A school is a community of people with common values and goals about the importance of education. A school is also a collection of folks with tons and tons of differences: different ages, different family and ethnic backgrounds, different physical and intellectual abilities, religious affiliations, life experiences and on and on. When we need to solve problems, it means we can have five, ten, fifteen different perspectives on how to solve them. Or all these differences can be a source of antagonism and conflict.

Maybe it seems as though we should just know how to treat each other and work together well, but it’s not always that easy, especially as our communities become more and more diverse. Just as you need to practice to play an instrument or learn math formulas or get better at a sport, learning to live and work well with all kinds of people takes skill, practice and clear guidelines or rules. Respectful conversations don’t just happen; we must plan for them to take place.

From the first gathering, have your class agree upon guidelines for respectful, productive communication. People tend to be more cooperative with rules into which they’ve had input. But don’t think that takes care of it. Don’t hang up your list of guidelines and never look at them again. Practice with your students. Ask them consistently and periodically – how are we doing with listening? How are we doing with waiting until someone else finishes before we talk? Are we expressing our opinions without putting anyone else down?