As I’m finding my proverbial feet as administrator, I’m logging small notes about the things I do everyday. My original idea was to track the percentage of activities that are leadership-related and the percentage that are management-related.
I’ve created a third category: percentage of time Playing Detective.
The role of detective goes beyond ‘finding out who is at fault’. When you get to the heart of a situation, you get to the heart of a child. You create a school culture that values honesty and looks out for the needs of individual children.
When playing the detective role, the line between behaviour management and school leadership becomes blurred.
Beginning the Investigation
Picture five-year-olds playing their first soccer game – a game affectionately known as “beehive soccer”. If you grab a group of younger students to tell you what happened, you’re gonna be circled by students all talking at once and doing their best to prove to you that they and their close friends are all in the right and another person or persons are all in the wrong. Getting to the truth is about as likely as getting that soccer ball out of a beehive of players.
Calmly state, “Hmmm. This sounds very important. Let’s first get back to class then I’ll sort this out.” Insist they stop talking and walk with you back to class.
Walk them to their teacher(s). Smile. Ask the teacher if he or she would be so kind as to sit the young people far away from one another and not allow them to talk to one another until they’ve spoken with you.
Keep Them Separated
Yes, keeping them separated keeps the students from continuing the verbal brawl in the learning environment. But there’s another reason: Your goal is to get all the stories to match.
If students have opportunity to talk or write notes or sms one another before you talk with them, it’s more likely they will corroborate an alternate version of reality that keeps them out of trouble and keeps you from getting to the truth.
Conversations with the Students in the Brawl
“Tell me what happened” is an inefficient way to start a conversation with younger students (older ones too!). You’ll get the students’ sides of the story, details of which are carefully selected as to avoid any personal responsibility.
Instead, begin with “So tell me who all saw the [encounter].” Visible confusion. After all, the student expected to unfold a dramatic story of all the wrongs perpetrated against him or her. Now the child has to think outside of him- or herself.
After the student names five or six people that were at the scene, ask “When I ask [other student in brawl + witnesses] about the story – and I will – what do you think they’ll tell me?”
The student’s body language changes. Not only are you forcing the youngster to step into the shoes of the other person in the brawl, the student knows that you’re gonna find out more than a quick “he said – she said” version.
Take notes on what the student tells you and repeat the story back to him or her. Then ask, “Is there anything else the others will tell me? Are you sure? All the stories need to match.”
Take Them to the Scene and Bring Stuffed Animals
It’s much easier to re-construct a story when you can have the children at least partially re-enact the scene. “You were standing where? Then what happened?”
Holes in the story quickly emerge. “Hmmm. If you were yelling at him from here, how is it that he pushed you off the bridge? You weren’t anywhere near the bridge?” Gulp. “Can you grab the stuffed animal like so-and-so grabbed you?”
The other advantage to taking the individuals to the scene is that they get out of your office and are allowed to take a walk. A Head of School office is a very scary place for many kiddos. You’re heading out to their turf.
Conversations with Witnesses
By the time you get to the witnesses, the emotion of the situation has died down and students’ ever-brilliant teachers have been able to redirect them into the classroom activity. You have most of the stories, but there are a few holes in the story left to fill.
The conversation with witnesses starts something like this: “I’ve talked to a number of people and will talk to at least [x-number of] others – so whatever you say won’t be traced back to you. The stories need to match. I already know the bigger parts of the story, I just need you to confirm what I already know and fill in a few missing details.”
These phrases accomplish a few things. First, the student relaxes because you’re talking to lots of people – no one can trace back to him or her as the ‘rat’. Second, whatever story they’ve rehearsed in their heads suddenly becomes null and void. It’s not about taking sides, it’s about filling in details.
Take the witnesses to the scene and use the stuffed animals to recreate the parts of the story that have matched. Ask the witness to stop you if the story seems incorrect. Ask questions in the parts of the story that seem less certain.
When You Don’t Know Where to Start
So what if you don’t know either who did something or who witnessed an instance? Vandalism, for instance, often goes unreported. One thing to try is to go into a classroom and hand all the students a half sheet of paper (same colour, same shape, same everything).
Tell students you’re going to ask them to write something and you’d like them all to use either pencil or pen so whatever they write will not be traced back to them.
Explain the situation in general detail. You might say, Many of you know of a situation that happened today in the cafeteria. I’ve been thinking about the poor custodians who will be spending extra time cleaning and of the money that will be required to repair damages. We know that some of you actually saw the instance and that you may be afraid to come forward.
All of you will write something on the paper. You will either write “I do not know anything about what happened in the cafeteria. Thank you for asking and have a lovely day” or you will write a few sentences that will help us understand what happened or who we need to talk to. The key is that everyone writes. Names are optional.
After explaining the procedure, you can speak to the unknown culprit.
If you were involved, this is a time for you to show courage. You can talk to an adult at school later today or you can simply admit it on this paper. I can assure you the consequences will be far less if you come forward than if we have to spend additional teaching/learning time investigating. Everyone makes mistakes. We’re here to help you make things right again.
By ‘making things right again’, students hear you using the language of Restorative Practice – an alternative way of helping students understand how their actions affect others (and a future Expat Educator post).
Is an Educational Detective role counted as Leadership or Management?
The detective role could be delegated to teachers. It’s behaviour management.
But getting to the bottom of what really happened takes time – instructional time – from other students. I remember being a teacher and giving a class mind-numbing worksheets so that I could get to the bottom of an important incident. How much total instructional time would be lost if I left this all to the teachers?
If part of my role as educational leader is to remove obstacles to teaching/learning and encourage teachers to get make the most of every minute of instructional time, I need to take an active role in these situations.
When students are unkind to one another, whether as an instigator or retaliator, the instance should be taken very seriously. As a teacher, I admit dismissing instances that I should have taken more seriously. I couldn’t both supervise a classroom and take the care necessary to understand a complicated situation. There was no way I could take students back to the location of the trouble much less counsel them about alternative future choices.
The detective role allows us to effectively communicate to students (and teachers) that kindness and honesty are at the heart of the school. We also communicate that the school honours teaching and learning time. Hence, the detective process becomes a leadership activity that helps communicate and model the school culture we want to create.
Keeping the Teacher as Leader in the Mind of Students
The risk in becoming so heavily involved as detective is that you may become the ultimate authority in the minds of students – a role you want to have remain with teachers and parents.
To avoid taking power away from the teacher and parents, end the investigation by pulling the culprits out of class to confirm the final story. Then, prepare them to retell the story to their teacher and parents. Help them through the specific apologies they need to make to one another. Then hand over follow-up responsibility to the parents and teachers.
End the conversation saying something like You guys have been really courageous by telling me the truth and I know you’re not mean boys/girls. You just did something wrong and it needs to be made right. I’ll let your teacher and parents decide the best consequence for this, but I know the consequence will be lots less severe because they will know both sides and know that you were honest.
Help with Parents
If an instance is big enough for me to get involved, I give a call to parents. Having gone through the whole detective process, I can relay the story with a great degree of certainty. Also, I can say that all parties were honest about their contributions to the problem and they are sincerely remorseful.
The phone call or entry into the student diary does not accuse their chid or tell the parents their child is ‘bad.’ The communication simply relays a story and lets parents know that a follow-up conversation and, possibly, a few extra hugs may be needed that evening.
More than a few kiddos at my school know the drill. When taken to my office, their initial retelling ends up being very, very close to the full story. They know I’m gonna get there eventually.
I’m not angry. I’m genuinely concerned for their wellbeing. They know that too. I can use our time together to point out patterns and refer them to the chaplain or counsellor.
One of the things I love about my new role as administrator is the flexibility to talk with students during these important character-building moments. Yes, other important things get pushed aside – but nothing is more important than creating a culture of honesty and forgiveness. School mission statements mean nothing if they are not communicated in action.
How much time do you spend Playing Detective? What have been your experiences?