Story of the Week 6/1/15
Teaching with Nonviolent Communication, Starting with my Life, Reaching to the World
by Scott Hurley, Environmental Educator with Bonnyvale Environmental Education Center
For the past 6 months of my Vermont Housing and Conservation Board (VHCB) Americorps service with Bonnyvale Environmental Education Center I've been in charge of leading numerous after-school programs, camps, and other kids’ programs. Throughout this time I have grown tremendously in taking my personal practice of Nonviolent Communication (NVC) into my professional role as a teacher. I used the VHCB Americorps book club to help me in this by reading Life-Enriching Communication: Nonviolent Communication Helps Schools Improve Performance, Reduce Conflict and Enhance Relationships' by Marshall Rosenberg. VHCB Americorps members may be familiar with Nonviolent Communication from the introductory workshop at our statewide AmeriCorps conference in Stowe, VT. Briefly, the purpose of NVC is to help us respond to life from our heart by promoting empathy for our universal human needs. I would now like to share how I came to be interested in teaching with NVC, a few successes using it during my term, and the passion that I have for using it to create a better world.
I first became interested in peace-conscious teaching during my first environmental education job. While trying to follow the principle of nonviolence, I recognized strategies commonly used in classroom management as violent and noticed that I felt agitated for the rest of the day after using them. So I made an effort to stay nonviolent, but that principle wasn’t enough alone to guide me through a complex world. It's been a shaky path over the last five years of trying to be a nonviolent teacher without having enough nonviolent classroom management strategies, but Nonviolent Communication has proven to be adequate. I have attended five NVC retreats and two telecourses, participated in many groups, and have practiced consistently on my own and I am finally becoming capable of completely managing a classroom with NVC. I now use it consistently with students and regularly plan lessons with principles from Life-Enriching Education and have had many successes.
My two most memorable successes with NVC during my AmeriCorps term were with students who I recall being labeled as ‘difficult’ by other staff members. One student would speak against my planned activities with such high volume that any attention I had from other students was quickly lost. The other student would engage his peers in adventitious games during our focused activities. Unable to match his energy, counselors struggled to maintain students’ attention and classroom order. I’ve frequently seen teachers address similar situations by telling students to 'sit still', 'be quiet', and 'listen'; I chose, however, to follow NVC principles by adapting classroom plans to students' needs that kept them from sitting still. I created activities that could meet the requirements for learning while giving them their needed energy release. Sometimes I asked them for activity ideas using NVC and other times I planned activities based on what I knew of them. As a result, both students, who were previously thought of as acting like classroom villains, became classroom leaders. The high-volume student regularly served as a coordinator between me and his fellow students to help in the goal of finding activities that ensured learning along with enjoyment. The high-energy student put his energy into finding things in nature and drawing others’ attention to them. This student was one of few willing to do the tireless task of digging and cooking Jerusalem artichokes for the class. I was later asked by his mother to be a big brother to him.
Earlier I wrote of the agitation I would feel at the end of the day when I first started teaching. Now, after teaching with NVC, I feel ease because I haven’t been trying to control students against their will and satisfaction from making so many connections, all obvious motivation to use it the next day. But my main motivation for using NVC teaching has become my desire to support students’ development and to contribute to the world. I know from my personal experience that violence in classroom management can have huge effects on students’ psychological development and on society. Punishment, moralistic judgments, shame and guilt, and obligation are all types of violence regularly used in education cited by Rosenberg; well after school is over students continue to use them in the world and carry their burdens of anxiety, isolation, and low self-worth. Students who are routinely punished and given labels often carry those labels into adulthood, growing into less than model citizens or perhaps criminals, a pattern I’ve repeatedly seen. These common types of violence also discourage students from thinking or acting for themselves which prevents learning. On a social level the routine training to obey teachers and administration simply on the basis of their given authority promotes a society of passive citizens who not only hold back on their own dreams and personal happiness but also on responding to social and environmental injustices. Ironically, most teachers probably do care for their students and have chosen teaching for the opportunity to contribute to students’ lives and to society; Rosenberg attests to this and believes that teachers suffer just as much as students from the educational structure. But, to use a Buddhist quote, ‘it takes the work of the wise to undo the harm done by the merely good’.
If you are now seeing that you may have harmed students’ development or contributed to social problems through violent teaching strategies you may be feeling guilty or ashamed of yourself. But know that this self-incriminating response is itself a legacy of the very thinking that has normalized us to using violence. Violence is so basic to our culture that it has been embedded in our ‘book of rules’ without our even knowing it. And so much harm has been done to people and the environment around the world by this cultural consciousness. When I am teaching with Nonviolent Communication I think of all this: the students’ development, the effects on society, and counteracting violent conditioning. I do it for the tragic social and environmental problems around the world so interconnected to the violent tendencies that come all the way back to our everyday, personal lives. NVC teacher, Ike Lasater, suggested that the ages of 3-5 are the best time for addressing this so I know that I have an opportunity for influencing the world when I am teaching.
If you are further interested in learning Nonviolent Communication you can start by paying attention to four components of communication: observations, feelings, needs, and requests. 1) Observation is a specific thing that was observed, an objective event just as what would be seen in a video camera. 2) Feelings are personal and involuntarily felt in response to the objective event that was observed. 3) Needs can be both psychological and physical but are held in common by all people and are discovered with feelings telling us they are there and whether or not they are met. 4) Requests are specific, doable actions we ask of others or ourselves to meet a need. Violence often enters our communication when our observations are mixed with evaluative thoughts, when we perceive our feelings as being caused by another person and not our needs, when what we call our feelings are actually thoughts, when we mistake our needs with the strategies to meet them and subsequently think that things have to happen a certain way for us to be happy, and when our requests are not possible and come out as demands where we won't accept a 'no’. Clarifying the four components in our communication and listening for them in others’ messages facilitates empathic connections. And then...boundaries come down and conflicts become navigable...we can suddenly connect with people we thought were unreachable...difficult messages become opportunities...people jump for joy to help each other...classes willingly follow teachers’ plans...students have fun successfully guiding their own learning. For skeptical readers and further reference see Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life by Marshall Rosenberg and Choosing Peace by Jon Kinyon for a better explanation than I can give.
I have been grateful to Americorps for the opportunity to grow during my term. It has been the perfect opportunity to solidify my capacity to lead a nonviolent classroom with Nonviolent Communication. I am also grateful for the opportunity to share my experiences and passion, perhaps to contribute to less violence and greater happiness in the world. My time using NVC during my Americorps service has also influenced me to pursue certification as a Nonviolent Communication teacher after it is complete.
Lasater, Ike. “Resolving Internal Conflicts.” Mediate Your Life. The Quinnipiac Club, New Haven, CT. 18 April 2015. Question and answer session.
Rosenberg, Ph.D Marshall B. Life-Enriching Education: Nonviolent Communication Helps Schools Improve Performance, Reduce Conflict, and Enhance Relationships. Encinitas: Puddledancer Press, 2003.