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Teachers, Cops, and Conflict: Why We Need to De-Escalate

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I’m sitting in my living room reading the transcript of the Sandra Bland arrest for failing to signal a lane change on a Texas highway back in July. My anger is growing as I read each instance of escalation between Bland and police officer Brian Encina. It’s making my blood boil, and I can’t figure out why. I’ve never been in an argument with a police officer. I’ve never been asked to step out of my car or been subjected to any harassment or brutality by a police officer. I’ve never even witnessed something like that. Because of my privilege, my interactions with police have always been by the book and predictable. Yet now I feel a truly empathic reaction to this young woman from reading the transcript. And then it dawned on me: I’ve seen this happen before, dozens of times, because I’m a teacher.

Aside from the exposure to extreme violence, a teacher’s job bears some similarities to a police officer’s. Teachers enforce rules they did not create, control groups using traffic management, protect students’ safety, and produce consequences for infractions. And like cops, teachers don’t have the time to explain the reasoning behind all decisions. The classroom has many frustrating factors that inspire intense emotions for both teacher and student. Sandra Bland’s reaction resembles that of students who are treated unfairly. And Officer Encina’s reaction resembles how many teachers handle a situation poorly.

—Getty

As a student, I have been the Sandra Bland in the classroom—questioning the purpose of content, protesting the method of punishment, getting angrier and angrier. As a teacher, I have been Officer Encina­—demanding a change in tone, becoming defensive, and escalating a situation because I’m losing my patience. As a teacher, I usually try to de-escalate a situation in which a student isn’t behaving productively. But I’ve also lost my temper several times in the past 10 years of teaching, and those are some of my biggest regrets—not because it ended with violence, a suspension, or a student failing my class, but because I was unprofessional and irresponsible. In those moments, I was a bad teacher.

Those mistakes should be etched in every teacher’s mind, but unfortunately, they are not. Many teachers who reflect on an escalation of conflict or disobedience blame the student. Police and their supporters show a similar difficulty in taking responsibility for escalating tension and conflict. They claim that, when stopped by the police, people should be on their best behavior, or else it’s their fault when the situation escalates. Sandra Bland’s arrest shows a perfect example of a cop who perceives he is right after making several mistakes.

“If de-escalation techniques are used properly, both teachers and cops can make their jobs easier.”

Go ahead, read the transcript or watch the video. It’s long, but there are many points at which Officer Encina could have ignored Bland’s frustration instead of arguing against it. Bland perceived the situation correctly. The legality of her arrest was dubious. Encina was rude, demeaning, and overreacting, like so many teachers every day. Ask any student, especially in overcrowded, underfunded schools, and he or she will have stories of a student and teacher arguing, the situation escalating, and the student suffering as a result.

For instance, a student—let’s call him David—enters the room after being absent for three straight days. “David, how nice of you to join us today,” says his teacher. Another example: Jose stands up at his desk to sharpen his pencil. “Jose, you’ve gone to the bathroom once already, so the answer is no!” Jose says, “But I was just going to sharpen my pencil!” His teacher is embarrassed about being wrong, so he shoots back, “Well, you should raise your hand and ask before just standing up!” Sometimes teachers even bully students.

“Aside from the exposure to extreme violence, a teacher’s job bears some similarities to a police officer’s.”

Most students accept the sarcasm, condescension, and microaggressions from teachers because it is part of the power dynamic, but some will react. Sometimes it’s an unjustified, rude overreaction. “Are you f-ing serious?” a student replies. “Maybe if this class wasn’t so boring, people would stay awake,” a student quips loudly. The teacher needs to be calm and de-escalate, or this will not end well for either party. Both will get increasingly frustrated, and the result will be a student who is less respectful and trusting of that teacher, and perhaps other teachers. The same distrust happens with the police.

Luckily, interactions that escalate don’t usually result in major conflict, because one party backs down. More than 98 percent of civilian interactions with police in 2008 and 2011 didn’t result in use of force.

For most people, however, police and teachers are the face of government-employed authority figures. And when a few bad experiences happen, it can make them less likely to trust all police and teachers, while also making them more resistant to authority. Some students reject schooling altogether, stop learning, and interrupt the learning of others. Then the teacher gets even more frustrated and disillusioned, and is more likely to have conflicts with students.

Yet, if de-escalation techniques are used properly, both teachers and cops can make their jobs easier. If cops didn’t overreact so quickly, it would eliminate many instances of police brutality. Similarly, teachers create a more productive and positive learning experience when de-escalation tactics are used.

Illinois State University faculty members Mary Henninger and Margo Coleman have great advice for de-escalation: “Talk to students who are causing a disruption to better understand why they are acting out. Take the time to understand students’ reasons for their behavior, and provide them with important information they may need to make better decisions.” Teachers and police can apply this advice immediately to every interaction they have with a frustrated party. If we can do this more often, we will create a culture that not only relies on teachers and cops, but trusts them implicitly.

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