Owning The Room

A continuation high school is where students who struggle in the regular public high schools can come to make up their credits. Sounds easy but it’s tough to leave behind the habits that got you into trouble in the first place. They come to school ready to blame everyone else to such an extent that they dis-inhabit their own responsibility for anything including schoolwork. One way of escape was drugs.

Fentanyl, crystal meth, weed, and cocaine were some of the drugs of choice. Also, unwanted pregnancies, family members in jail, dead or addicted, or gang bangers, the students and family members, made taking school seriously challenging. That’s where we came in, the teachers. For many the shock of dealing with this population is too much and they quit. Constant threats, fights, riots, intimidation, chronic dishonesty, are not in the normal teacher’s education curriculum. The events that took place in my own classroom are too numerous, too unbelievable to recount in this brief piece.

Who we were, the job we had to do, was to help these students re-frame themselves in their own eyes, and then in the eyes of their family and friends. In a sense, we were mediating between them and their own lives.

Here’s how I did it, and I did it from 2008 – 2021: I owned the room first and foremost. I controlled where they sat and when I asked them to move I never told them why. If they didn’t move when I told them to I had security remove them. I never let them sit with a friend or family member and I rearranged the desks regularly. I never threatened anything on which I could not follow through. I never shouted and I never lost my temper. I was always consistent in what I wanted, and I always followed through. I always made them feel I was there for them and that I cared.

They almost never liked the discipline but oddly enough they felt secure in my room. They knew who I was, that I cared about them and their future, and amazingly, many of them went on to graduate.

Mediators have to own the room too. No, I don’t expect that similar events will happen in your mediation room. We do have to remain resolutely neutral, but not as far as bad behavior or threats. Yes, clients want to emote, and we have to give them room to do so, sometimes in the main room, often in caucus. But we don’t have to give them room to be intimidating or control the room with bluster, repetition, and demands. I mediated for the last year in the Sacramento Superior Court virtually and it was something similar to being a continuation high school teacher. Like my students, the clients entered the virtual room having run out of choices and wrapped in blankets of rage and frustration. I always considered it my job to provide them with the a safe space in which they felt free to speak, and they would be heard. For many it was the first time in years anyone had provided a willing ear. A controlled room is a healthy room. A stifling room is not.

When I retired from the high school two of my students were in jail for murder, I’d been to the funerals of two of my students who had been shot or died in a drunken car crash, and I’d been pepper sprayed during a riot while trying to pull one student off of another. I come to mediation bringing the weight of experience in high conflict situations with proven results. Watching my mediation clients leave the room with their futures unexpectedly brighter is just as good as having watched my students graduate.