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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, Peter DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. Former superintendent Michael Nelson is a frequent contributor. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Conflict Resolution for Adults and Students

By Peter DeWitt — August 31, 2011 3 min read
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“When it comes to deep divisions, resolution and empathy must be combined if change is to occur (Fullan, 2011, p.50).”

Recently, I had a conversation with internationally known educational leadership expert Dr. Michael Fullan. Dr. Fullan has a new book entitled Change Leader, and our conversation focused on how educators could use Change Leader to better meet the needs of students. Although it is primarily written for school leaders, I strongly believe that many of Fullan’s core practices can be transferred to the classroom as well as a school building or district.

One core practice that Dr. Fullan focuses on is “Impressive Empathy.” Impressive empathy is the act of trying to understand your detractors. Clearly, in public education we have a lot of detractors, so it could be a full time job to try to understand the purpose behind their opinions. However, we do need to have an open mind to those who disagree with us or we will never be able to move forward in changing education for the better.

Disagreements often happen with adults, especially in the world of blogs. A writer may post a blog that a reader disagrees with, and the reader posts their opinion. Some of the readers maintain their level of anonymity by creating a unique user name with no identifiable features. For hot button issues, there may be a flurry of posts from both “sides.” Unfortunately, some readers who want to come to the aide of the writer will post unkind comments toward the detractor of the original blog, instead of truly trying to get to the heart of the disagreement.

It all makes me reflect on one of my brothers. I have a brother who has some conservative ideals and we talk about those ideals quite often. When I was younger I used to get mad at him because I often found they clashed with my liberal views. However, now that I am older I find myself floating between conservative and liberal depending on the topic (i.e money and spending vs. sexuality or education). So our ideals coincide much more than they used to.

In the past few years, I have noticed that acquaintances who talk with my brother about their liberal views do not often give him the opportunity to express his conservative views. Many times he doesn’t push his agenda out of fear of making someone else mad. I found that a bit unfair. Don’t get me wrong, he is my older brother and I often wonder if this is just karma getting back at him for all of the times he picked on me when we were kids.

Many of us do that where our opinions are concerned. We want to give our opinions without necessarily hearing the opinions of our detractors. Dr. Stephen Covey, who wrote the successful book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, identified the fifth habit as “Seek first to understand, than to be understood.” Along with Fullan’s impressive empathy, I have been feeling like we do not do enough of that, and our students are watching.

As educators, when our students are having issues with other students, we suggest that they talk and try to come to a resolution. However, as adults, we often vilify those who disagree with us. I understand that there are people who say things about us that cannot be forgiven. There are communities with anonymous hate blogs that focus on public officials and feel it is their right to say things about them whether they are true or untrue. I’m referring to people who argue because of politics or education. Although they make us angry because they have an alternative view, they still deserve to be heard.

Someone I have long admired, who also blogs for Education Week is Diane Ravitch. Diane is someone who listens to her detractors. One recent example is her interview with Steven Brill on After Words (C-Span). Dr. Ravitch and Mr. Brill are on opposite ends of the spectrum where education is concerned, but she accepted the invitation to interview him about his new book Class Warfare. In the interview, which is linked here, both Ravitch and Brill debated about education. Diane maintained a sense of civility and moved forward with the interview even during times when Brill was vehemently uncivil.

We need to teach students at a young age that disagreements are a part of life but it’s what we do with the disagreements that truly matter. We can agree to disagree, but we do not have to vilify someone just because they do not share in our opinions. It may be too late to teach this lesson to some adults, but it’s not too late to teach it to students.

Suggestions for teaching Impressive Empathy to students:

Teach students how to debate in your classroom. This can start at an early age. If we want students to learn how to stand up we have to teach them how to do it. Use teachable moments during the school day that focus on situations when students disagree. Conflict resolution is a life skill that students need to learn. Find children's literature that focuses on conflict resolution. There are countless examples of children's literature that focuses on this issue. Every good story has a villain. After modeling good writing practices with students, have them write a story that includes a plot about two people who do not get along. Tell them the goal of the story is to have a happy ending where the characters come to some sort of resolution...even if that means they have to agree to disagree. Be a good role model. Share stories about people you disagree with and how you find some common ground. As a school principal, I always tell students who come to my office for arguing/fighting that I have people I do not agree with, but we find others ways to resolve our issues. Conflict resolution needs to be a part of any bullying program that you have in your school. Follow Peter on Twitter.

Covey, Stephen (1989). The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Free Press. New York

Fullan, Michael (2011). Change Leader. Jossey-Bass.

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.