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Professional Development Opinion

Response: Looking for ‘Solutions’ in the Face Of Staff Conflict

By Larry Ferlazzo — July 09, 2018 15 min read
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(This is the last post in a two-part series. You can see Part One here.)

The new “question-of-the-week” is:

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

Part One‘s responses came 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.

Today, Greg Giglio, Jane Kise, David Bateman, Jenifer Cline, Tom Hoerr, Jennifer Abrams contribute their suggestions.

Response From Greg Giglio

Greg Giglio is the Principal at Homestead High School in Cupertino, California:

  1. Get back to the root of the issue: Because most adults do not like conflict and keep their feelings inside until they hit their limit, I have found that many of these conflicts have not even been discussed or broached by the two essential parties. This usually means sifting through hurt feelings and anger to get to the heart of the matter in order to get to what started the issue.

  2. Are you just venting? Or are you looking for a solution? When a staff member or parent show up with a complaint, I tend to ask those two questions. Personally, I don’t think venting is a healthy solution but sometimes people just want to get something off of their chest and they need a safe person with whom to do it. I don’t like this because it tacitly implies that you agree or support their complaint when in fact you may not. It is important that you follow up the venting request with the statement “if you are just looking to vent, then that means this situation will continue unless you do something different because you can only control what you do”. The second question starts to get at the heart of the matter as it helps me to determine if the staff member or parent want help solving it, need advice or are just plain stuck.

  3. Stick to norms or goals. Personally, I always like to look at a problem through the lens of “what is best for the student” as this takes some of the personal and emotional distractions out of the conversation. However, your team or school might have a different goal or a norm that would just as nicely refocus the issue away from he said/she said to something more altruistic and agreeable to both parties.

  4. Get agreements on action steps. Most conflicts are rooted in one person trying to change the behavior or thoughts of another, which is virtually impossible. This also falsely implies that only one person is at fault or needs to change. I have found that getting agreements from each side as to how each individual will approach the issue differently is more productive than the “total victory” approach of one side over another.

  5. Check your own emotions. Don’t become part of the problem by becoming emotionally involved. The quickest way to lose control is to get on the same rollercoaster that brought the two parties to your doorstep.

Think of your school as a triangle that has parents on one point, students on another and staff on the third. You are the pencil upon which the triangle is balanced. Keeping yourself in check will help you think through the inevitable complaints that you will receive as well as to put the power to solve this issues back into the hands of those who brought it there in the first place.

Response From Jane Kise

Jane Kise, Ed.D. is an education consultant based in Minnesota. The author of over 20 books, she works with schools and businesses worldwide on leadership development, collaboration, and instructional coaching. Her website is www.janekise.com:

I’m called into schools to help staff get back on track after major conflicts such as

  • A school principal asking for help after a staff meeting ended in a shouting match, with over half the staff accusing her of failing at leadership
  • A school principal asking for help when some members of staff were threatening to settle things out in the woods after school!

Almost invariably, people have misread each others’ strengths and blind spots, resulting in deep, damaging misunderstandings. Invariably I’ve facilitated resolution by helping the individuals involved to reframe their own--and others'--words, beliefs and actions in terms of strengths and related blind spots. What do I mean? Let’s start with a nonthreatening example, since that’s where I often begin when working with teams.

A few weeks ago, I picked up a rental car at the Memphis airport. Before driving to the town where I’d be facilitating a school leadership workshop, I stopped by Elvis Presley’s Graceland. I made sure I knew exactly where I parked my rental car in the huge parking lot, lining it up with the light posts and exit. But...when I finished the tour a couple hours later, I realized I hadn’t noted the color or make of my rental car.

Perhaps you’re thinking I’m an idiot, but really I’m a big picture person--and my blind spot is reality and details! If you’ve never lost your car in a parking lot, you might be frustrated by the big-picture directions I might give--if I haven’t carefully planned and perhaps had a more detail-oriented person check them over.

I appreciate when others reframe this as, “Jane is a big-picture person. I’m better with details. Instead of accusing her of being incompetent, I can kindly point out errors when her strategies let her down.” That kind of reframing is at the heart of resolving many conflicts.

My Differentiated Coaching: A Framework for Helping Educators Change (Corwin, 2017) provides a systems approach to this kind of reframing, but here are examples of reframing some of the most common judgments we make about others. How might you use them in conflict situations?

If you’re thinking, “This teacher has to debate everything.”

Reframe it as,

some teachers simply enjoy the stimulating back and forth of ideas and are surprised that others view this as debate.

If you’re thinking, “This teacher doesn’t know how to plan.”

Reframe it as,

some teachers are masters of understanding exactly what students need in the moment. And, they may view plans as cutting off options rather than as tools for reaching goals.

If you’re thinking, “This teacher resists being told what to do.”

Reframe it as, some teachers automatically think of creative ways to do things. Consider whether there are multiple paths to the same goal. And, ask, “How would you like to change this?” Often, they’ll try it your way once!

If you’re thinking, “This teacher is inflexible/rigid.”

Reframe it as,

some teachers see rules and principles as devices that ensure fairness, leaving little room for arguments or exceptions. Be sensitive to their need to ensure that they are treating each child fairly.

If you’re thinking, “This teacher takes even the most constructive feedback as a personal attack.”

Reframe it as, some teachers equate performing perfectly with being liked. Many do need to hear the positive before the negative, and take mishaps as their own personal fault in spite of the unpredictability of anything in classrooms!

Response From David Bateman & Jenifer Cline

David Bateman, PhD is a professor of special education at Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania where he focuses on providing appropriate services to students with disabilities. He is the co-author of many books, including A Teacher’s Guide to Special Education.

Jenifer Cline, MS, works in the Office of Public Instruction for the state of Montana. She is a former speech pathologist and a special education administrator. She is the co-author of many books, including A Teacher’s Guide to Special Education:

Conflict is a part of everyday in both our personal and professional lives and can be difficult and uncomfortable. However, conflict is the catalyst for growth and change. Therefore we need to understand a bit more about conflict and how to handle it when it comes our way. We need to see conflict as an opportunity to grow and become better at what we do. Easier said than done...well, maybe. In his book “The Dynamics of Conflict,” Mayer discusses the thought that at the center of any conflict is human need. Often the struggle in understanding the other person’s need is due to a number of factors that can cloud the true issue(s), therefore, making it difficult to come to resolution. These factors may include culture, personality, power, data, emotions, history, communication, structure, and values. In order to get to the true issues, you must first work to address and level the factors blocking the true “need” in the conflict.

When addressing conflict between yourself and another administrator, colleague, or parent you must work to first understand the true need. This may mean you will have to consider where they are coming from in regard to the factors listed above and work to see the issues from their perspective. This does not mean that you have to agree with their stance, but if you can first seek to understand, then you will be better equipped to move forward with a solution. It is hard to put our own needs, beliefs and desires on the back burner while we seek to understand another’s. But, until that can be done, you may be struggling with an extenuating factor, not get to the “root of the problem.”

In the book “Start with the Why” by Simon Sink talks about “the golden circle.” This concept is that people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it. Even though this is a perspective on business, it is also worth consideration in the field of education and addressing conflict within the educational setting. Here is a link to watch a short clip. If you are able to clearly communicate why “you do what you do” and your decisions and behaviors remain true to this “why,” it is easier for those who are not like-minded to see your “need” and minimize the conflict. But first you must also understand the other person’s “need”.

Conflict often gets us down and we feel exhausted dealing with it. Over the summer, I urge you to watch the Simon Sink video and think about your “why”. This will be a great starting point in changing your perspective of conflict and help you turn conflict into an opportunity to grow.

Response From Tom Hoerr

Tom Hoerr is the Emeritus Head of New City School, a Scholar In Residence at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, and writes the “Principal Connection” column in Educational Leadership. His latest book is The Formative Five.www.thomasrhoerr.com:

I led schools for 37 years and taught for years before that, so let me begin by sharing my bias: conflicts are inevitable when people come together. That’s true at the dinner table, it happens on the softball team, and it occurs in the work setting. Schools are no exception, so we should not view conflicts as a negative. In fact, an absence of conflict may indicate a lack of care for students or commitment to the mission! Principals want teachers who are advocates for their students and who will work to make the school better, and that includes being willing to raise hard questions, take difficult positions, and not always accept the status quo. Important and necessary as those actions are, they often create conflict. How administrators respond to conflict - what they do or don’t do - is framed by how it is viewed.

My position on conflict is the friction approach, i.e., it is inevitable that as objects or people rub against each other, friction occurs and heat is generated. Another approach is the medical model of conflict. In this approach, conflict is like a disease, and it should be eradicated by medicine or, even, removed through surgery. How we feel about conflict will be quite apparent to others. Because I view conflicts as opportunities for communications and a chance to learn, my strategies are fairly direct.

First, recognizing that people will see things differently, it’s important to create rich and open two-way communications channels. Principals are pretty good at communicating TO teachers: we hold staff meetings, send memos, and frame efforts. But we also need to find ways to hear FROM them. We need to provide different vehicles for staff members to let us know what they are thinking. My weekly staff bulletins frequently asked questions, and I sent surveys to the staff during the school year (using Survey Monkey in the spring). I also offered several “Breakfast With Tom” sessions during the school year. Held during a late start or conference day, these were optional times for staff members to come and ask me whatever. The invitation would say “The agenda is yours.” Typically, a third or fourth of the faculty would join me, and we would discuss a range of topics and concerns. While my schools were not without conflicts (I have the scars to prove it), offering frequent and open two-way communications channels to the staff helped me address small problems before they became big conflicts.

Second, I worked to find compromises and be part of solutions that weren’t based on my title or position in the hierarchy. Good leaders recognize that people need to have an investment in their work and that means giving them autonomy and providing support. Understanding and appreciating that teachers would see things a bit differently and act accordingly also helped avoid or ameliorate conflicts. During those times when my position meant that I was being the decider, I was clear about this ahead of time so that others didn’t feel used in the process. As in so many areas, intentionality and transparency are very important. Principals need to do more than make decisions; we need to be part of the dialogue and we need to share our rationale.

Finally, how we handle conflicts - how we create situations to avoid or minimize them and how we respond when there is a problem - happens within the context of our relationships with teachers. If we routinely listen and regularly show them respect, if we are quick to praise and give them support, we will still have conflicts. Again, that’s part of life, like breathing. But if we have created a climate of trust, respect, and learning, conflicts will be ameliorated because everyone will work to understand one another and come together.

Response From Jennifer Abrams

Jennifer Abrams is an international educational and communications consultant who considers herself a “voice coach,” helping others learn how to best use their voices. She was recognized by Peter DeWitt as one of the “21 Women All K-12 Educators Should Know.” Abrams is author or co-author of several books for educators, including Hard Conversations Unpacked - the Whos, the Whens and the What Ifs and The Multigenerational Workplace: Communicating, Collaborating, and Creating a Community. Learn more about Jennifer at www.jenniferabrams.com or connect with her on Twitter @jenniferabrams:

First Thought: Blaine Lee said, “Almost all conflict is a result of violated expectations.” We often have conflicts with supervisors and colleagues as the result of them violating our expectations of what is ‘right.’ How we ‘should’ do things. The question I always pose is “Do we know that everyone is on the same page? Do we have our expectations spelled out so everyone knows what the expectations are? Or do we assume because we are all professionals’ or all adults that we should know better? We see that someone did a workshop on the expectation for 30 minutes about 6 months ago or put it in the school handbook and that should be enough for everyone. It isn’t. We need to have more clarifying conversations and do so way before we need to resolve conflicts and have hard conversations. Concepts like ‘inclusivity’ need to be deconstructed. Teaching practices such as ‘co-teaching’ need to be described. The idea of being a ‘professional’ needs to be fleshed out. What do these words look like and sound like? What would it look like if these expectations were violated? Once we are all on the same page with some specifics then when there is a violation and it results in a conflict we can address it more concretely.

Last Thought: We as professionals need to be responsible not just for our intent but our impact. Many conflicts come about because we ‘didn’t mean it’ or the person was ‘too sensitive’ and while those comments may be true, they aren’t helpful in resolving the conflict. You might not have ‘meant ill will’ in what you did or said, but it had a negative impact. We need to be responsible for our impact when we do something that didn’t work, were thought of as insensitive or were perceived as hostile. Then we need to change our behavior. We all have personalities, and most often are not ill intended, but we need to to be responsible for how we come across in our classrooms and in our interactions with colleagues. Not just for our intent but for our behaviors, action and impact. Many conflicts can be resolved if we take responsibility for our actions, not just our motivations.

Thanks to Greg, Jane, David, Jenifer, Tom, and Jennifer for their contributions!

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