After working on educational conflict in communities throughout the United States, and in schools around the world, I have come to realize that educators have to know more about leadership and conflict than even politicians do. Unfortunately, school leaders usually know far less. If education is to flourish, the conclusion is self-evident: Educators need to stop being conflict illiterate and learn more about dealing with deep differences.
Privately, of course, educators working in K-12 schools or public universities can be Democrats or Republicans, liberals or conservatives. But school leaders cannot be Bill Clintons or George Bushes. They cannot be partisans. They must be a different kind of leader, which I call the Mediator.
As evidence that many educators are conflict illiterate, listen to the former president of a major state university: “When you’re in a position like mine,” complained the beleaguered official, “every decision you make is going to anger some large number of people. … Pretty soon, you have this growing list of unhappy people.” Asked what lessons she had learned, her reply was strictly defensive: One needs to have, she said through a grim smile, “a very thick skin.”
This university president acted as if there is absolutely nothing to learn about conflict. From her one-dimensional perspective, conflict is a mathematical certainty. Its exponential growth has nothing to do with leadership, but is merely the inevitable fate of anyone unfortunate enough to hold such a burdensome position.
Unfortunately, I have heard many school principals and district superintendents, as well as school board members, express this same fatalistic, unimaginative—and yes, uneducated—attitude toward conflict. In fact, we can learn how to deal with conflict more effectively. We can transform differences into opportunities. But we need to take the time and energy to learn.
To learn math or science or history, study is required. Conflict requires study, too. Otherwise, school communities become battlefields, casualties mount, and children become pawns in endless ideological conflicts about education.
In the public schools of one Southwestern town, I witnessed a particularly bitter, if predictable, education conflict. A group of leading citizens had convened around issues of school reform, but encountered one obstacle that threatened to divide the group: the ongoing debate on evolution vs. creationism.
At the height of the conflict, a “liberal” high school biology teacher declared point-blank to a “conservative” local minister, “I will never allow the teaching of religion in my biology class because ... ”
“And I will not allow young people to attend a school that denigrates our faith,” the minister interrupted, shouting in defiance.
It seemed like a dead end. These two decent, civic-minded men, both members of a community group focused on improving education, seemed to be locked in battle. Neither wanted to give an inch. The tension in the room became so uncomfortable that other participants began talking about leaving. Instead of bringing hope and inspiration to the local schools, this group looked as if it might fail altogether, and increase division and cynicism instead.
This story (to which we will return later) illustrates why educators need to understand conflict more deeply. For public school leaders in diverse democracies, conflict is inevitable. Whether promoting change or defending current practices, one has no choice but to deal with conflict. The question then is: Do we have the necessary tools to deal with conflict effectively?
In any situation involving change, whether it is a movement for school reform or some other effort to challenge current educational practices, “sides” emerge. The drama involves protagonists and antagonists, “pro” and “con” positions, and all the other symptoms of conflict. If we want to deal with these challenging, often tense, situations effectively, we need more than good school managers. We need school leaders who know how to be mediators.
Educators need to stop being conflict illiterate and learn more about dealing with deep differences.
After a decade of research involving close scrutiny of scores of leaders who have effectively led their organizations or communities through conflict, I have identified eight tools that leaders as mediators use in various combinations. Complex educational conflicts require a complete toolbox—and the skill to use every tool that it contains. A complete toolbox includes the following:
Integral vision. The commitment to hold all sides of the conflict, in all their complexity, in our minds and hearts. (Antonym: “tunnel vision” or “narrow-mindedness.”) Key questions include:
- • Can you see your whole school, or school district?
• Can your colleagues see the whole, too?
• Are you all holding the same picture in mind?
Systemic thinking. Identifying all (or as many as possible) of the significant elements related to the conflict situation, and understanding the relationships between and among these elements. (Antonym: “distracted” or “ego centered.”)
- • How do the parts of your school system (teachers, administrators, central office, and so on) fit together?
• When does conflict—acute episodes, or simmering disagreements—prevent these parts from working smoothly as one integrated system?
Presence. Applying all our mental, emotional, and spiritual resources to assessing and transforming the conflict. (Antonym: “distracted” or “half-hearted.”)
- • Are you fully present in most, if not all, of your leadership roles?
• Do strains, stresses, or distractions hinder your effectiveness?
• If so, where is your effectiveness compromised—and what steps are you taking to obtain support in these areas?
Inquiry. A way of asking questions that elicits essential information about the conflict that is vital to understanding how to transform it. (Antonym: “know-it-all” or “arrogant.”)
- • Do you ask the right questions, of the right people, at the right time?
• Are you missing vital information that you need for running your school because you are not inquiring?
Conscious conversation. The practical application of the awareness that we are free to choose how we speak and listen. (Antonym: “habitual,” “scripted,” or “mechanical” speaking.)
- • Are you aware of the full range of communication options that are available to you?
• Do you know when to use each one for maximum impact?
• Is your school’s “meeting culture” well-designed?
Dialogue. An inquiry-based, trust-building way of communicating that maximizes the human capacity to bridge and to innovate. (Antonym: “top-down” or “one-way.”)
- • Are your school’s leaders stuck in debate mode?
• Do your leadership team members waste valuable time and energy trying to prove themselves and their decisions right, and others wrong?
• Does your school community have a way to engage in real dialogue?
Bridging. The process of building partnerships and alliances that cross the divisions in an organization. (Antonym: “scapegoating” or “polarizing.”)
- • What relationships in your school, or school district, are not functioning at optimal levels?
• Do you and your colleagues know how to bridge these differences to achieve better results?
Innovation. The creative, educational breakthrough that provides new options for moving through conflicts. (Antonym: “uncreative” or “stuck.”)
- • Are the human relationships in your school structured to produce maximum innovation?
• How is innovation rewarded—or punished—in your school culture?
In my educational consulting work, I have found that the most common bridges that need to be built are (1) between faculty and administration, (2) between schools and the central office, and (3) between administrators and school boards. The stronger these bridges can be built using the tools outlined above, the more students and their parents tend to feel confidence in the educational process.
Transforming conflicts cannot be guaranteed in advance. (If it can, it is not truly a breakthrough, but a preconceived plan devised by someone at the central office.) The breakthrough must be an innovation, something that perhaps could be imagined but not achieved until now. This innovation—something newly invented or a new way of doing things—brings hope. It points the way toward resolving, or transforming, the conflict so that education not only continues, but also becomes stronger.
This is precisely what happened in the conflict between the minister and the biology teacher I mentioned at the outset of this essay. After the two men locked horns, the tension was so intense that a high school librarian burst into tears.
“What am I supposed to do?” she asked, glancing back and forth at the two men who were still glaring at each other. “When this meeting is over, I go back to the library. I have to work with our children every day. How can I deal with this without taking sides against somebody I care about?”
Transforming conflicts cannot be guaranteed in advance. The breakthrough must be an innovation, something that perhaps could be imagined but not achieved until now.
Her vulnerable honesty shifted the energy, the conversation became more conscious, and genuine dialogue emerged within the group. The librarian’s tears reminded everyone of the pain that this issue triggered, and made them want to heal rather than reopen this deep cultural wound. Slowly, inquiry began, and then new insights and ideas began to surface.
“Couldn’t studying the clash between creationism and Darwinism become part of the science curriculum?” asked one participant.
“Can’t biology be taught as a science without teachers ‘bashing’ Christianity?” asked another.
By the next meeting, this group of concerned citizens had begun to cut through this long-standing dispute and to redesign a science curriculum based on respect, inquiry, and dialogue. In other states, educators have tried either to banish creationism, discredit Darwinism, or promote “intelligent design” (all ill-fated quests). But this citizens’ group instead broke new ground. Its members began to design a curriculum that would empower their high school students to learn to think for themselves, and, given half a chance, to transform a conflict into opportunity.
This school reform initiative survived because it used the mediator’s tools for transforming conflict. Through inquiry and dialogue, adversaries built bridges and, working together, fostered innovation. Instead of being trapped by conflict and allowing it to weaken education, they transformed conflict and strengthened education. In the coming years, no leadership capacity will prove more important in education than leading through conflict.
A version of this article appeared in the May 03, 2006 edition of Education Week as Why Educators Must Become Mediators