NVC with teachers in East Jerusalem

Beit Hanina, East Jerusalem    March 2, 2011

NVC in the Classroom; witnessing a collective shift

Yesterday I had about an hour and half to present NVC to fifty teachers at St Joseph’s school in East Palestine. The anticipated number of participants had grown from thirteen teachers to fifty, including the principal and school director, after I gave a peace class to senior students on Monday. The students are so excited about NVC; they spread the interest to the teachers and administration. (I love the excitement and receptivity of the teachers and administrators to something the students are excited about.)


My old friend Massimo picked me up in his beleaguered Renault in the Jerusalem neighborhood where I am presently living- Baka’a- I started the day at a lovely three hour planning meeting with Hagit outside our favorite café on Derech Beit Lechem, then walked to a shiur ( class) with Sarah Yehudit on her Chassidic book, You Are What You Hate. Massimo picked me up on the corner of Yehuda and Beit Lechem, after the class. (I will write more about her class later).


Massimo’s wife, Marta, teaches peace education at St. Joseph’s, where the school slogan is “Peace Begins With Me”. She invited me to come to help people in the school learn to speak to each other less violently. Massimo and Marta are from Italy, and live in Lazzaria (Bethany), West Bank, with their two young daughters, Lila (now speaking English, Italian and Arabic) and the baby, Jenna.


The challenge: How to offer something useful and transforming in a bit more than an hour (after the chairs were set up and the teachers, staying voluntarily after a full day, straggled in).


I began by asking to hear communication challenges the teachers are facing as teachers.  As each one spoke, more hands came up. I saw this is a very international faculty-mostly Palestinian, with many Americans and others. Classes are taught in English, so no translation was needed for this.


“What do I do when the whole class is misbehaving and out of control?”

What do I do when I want to go on with the lesson plan and the students have too many questions?”

What do I do when none of the students are interested or paying attention?”

How do I keep the level of chitter chatter among the students down?”

How do I give them advice and suggestions without them hearing it as discipline?”

How do I keep control?”

How do I stop myself from yelling?


I repeated back each time the needs I heard in their questions: How do I balance effective learning of the material with participation and connection with the students.

How do I choose to exercise power over the students? if that is what I choose, with awareness that I am doing that, and also still holding their needs with care?

How do I honestly express what is going on for me, if I choose to do that, in a way that isn’t filled with anger?


I suggested we hear a few specific examples, and do some coached role plays.


As soon as I said that, a man stood up at the back of the room, and walked to the front podium where I was standing.  He stood an inch away from me and said,” I have to go to the bathroom. I have to go to the bathroom.” I was confused for moment- then I realized, he is role playing a difficult communication with a student!


I shared my delight at having a ready made role play.


I asked for a bit more information, because I didn’t understand why he would have difficulty saying ok to the student who came up and said he had to go to the bathroom.


They had just come off a break and he had seen the student coming out of the bathroom.


We went through the role play- with participation from the teachers as well as coaching from me. Another teacher came up to play the student; the first teacher began teaching a math class; the other came up and said, “I want to go to the bathroom, and you can’t stop me. The math teacher said, no, you can’t. You have to learn.” You can’t stop me. You can’t make me…”


Great! We all could see the exact quality of communication that we don’t want to have in the classroom-or anywhere.


I introduced the NVC principle from Marshall Rosenberg: CONNECT BEFORE YOU CORRECT.


I said, there is little hope of staying in the energy you want to stay with unless you have first connected with how you are feeling and what you need in this moment; and then connecting with the same in the student.  There is little chance that you will create the quality of connection with the student that will create real willingness on his part and on yours to value each others needs without connecting to yourselves and each other first.


Each teacher had a handout that included the lists of feelings and needs that are available from the CNVC.ORG website.


I asked the teachers in the room to look on the lists of feelings and  needs and guess what the math teacher was feeling- no one had a problem with this- exasperated ( the math teacher picked that one first himself), frustrated, irritated, overwhelmed…….




I asked them to look on the needs list- what needs of the teacher weren’t being met? Again, no problems guessing. Contribution, learning, order, respect, ease. Harmony.


I asked the math teacher to self connect- to connect with these feelings and needs inside himself, before he spoke to the student. I suggested that the teachers try this as an antidote to burnout- to keep nourishing themselves with the energy of the needs they are there to meet- and also to see if it creates an openness in them to consider the student’s needs.


I explained that the purpose of Nonviolent Communication is to create relationships, classrooms, worlds, where everyone’s needs are valued and met- where we learn ways to meet our needs that are not at the expense of other people meeting their needs.


The teachers began guessing the students needs. Choice autonomy., freedom.

Some guesses were attention and entertainment. I introduced another NVC principle- THE DISTINCTION BETEEN STRATEGIES AND NEEDS- Needs are the core life energies that are on this list- all life experiences these, all life values these, perhaps differently at different points in our lives, but when we recognize them, our hearts open in connection. So when we are guessing needs, we are looking deeply into the other person’s heart to find a truth of theirs that opens our hearts to them.


At that point, the Principal spoke out from the back of the room. He said, “I don’t understand a thing. I am feeling very uncomfortable because I don’t understand a thing.” For a moment, I felt scared and concerned- that what I was offering wasn’t being understood, that there wasn’t the openness to this that I am longing for in schools.


Then the Principal kept going- “ I think I’m going in and out of the bathroom because the pain of sitting in this math class and not knowing what is going on is unbearable. I feel embarrassed. I am telling myself I am stupid.”


At that moment, the energy in the room shifted. Perhaps there was even an audible, oh….”  Collectively, our hearts opened to this student, whom many of them know, who has a really hard time understanding the math, who feels lonely, ashamed. We saw how his strategy of leaving and going to the bathroom was a way of comforting himself, of taking care of himself, of creating safety and self acceptance.


The math teacher said something about wanting to help him after school. The discussion turned to a soft recognition of how the student was taking care of his needs, of his pain, in the best way he knew how.


I repeated that we don’t want to let go of the teachers needs for learning and order; we want to dialogue with the students and each other about ways to create that that also meet the students’ needs.


The session ended with the School Director coming up and saying to everyone, this is a school where it is more important that the students learn self acceptance than math lessons.


For upcoming NVC trainings with Roberta Wall, visit http://www.steps2peace.com


Author: Steps2peace

In the world with a peaceful heart

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