The School Mediator
Peer Mediation Insights From the Desk of Richard Cohen Vol. IV, 3/05

in this issue

Call Me Richard

Response to "Coordinators: Please Leave The Room"

About Us

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The School Mediator's Field Guide:
Prejudice, Sexual Harassment, Large Groups and Other Daily Challenges
by Richard Cohen
more info

Students Resolving Conflict:
Peer Mediation in Schools

by Richard Cohen
more info

Welcome to the March issue of The School Mediator.

This month I discuss the importance of teachers and students making a personal connection.

As always, please send along your thoughts and experiences.

Wishing you the best, wherever you are,

Richard Cohen
Founder and Director
School Mediation Associates

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  • Call Me Richard

  • I always ask students to refer to me by my first name when I conduct peer mediation trainings. This is most comfortable for me.

    In addition, being on a first-name basis is a signal to trainees that we will be equal partners in learning (something that is especially relevant when teaching mediation, a subject fundamentally concerned with issues such as trust, power, and fairness).

    Students appear to get the message. Although calling my colleagues and me by our first names takes getting used to, they report that it relaxes them and makes us more approachable.

    We invite the adults who participate in our trainings with students--teachers, counselors, administrators, parents--to use their first names as well if they prefer. (Students agree to use adults' first names only during the training.)

    Usually, a few educators jump at the chance, shedding their surnames like uncomfortable clothes. A few others clearly would not use their first name if we paid them.

    The majority of teachers, however, are flummoxed. They hesitate, they look at their colleagues awkwardly, they huddle to discuss whether they should break with convention.

    It truly makes no difference to us. First names or surnames, we don't really care.

    But there is more to this issue than meets the eye.

    The practice of referring to teachers by their surnames is deeply rooted in cultural notions concerning respect for elders, deference to authority, a formality in the educational process, and the appropriate social distance between teachers and their students.

    It is the last issue, the social distance between teachers and their students, that especially concerns me.

    For in my experience, many teachers simply don't "know" their students: they don't feel comfortable in their presence, they don't share any personal warmth.

    This is not necessarily educators' faults, as the modern school tends to conspire against this kind of interpersonal attachment. Can an algebra teacher, who works with 125 students a day, in groups of 25, for forty-five minute segments, come to know any individual student very well?

    But a climate of disconnection, of not being known, makes school less enjoyable for teachers and students. In addition, students perform at a lower level academically when they feel like their teachers don't know them and care about them personally.

    During SMA's three day peer mediation training, we have the luxury of creating a genuine, though short-lived, learning community. Our diverse group of learners--adults and students, of every grade, ability, racial group, clique, and religion in the school--work hard together, share meals and social time, and even enjoy a bit of fun and games.

    Participants delight in working with and coming to know one another almost as much as in learning the important skills that we teach.

    At each trainings' conclusion, when we gather to say our goodbyes, inevitably one of the adults earnestly reports how happy they are to learn that "we have such a bright, compassionate, committed group of students in our school."

    My first thought is always: "Your entire student body is composed of such bright, compassionate, committed students."

    In fact, we could have randomly selected any 20 students to participate in the training and you would say the same thing.

    I doubt there is a significant correlation between teachers who use their first names and a greater degree of warmth between teachers and students (although private schools who advertise "teachers and students on a first name basis" certain appear to think so).

    I know dozens of phenomenal teachers who use their surnames.

    I suspect that there are terrible teachers who go by their first name.

    But there is no question that both students and teachers, in the United States at least, would benefit from having a more personal connection.

    Please share your thoughts and experiences...

  • Response to "Coordinators: Please Leave The Room"

  • A few of the responses we received to the last issue of The School Mediator are posted below. That issue urged coordinators not to remain in the room during mediation sessions. Thank you to all who responded.

    It has never been a consideration that I would remain in the room during a mediation session. I am overwhelmingly confident in our mediators' abilities to serve their peers with integrity and impartiality, as I am with their sincerity and empathetic understanding during these sessions.

    I do understand that an explosive incident between disputants may occur, and that my being present in the room may prevent this situation. But the overriding sense of empowerment and social responsibility our mediators experience would only be diluted if an adult were present.

    If I could have "eyes" in the mediation room during a session, it would be to determine when the mediators have a greater passion for reaching an agreement than the disputants they serve. Many times a less experienced team will continue to put forth great effort while the disputants choose not to be sincere and/or honest. During the mediators' post-evaluations, they come to realize that the agreement they helped to forge is sometimes flimsy and tenuous.

    Ed Donnelly, Coordinator/Instructor
    Peer Mediation Program
    West New York School District
    West New York, NJ

    After five years of leading peer mediation workshops in schools in northern England, only in the summer of 2004 did a teacher contest my training input that it is not essential, nor even desirable, for staff to be in the same room as the mediators and parties.

    In fact, it has never been an issue; all have, outwardly at least, been able to accept the role of the mediators as all important, though enabling them to have rapid access to an adult if circumstances warranted it.

    Typically, the mediators conclude a session and then consult the adult if they feel a need for disclosure or require other advice.

    Recently, a colleague in a position of senior responsibility, understandably reflecting the concerns of her school, was adamant that pupils could not accept nor be given this level of responsibility. OK, I thought, it's her school and I felt no need to make an issue of it. I did reassure her that others have taken up the challenge who are of a similar age to her pupils.

    I shall now refer her to your article.

    David Hilton
    Out of Conflict Ltd.
    Morpeth, Northumberland, UK

    Concerning your recent question about adult supervision of peer mediation sessions: Are we talking about elem., middle or high school peer mediation sessions?

    Having been a coordinator at all three levels, my opinion is that at my present elementary level, we would be in big trouble in my district if we left four students, aged 10 and younger, alone in a classroom. There is a safety/supervision issue at the elementary level that has nothing to do with peer mediation.

    In addition, my elementary peer mediators are very well trained, but have asked me and my faculty advisors many times if we will "be in the room?" They are just not ready to be in a classroom alone for a myriad of reasons.

    When more informal elementary peer mediation happens on the playground at recess, the supervision issue is less of a problem, because there are always teachers on recess duty if any problems arise. My more seasoned peer mediators often take it upon themselves to mediate conflicts at recess, as they arise, without that being a structured or standard part of our particular program. I am very proud of them.

    Thanks and I love your newsletter.

    Rachel Schwab, Elementary Guidance Counselor
    Athol-Royalston Regional School System
    Athol, MA

    Interestingly enough, my colleague and I recently trained about 22 high school students as mediators and now the guidance counselor has come back to us and said the mediators think it might be more effective without an adult in the room. The guidance counselor wanted some pros and cons and our thoughts on the subject. Your newsletter is perfect! It is good work you are doing.


    Eileen M. Rowley, Agency Director/Ulster County
    Dispute Resolution Center (serving Orange, Putnam, Sullivan & Ulster Counties)
    Kingston, NY

  • About Us
  • For twenty years, School Mediation Associates has been devoted to the application and promotion of mediation in schools. SMA's mission is to transform schools into safer, more caring, and more effective institutions. Our books and training programs have been utilized by tens of thousands of people around the world.

    Call us: 617-926-0994
    Email us:
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    Post us: 134w Standish Road,
    Watertown, MA 02472 USA

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