this level of safety.

On the streets, the goal is compliance. Cops demand, and everything in their presence is meant to ensure compliance; the sirens, the uniforms, the handcuffs, the tasers, the guns, the dogs, the cruisers, the chokeholds, and, of course, the guns. When compliance is the goal, power takes priority over safety, and bodies litter the ground.

Our tools reflect our goals and the tools we have are the tools we use. For experienced teachers whose goals are student safety, the single most important tool is relationships with students. 

Relationships built on love, understanding, respect, and high expectations increase the likelihood of conflict de-escalation. When a teacher has built this type of relationship they know how to connect with elevated students, when to invite students to take a break, when to check in, and when to call for help for peer mediation. 

It would seem that for cops, whose primary goal appears to be compliance, the tools are weapons; pepper spray to blind the non-compliant, tasers and handcuffs to immobilize the non-compliant, knees to suffocate the non-compliant, and guns to murder the non-compliant. 

The inevitable screeches from those defending the police officer corps in the wake of the actions of “bad apples” can’t be ignored. If nine cops are silent in the face of the murderous acts of one, there isn’t one bad apple, there are ten.

And this goes for any teacher who would seek to harm any of their students. There have been far too many instances of teachers physically and emotionally hurting their students, particularly across racial lines of difference. It is precisely why any notion of arming teachers is ludicrous. 

These are the teachers whose preoccupation with power and compliance makes them less like educators and more like oppressors. Any teacher who raises their hand to a student needs to be immediately fired and never work with children again and any union that comes to their defense ought to be outed as defenders of the indefensible.

That being said, quality educators de-escalate potential violence nearly every day. They do it without weapons because they care about the safety of the children they serve. Untrained police murder the noncompliant becuase they care about power.

Now is not the time to care about cops’ feelings, not when America’s streets and breaking news alerts are filled with the bodies of the so-called non-compliant. Their lives matter more.

Zachary Wright 
Zachary Wright is an assistant professor of practice at Relay Graduate School of Education, serving Philadelphia and Camden, and a communications activist at Education Post. Prior, he was the twelfth-grade world literature and Advanced Placement literature teacher at Mastery Charter School's Shoemaker Campus, where he taught students for eight years—including the school's first eight graduating ...

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