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Response: Don't 'Ignore' Staff Conflict In Schools

(This is the first post in a two-part series)

The new "question-of-the-week" is:

What are your suggestions on how to resolve teacher-to- teacher and/or principal-to-teacher conflicts?


Workplace conflicts can be found everywhere, and schools are no exception.

This series will explore the best ways to handle tension between teachers and between teachers and administrators.

Today's responses come from Sanée Bell, Ed.D., Todd Franklin, Jenny Edwards, Julie P. Combs, Stacey Edmonson, Sandy Harris and Amber Teamann. You can listen to a 10-minute conversation I had with Sanée and Todd on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here. By the way, you can also now listen to the show on Google Play and Stitcher, in addition to iTunes.

Response From Sanée Bell, Ed.D.

Sanée Bell, Ed.D. is a middle school principal and adjunct professor who resides in Houston, Texas. She has experience as an elementary principal,  middle and high school teacher, and basketball coach. Dr. Bell recognizes her impact as a leader and uses her role to inspire, motivate, and empower others. Sanée shares her thoughts on leadership on her blog saneebell.com and via Twitter @SaneeBell:

Conflict is a way of life. In fact, without conflict, one is not able to grow. As a principal, I handle conflict on a regular basis. I bolded the word handle because this is exactly what must happen when conflict arises. To ignore conflict actually gives the conflict power. Now don't get me wrong, I am not a conflict seeker, but I do seek to resolve and address conflict so that all parties mutually agree with the outcome.

When dealing with conflict between teachers, I always ask each party how I can help. Many times one teacher will come into my office to share their displeasure about another colleague. Even if I have an opinion about the issue or the colleague, I never share it. My job is to listen and not to discredit the individual or add fuel to the flame. I ask the teacher sharing the following question when they finish giving me the details of the conflict, "What was the response when you told your colleague how you felt?" The reaction I usually get is one of shock. They usually respond by telling me that they haven't talked to the person, and in most cases, they have no intention of doing so. Most people don't address the conflict head on. They are looking for a solution to the conflict, preferably from the conflict fairy, that does not involve the person directly involved in the conflict.

Your leadership style will determine how you assist this teacher. If  you are a manager, you quickly give them ways you would address the issue and wish them luck on coming to a resolution. If you are a leader, you help them devise a plan that includes strategies they can use to resolve not only the current conflict but conflicts that may arise in the future. Then you follow up with them to see if the plan worked and determine if they need to revise or change their approach. The manager resolves issues quickly by putting a bandaid on the problem while the leader repairs harm and heals relationships.

When I experience a conflict with a teacher, I pull back from the situation and assess my actions and emotions. The easy fix to a principal-teacher conflict  is to assert my authority as the principal to resolve the conflict on my terms; however, in my opinion, the best way to solve the conflict is to listen, seek to understand,  acknowledge wrongdoing, whether it is perceived on intentional, and work to repair the relationship.

Principals need to seek to make things right at all times. We don't always have to be right or get the final word. We can't take responsibility for someone else's emotions but we can certainly take ownership for our own actions.  Always assume the best intentions from people. This is not easy, but it is so worth it. Principals should be problem-solvers, conflict-resolvers, and relationship builders. This triple threat equips a principal with the skills to handle any conflicts that may come their way.

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Response From Todd Franklin

Todd Franklin is currently a principal at Forestville Elementary School in Great Falls, Virginia.  Prior to his principalship, Todd worked as an administrator at the middle school level and in the central office, as a special projects administrator, for the Fairfax County Public School system. He is currently authoring a book with Rowman & Littlefield on reframing the cultural mindsets of teachers and school based administrators:

In reviewing strategies for teacher to teacher and principal to teacher conflicts, it is imperative to understand the importance of nurturing a contentious dyadic relationship in the workplace. There are many opportunities, in any organization, to have conflicting perspectives between personnel; both colleague to colleague and superior to subordinate. Though these two relationships differ in context, the solution steps to resolving these conflicts are quite similar.

Teacher to Teacher:

  1. Understand that in any conflict between two people, both parties need to be heard, individually, without interruption. By providing a platform for each teacher to state their complaint, justify their position, and express their present feelings about the relationship, the administrator/mediator is able to honor the perspectives of both parties. Without this platform, each party is thinking about their own rebuttal; failing to truly hear one another.
  1. The administrator, after letting both parties express themselves, needs to shift the focus of the existing conflict back to the bottom line: We are here for the students. Though an obvious statement, the conflicts that arise between colleagues is mostly due to a) personality conflicts or b) equity in responsibility. Neither of these common stimulants for conflict involve students directly. However, reframing the teachers' personal constructs towards one another can be futile if they do not exercise flexibility. Thus, the focus needs to shift to the job, the students and what they are charged with every day. 
  1. As a final solution step, the mediator (administrator) should set a tone for the individuals to talk between one another by themselves; without oversight from their superiors.  At the surface, this may seem risky. However, if the right ground rules are discussed, the teachers can realize their disagreements are often fixable.  At the very least, a platform of "agree to disagree" can be helpful. This can increase the percentage chance of solvability and a pathway forward by simply getting to that point; releasing resentment. 

Principal-Teacher

In a conflict that is based on a principal-teacher disagreement(s), the steps are similar: a) both parties express themselves, b) the principal sets a tone of respect and professionalism and c) a solution focused mentality is implemented with take-aways. 

Obviously, the difference, in this dyadic conflict, is that the responsibility lies solely in the hands of the principal to resolve the issue with a subordinate. 

  1. As the supervising authority in the building, the principal must discover how to navigate the conflict and the relationship in a manner that provides the teacher with the best learning environment moving forward. No matter the disagreement, that teacher is returning to the classroom to teach and support children. The principal must keep this fact in mind and carefully express themselves in a manner that respects the feelings of the teacher. 
  1. Within the communication episode, between the principal and the teacher, the principal must be skilled at moving the conversation in a direction that honors the work of the teacher while summarizing their differences in a respectful manner. The principal may disagree with the teacher's perspectives but there must be an acknowledgment of feelings for the relationship to truly move forward. 

  2. Though the principal-teacher conflict suggestions tend to appear like the administrator burdens the responsibility (even if a teacher is in the wrong), the reality is that the principal needs to ensure the teacher feels heard, understood and supported. One can always rely on documentation but, in reality, it is best to listen, process and communicate a message of working together and keeping lines of communication open; not in an email or an immediate move to formal documentation.

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Response From Jenny Edwards

Jenny Edwards, PhD gives training in Nonverbal Classroom Management. She also serves as Co-Lead for the Infant and Early Childhood Development PhD program at Fielding Graduate University in Santa Barbara, CA.  She is the author of Inviting Students to Learn: 100 tips for talking effectively with your students (ASCD, 2010) and Time to Teach: How do I get organized and work smarter? (ASCD, 2014). She served as co-editor for Invitational education and practice in higher education: An international perspective:

What might be some strategies for resolving teacher-to-teacher and/or principal-to-teacher conflicts? Strategies are presented below for avoiding them, as well as for resolving them when they occur.

Avoid Conflicts

To avoid getting into situations in which we are in conflict with another person, it is helpful to contemplate the possible results of what we say and do. By looking at the relationship with the person over a longer period of time, we can ask, "How might this affect our relationship five years from now?" Then, we can choose our words and actions carefully to avoid situations that might lead to conflict.

We can also presume that the person has positive intentions and means well. By adopting this mindset, we are more likely to give the person the benefit of the doubt.

Resolve Conflicts

If we do have a conflict with another person, we can use strategies proposed by Grinder (2013). First, he suggested that we have a third point to look at so that we can avoid eye contact and breathe. When we are breathing, we are able to think about what we are saying. If we were to have eye contact with another person in a difficult situation, it could tend to hurt the relationship. By looking at the third point--a piece of paper, a notebook, etc., we can keep breathing. As we are looking at the third point, the other person will look at the third point and be likely to keep breathing, as well.

Next, we can position our bodies at 90 degrees and align ourselves with the person rather than sitting or standing face-to-face, which can be more confrontational (Grinder, 2013). The combination of having a third point and having our bodies at 90 degrees can keep both of us breathing. We could also sit at a 45-degree angle to be even more aligned with the person. At all costs, we should avoid sitting across a table from the other person.

Next, we can use specific descriptions of what happened rather than making inferences and interpretations (Grinder, 2013).  Rather than saying, "This is outrageous" or "You're being ridiculous," we can keep the focus on the facts.

Another refinement could be to use third person (Grinder, 2013). It seems strange at first; however, it keeps both people breathing. Rather than saying, "You did this, and I did that," we can say, "Teacher A did this, and Teacher B did that." Once again, both parties are able to breathe so that they can resolve the situation.

Then, Grinder (2013) suggested intentionally using two kinds of voice patterns. We would use the approachable voice pattern in which the chin goes up and down and the voice goes up and down when looking at the person. It is a friendly tone of voice. We could also use gestures of inclusion in which we gesture back and forth between the other person and ourselves. If we are dealing with difficult information, we could use a credible voice pattern in which the chin is flat and goes down at the end of the sentence when we are looking at the third point.

Grinder (2013) also suggested separating the problem from the solution. We might have two notebooks in our lap--one for the difficult information and one for the solution. We could use a credible voice when looking at the notebook for the problem, and we could use an approachable voice when looking at the notebook for the solution.

So . . . how to resolve conflicts? First, avoid them. If they do happen, use nonverbal communication skillfully and keep breathing. 

References

Grinder, M. (with Yenik, M.). (2013). The elusive obvious: The science of non-verbal communication (3rd ed.). Battle Ground, WA: Michael Grinder and Associates.

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Response From Julie P. Combs, Stacey Edmonson & Sandy Harris

Julie P. Combs is director of the doctoral program and professor in Educational Leadership at Sam Houston State University.  Stacey Edmonson is Dean of the College of Education at Sam Houston State University.  Sandy Harris is Professor of Educational Leadership at Lamar University and author of BRAVO Principal! Building Relationships with Actions that Value Others, 2nd Edition. Julie, Stacey, and Sandy are currently writing the 2nd edition of The Trust Factor: Strategies for School Leaders:

Managing Conflicts in Schools

Conflict is a natural part of life. Even though we might prefer harmony in our work relationships, realistically, conflict will occur. Whether the conflict is among teachers or between a principal and teacher(s), conflict can be disruptive. We believe that conflict can be managed (but not always resolved) with effective communication skills. Consider the who, what, when, where, why, and how to help you remember strategies for managing conflict:

  • Who: Who needs to be involved in the discussions?  Many conflicts can be resolved by approaching the individual and asking questions about what happened. Conflicts escalate when people shy away from going to the source or when others become involved. When dealing with conflict in your work, a good first step is to consider carefully WHO should be involved.

  • What: What are the facts and feelings in this conflict? Use listening skills to discover the facts surrounding the conflict. An approach might be to talk with each side separately to identify the concerns.  Notice the emotions. Can you identify feelings of insecurity, fear, or loss?  If you can discern both the facts and feelings of each side, you are more equipped to consider next steps. Because educators are busy people, they tend to rush this important stage.

  • When: When is an appropriate time to approach the conflict? Timing is everything! Finding the right time to address a conflict can be challenging.  For example, if you wait too long to address a conflict, it can escalate.  Schedule a time to talk when everyone can participate. Self-restraint and patience are virtues when managing conflict.

  • Where: Where is a neutral location to talk about the conflict? Find a private place, away from students or parents. Avoid talking about conflicts in high-traffic places, like the hallways, the cafeteria, or even the classroom. Minor conflicts can sometimes be solved by talking on the telephone, but we recommend that you avoid texting or using email in these cases. The best method is a face-to-face meeting. Due to busy schedules, this approach is not always possible and video conferencing can be used.  Effective communication is multi-layered; in conflict situations, the dimensions of tone, facial expression, and nonverbal cues facilitate effective communication. 

  • Why: Why address this conflict? Although it might seem preferable to ignore the issue, it is often best to work through a concern. Minor issues left untended can escalate into larger issues over time. Communicating openly about the conflict allows others to consider the issue from multiple perspectives, which might not have been considered. Seeing the conflict from another point of view often leads to constructive solutions.

  • How: How do you move forward if, despite your best efforts, emotions run too high? Communication should be respectful, allowing the right to disagree and treating others with sensitivity.  When a conflict escalates, calmly say, "Let's take a break and continue this discussion at 3:00." Provide people with a chance to cool down and an agreed time to meet later.

Conflicts among educators are not pleasant but when addressed openly and respectfully, solutions can be reached that solve problems and improve the organization.  

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Response From Amber Teamann

Amber Teamann is the proud principal of Whitt Elementary in Wylie ISD in Wylie, Texas. During her educational career, Amber's comprehensive understanding of student learning has resulted in a successful blend of technology and teaching fro students and adults. From a 4th grade teacher at a public school technology center, to her role as a Title I Technology Facilitator responsible for 17 campuses to principal, Amber has helped students and staff navigate their digital abilities and responsibilities:

One of the things I didn't realize before I become an administrator was how much the position preceded the person. When I walk into the room, it isn't that "Amber" walked in, but that the principal walked into the room. That changes things!

There's a responsibility as the administrator to walk into every situation looking for the way that that both parties can win. If the administrator values being right over the relationship, it will be difficult for either party to feel trusted and heard. Regardless of my stance or what I am thinking, I am ALWAYS the principal. My words carry more weight, and that isn't a power to be taken lightly. When conflict occurs, it is up to the administrator to step up and establish how it (the relationship) can be put back on track. Employees who are happier, and feel valued, outperform their peers, according to Shawn Achor's research on the impact happiness on our workplace. As the principal, you should WANT that for your campus...and if a personal relationship isn't going to work, then a respecting professional one should be. An administrator should be the bigger person, and do whatever they can (within professional boundaries, of course!) to establish that kind of relationship. While solving each and every disagreement with the goal being a win win for each party is the harder route, it is the one that will ultimately benefit the campus and the climate most overall.

Leaders may be tempted to ignore, or look the other way when conflicts occur, but a strong leader recognizes the benefit in addressing the needs of their campus as they occur. By valuing the strengths and talents that each and every person brings to the team, allows conversations to be centered around the issue at hand and dealt with in a respectful and professional manner, and if the principal needs to be the intermediate, they can model effective strategies in confronting and addressing concerns.

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Thanks to Sanée, Todd, Jenny, Julie and Amber for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment with your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at [email protected]. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it's selected or if you'd prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Anyone whose question is selected for this weekly column can choose one free book from a number of education publishers.

Education Week has published a collection of posts from this blog, along with new material, in an e-book form. It's titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

Just a reminder--you can subscribe and receive updates from this blog via email or RSS Reader. And, if you missed any of the highlights from the first six years of this blog, you can see a categorized list below. They don't include ones from this current year, but you can find those by clicking on the "answers" category found in the sidebar.

This Year's Most Popular Q&A Posts

Classroom Management Advice

Race & Gender Challenges

Implementing The Common Core

Best Ways To Begin The School Year

Best Ways To End The School Year

Student Motivation & Social Emotional Learning

Teaching Social Studies

Project-Based Learning

Using Tech In The Classroom

Parent Engagement In Schools

Teaching English Language Learners

Student Assessment

Brain-Based Learning

Reading Instruction

Writing Instruction

Education Policy Issues

Differentiating Instruction

Math Instruction

Science Instruction

Advice For New Teachers

Author Interviews

Entering The Teaching Profession

Administrator Leadership

Teacher Leadership

Relationships In Schools

Professional Development

Instructional Strategies

I am also creating a Twitter list including all contributers to this column.

Look Part Two in a few days.

 

 

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