Brush up your peopleship!

It’s Friday morning and half of my class study German in another classroom and half French in our room. Today the French teacher is administering secondary school tests, so this is free time for the French group, and since it’s been a heavy week for them, I decide to let the students choose what they want to do. All of them chose to spend time with their hamsters (they each have their own to look after). However, Jane starts to play with Mandy’s hamster (Mandy takes German, so she is not here.) Mandy and Jane have a love–hate relationship. They love each other, but they compete for attention and provoke each other. They are both very smart, talented, and positive children, who are capable of finding ways to get what they want.

In the class, we all know we’re not supposed to touch another person’s special possessions without permission, especially not their hamsters, and super-especially not when the other person is not around. So I ask Jane not to play with Mandy’s hamster, please. She chooses to ignore me and decides to re-arrange the cage.

On her return to the class, Mandy immediately notices that the cage is not as she left it. She raises her voice but in a controlled way, and says, “Jane, how many times do I need to tell you that I don’t want you to do that?” She then sits down and gets ready to do some work. Jane does not say anything, either because she does not know what Mandy is talking about or (more likely) because she knows and is shocked. This is not what she is used to. Usually, Mandy would have made much more fuss, verging on a tantrum and disrupting class. But this was a much more mature and controlled response and therefore much more powerful and impressive. Mandy leaves us all speechless in the most positive way.

I turn to Mandy and say, “Well, what a powerful reaction, Mandy! Well done! You are one hundred percent right to feel the way you do, and the way you behaved confirms how right you are. You have lost none of your rights.” (I have explained to the class before that if a person responds aggressively, then they can lose some of their right to a grievance.) I ask Mandy, “How does it feel to be fully in control of your body, your behaviour, and your emotions – to be in complete charge of the situation and a hundred percent right?” She smiles and says it feels great.

I continue by asking the class to share their thoughts about what Jane did. They say she was wrong because it was not her pet to take, because she knew that Mandy doesn’t like her to mess with her things, especially her pet, because I warned her and she chose to ignore me, and, most importantly, because she did it to provoke Mandy.

With all these criticisms flying from her friends’ mouths, poor Jane feels bombarded and starts crying. I go and sit next to her. I wipe her tears and ask her to share how she feels. She says she is confused. “People change personalities every five minutes,” she says, “I don’t know who to trust anymore.” Clearly, she feels bad about what she did — which is great because now she can begin to reflect on, and amend, her behaviour. But I leave that aside for her to work on. Instead, I say “I realise how unsettling it is for you that people change how they behave. But is it always bad to change your behaviour? Can we think of reasons why it might be good to adjust how we respond?”

Another student, Alex, puts up his hand, “It is good because it shows that we are getting better at friendship.” I say that that’s very interesting and ask Alex to say more please. He says “I mean it gives us practice in … not friendship, but, well … peopleship.” Wow you guys, peopleship! How apt! Others call it “people skills” but “peopleship” captures what we mean so much better. We must come back to this later.

My eight-year-olds are growing up so fast and they are so mature that even some adults do not match them. They make me proud every day, even when they misbehave. The bell rings and they go to break and I am left full of happiness, pride, and amazement. This is what makes class teaching so rewarding.

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