It’s a sunny day sometime last term and I’m standing in the kitchen making some coffee. Lunch has just finished and a few children are outside in the woods playing Harry Potter. Rowan is out there too playing the part of Voldemort. Some other children are indoors making constructions with straws.
All of a sudden, Rowan rushes in and in a serious tone she calls over to me.
“Sally, I need to call a small meeting with you”.
My heart starts to beat quickly and I stand for a moment bewildered, wondering what I’ve done – am I in trouble? My fight-flight is kicking in, and I’m already thinking about how to argue against or admit to an accusation I haven’t even heard yet…
I pull myself together and, trying to sound as laid-back as possible, I respond.
“Hey yeah sure Rowan, what’s up?”.
“Let’s meet out behind the garage in a few minutes if that’s ok with you? And C would like to lead the meeting if you don’t mind. Is that ok?” My heart sinks and my head starts to race through all the reasons why Rowan might want to call a meeting with me. What is going on?
The small meeting is our procedure for solving problems together at Free We Grow. Any member of the community can call a small meeting with someone else if there is a problem that isn’t being solved or if someone is breaking a rule. It is important for members of the group to try to solve the problem first without a small meeting, and Rowan and I are there to support children if something comes up, but the small meeting is the last resort before bringing a problem to the attention of the rest of the community.
This is a process that has developed and evolved during our first year here at Free We Grow. It’s not an ideal process, and we’re making adjustments as we go. The current structure is the result of many discussions in the morning meeting about how the community can solve problems when they arise. Because we’re such a small group, it doesn’t seem appropriate to have an ‘ombudsman’ system just yet, or a Sudbury-style judicial committee like in other spaces. Rather, we are taking the time to develop and adjust the process gradually to make sure that it works for us.
Our current rules around the small meeting are as follows:
- The person calling the meeting and the person being called agree on a mediator or a ‘leader’ for the meeting. This must be someone uninvolved in the problem and who is likely to treat the problem fairly. If a leader can’t be a agreed upon, members can each choose a mediator, and these two must work together.
- There are four possible locations for small meetings to take place on the site. They were chosen because they are all calm and private spaces. We decided to have several possible spaces in case one place is being used, or if someone is playing there.
- Finally the time of the meeting has to be agreed upon by those involved. Usually it’s best to go straight and start the meeting immediately, but if someone needs some time to cool off and regain composure from a dispute then the meeting can take place later on that day.I follow Rowan and C out to the courtyard and sit down. The children are indoors and I have an eye on the door out to the courtyard.“Where are the others, I saw them go outside with you?”, I ask.
“Oh, they’re fine. Hey Sally, I need to speak to you. You see, the reason why I’m calling this meeting is…”.
She waits, looking away.
C, in a serious tone asks, “Rowan, why are you calling this small meeting?”
“…Well, what is it?”, I ask, really confused now.
Rowan responds, a lot louder and slower than usual as if she wants to be overheard.
“The reason I’m calling this meeting IS…!!”. I hear a giggle from the ivy in the corner behind the garage where we’re sitting.
Rowan turns around to look behind her and repeats, “I SAAAIID, THE REASON WHY I’M CALLING THIS MEETING IS…!!”. A bunch of kids jump out from the ivy, giggling and bounding over to me. Their magic wizard wands in their hands. I’m surrounded.
“Expelliarmus!”, exclaims A (aka Snape).
“Haha, we’ve got you now Dumbledore!”, laughs Lucius Malfoy. C (aka Nagini) jumps up from his seat and points his wand. And it all becomes clear – it was a trap all along! I’m paralysed by the spell. Voldemort and the other wizards have got me right where they want me.
Despite being tricked and jumped on in the name of trickster magic, I must say that this episode really helped to get me thinking. It was a useful exercise in how it can feel – the beating heart, the sense of guilt, the feeling of being confronted with an unexplained accusation – especially when a child is on the receiving end of an adult’s disapproval and without any warning. Sometimes we do this as teachers or parents. We may think the problem is obvious and so we expect that the person we’re confronting has a shared understanding of an issue. The very experience of being confronted, even if you know the structure of the meeting is there, can be quite jarring, and it certainly was for me in this instance. It reaffirms the need for a safe space for these conversations, in a small group and with a mediator that you have chosen and feel comfortable with.
This experience will certainly feed into our discussions about how to develop the small meeting this term and to help us to keep thinking about how to maintain safe spaces for conflict resolution and problem solving. We’ll see what kinds of solutions we can come up with as a community.
Thankfully I was later released from my paralysis spell. Which is why I’m now able to type this….