I was flying back to the UK after a very intensive weekend in Greece, where I had given my first speech about Peer Mediation in my hometown, Trikala. The weather was rainy, but as soon as the plane rose above the clouds, everything felt peaceful and calm.
I closed my eyes and just then, a phrase came into my head:
“When you are in a mediation session, it is as if you are flying in turbulent weather and then, suddenly, you lift yourself up above the clouds and everything seems alright.”
And that was exactly my feeling when this 2-day course of introduction and training in Peer Mediation came to an end. Finally, I had fulfilled the dream that had stuck in my head since I had first arrived in the UK and learned about this program: the dream to go back to my country and promote this wonderful tool that can transform a school into a happier and safer place. So, I invite you to join me on this wonderful journey above the clouds – literally and metaphorically – from the beginning of this endeavour right up until this very moment.
About a year ago, I started a research project in Greek schools to investigate how many of them knew about Peer Mediation and how they included the program in their curriculum. I was assisted in this by an independent authority called the “Children’s Ombudsman”, whose main purpose and concern is the protection and promotion of children’s rights. It focuses particularly upon the violation of children’s rights by public services, as well as by private individuals or legal entities.
Through the organisation’s Deputy Ombudsman, George Moschos, I contacted the headteachers of the few Greek schools that had applied Peer Mediation successfully and had actually had a very positive impact on their pupils’ lives.
The first school to make this huge leap was the “1st Secondary School of Aspropyrgos” in Athens. Aspropyrgos is a deprived area with high rates of poverty, unemployment, addiction and domestic violence, along with a lack of cultural and social structure. Inside the school, the situation wasn’t any better: poor or non-existent relationships between the teachers, inadequate cooperation, lack of solidarity and a high incidence of conflict between the pupils.
The headteacher, Angeliki Giannatou, a very dynamic woman, realised that she had to act. So, in 2005, through “Comenius” (a European Union Programme for the schools’ sector before Erasmus was introduced), she visited a school in Rendsburg, Germany, where she learned the good practices that ensued as a result of Peer Mediation. Despite all the negative reactions and the arguments of her colleagues, Ms Giannatou managed to establish the program in her school and create a safer and happier place for both pupils and teachers.
A few years later, Maria Kotseli took the challenging decision to follow the very same steps. The school where she was headteacher – the “2nd Secondary School of Ano Liosia”, in Athens – is the most crowded in Greece (generally by Greek law, schools can register up to 250 students, but this one had 400 students in total!), multicultural and located in an area with high crime rates. But yet, against all the odds, the magic of Peer Mediation created a new miracle among the children and their teachers. Thanks to Maria Kotseli, this loving and admirable headteacher, the school became a place of creativity and peace, and the children felt as comfortable there as they did in their own homes. The school also set up many charity activities to help the whole community, going beyond the four walls of its classrooms
Mrs Kotseli found a valuable ally in the Department of Health Education (part of the Greek Ministry of Education) which, among other activities, supports schools and provides them with educational packages (e.g. “On My Own Two Feet” and “Compass”). The department committed to formally addressing the emotional and social development of pupils as one of their educational goals. I quote Christina Christidou, head of the Department of Health in Thessaloniki: “Peer Mediation has a direct connection with the promotion of health education as conflicts activate our emotions and affect our everyday lives and our relations with the people around us, as well as the quality of our happiness and our feelings of harmony with the world. The way we treat each other affects our health”.
By 2009, Peer Mediation was starting to spread its wings with enthusiastic… hesitation. Three more schools located in Athens applied Peer Mediation in their curriculum: “The German School of Athens”, “Varvakios Pilot School” and “Ionidios School of Piraeus”. It is worth noting that “Ionidios School”, with the support of Prof. Vaso Artinopoulou ( Professor of Criminology in the Sociology Department of Pantheon University of Social and Political Sciences, Athens, Greece), managed, along with executing the program, to gather valuable information concerning incidences of violence that occur in a school environment.
Some schools in Thessaloniki, Ioannina, Florina, Crete and Samos also implemented Peer Mediation, achieving the same amazing results in their school environments. Seeing these few, sporadic but promising efforts and having my UK experience in “Maidstone Mediation Scheme” as my guiding light and the support of the “Peer Mediation Network” behind me, I felt that it was my obligation to introduce Peer Mediation in my hometown, Trikala, as well.
I was prepared to come up against negative responses or at the least, some doubts. After all, who was this woman sending emails from the UK and talking about empowering children and resolving conflicts through dialogue and empathetic listening? And what was in it for her?
But none of these fears was realised. My co-citizens, although they knew nothing about Peer Mediation, welcomed this project with enthusiasm and a lively curiosity to learn more about it.
Four local public services co-operated (The Department for Education of the Municipality of Trikala, the Regional Schools Commission, Primary and Secondary Education Regional Departments, the Volunteer Team of Trikala) and, one stormy Friday, on 18th of March 2016, the dream came true.
More than 300 people attended the conference that was held and learned about the values and skills that Peer Mediation instils in children’s hearts. Besides, more than 130 teachers were trained (in two different workshops) to put the program into practice.
The seed has been planted, and now we are waiting for the flower to grow by making the next step, to organise this whole initiative in a more institutional way. And although stability is not a popular word in Greece these days, there are still people who are trying to change their lives, people so beautifully crazy that they will offer their time, their money and their ideas for a functional community against all the odds.
And where can you find a better place to do that than Greece, a place full of contradictions but with people who do have in their genes the cells of democracy, conciliation, compassion, fairness and freedom.
We are still at the beginning. There are so many things that need to be done. But we have to stimulate those cells that are within us, and we need to act now.
More than ever before, our societies need citizens with “noble hearts, who have no room for hate” as Aristotle once said.
Lawyer – Accredited Mediator of Greek Ministry of Justice, Specialized in Family Mediation, Peer Mediation and Child-Centered Divorce Mediation with a Master in Applied Positive Psychology.
Δικηγόρος και Διαπιστευμένη Διαμεσολαβήτρια του Υπουργείου Δικαιοσύνης. Ζει στην Αγγλία και εργάζεται σε Bρετανικούς φορείς Διαμεσολάβησης. Έχει εξειδικευτεί στην Οικογενειακή Διαμεσολάβηση από τον Βρετανικό Φορέα “National Family Mediation” και στην “Child Centered Mediation” από τον Βρετανικό φορέα «Family Mediation Association.» Έχει εκπαιδευτεί στη Διαχείριση Διαζυγίου και Χωρισμού Γονέων και είναι κάτοχος του “Diploma in Negotiations” του Οικονομικού Πανεπιστημίου Αθηνών.