Managing student/teacher conflicts

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. - CHAMPAIGN -- When students have trouble at school, there are systems in place to get them back on track.

Centennial High School is tackling problems with a unique technique. The person behind it all is retiring, but her work will have a lasting impact.

After more than 30 years as a school psychologist, Ondine Gross will pack up her office at the end of the year.

"It's just been my passion to try and help people navigate the public school system," she says.

Retiring means she'll take most of her things home, but she will leave behind an important tool: teacher-student mediation.

"It's not perfect. It doesn't work every time but, when it works, it can be really powerful and effective," says Gross.

She knows, because she wrote the book on it. Literally. She started piloting the technique at Centennial in 2011. Instead of just being punished, students sit down and work out the problem with their teacher.

"When students have a conflict with a teacher or maybe there's a misunderstanding or maybe they think their teacher hates them, that there would be a mechanism for the student and teacher to come to a room with a mediator to have a frank discussion," she says.

An unbiased mediator sits with them, but doesn't lead the discussion in any way. Seems simple enough, but it makes a big impact. Gross says it teaches kids communication skills, helps keep them out of trouble and focused on school. Her colleagues say that's a game changer.

"It's important for a kid to be prepared to re-enter that environment. It's important that they feel like they've been heard or that their opinion matters," says Kaleb Carter, Centennial's Dean of Students.

Gross says after mediation, more than half of students don't have another problem with their teacher. That's why she wrote her book, so other schools can learn how to get the same results.

"It really has consequences for society when kids drop out and when kids don't value education so we really want them to feel supported," she says. 

If a student can walk away successful, Gross can walk away knowing she's done her job.

Taking a look at the numbers, teacher-student mediation has helped drop both suspensions and disciplinary referrals at Centennial. This technique is just one system Centennial has in place, but in its first years, Centennial saw a 40% decrease in suspensions and a 55% decrease in disciplinary referrals.

Since 2011, the school has gone from about 30 mediation sessions a year to more than 80. Gross says that's partly because teachers have started requesting them.

Gross has presented her work on teacher-student mediation at both the national and state levels. She says she'll continue even in retirement.

For more information or to order Gross' book, Restore the Respect: How to Mediate School Conflicts & Keep Students Learning, click here or here.


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