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Administration & Leadership

Using Conflict as an ‘Avenue for Change’

When conflicts arise, administrators may be tempted to sweep them under the rug—but that’s a missed opportunity for improvement.

May 7, 2021
corners74 / iStock

Tackling thorny issues in schools—from everyday annoyances around scheduling to some of the most consequential and deeply rooted problems of our times, like systemic racism and educational inequities—requires school leaders to commit to addressing conflicts head-on, write Robert Feirsen and Seth Weitzman for ASCD’s Educational Leadership, as well as a willingness to view conflict “as a constructive and honest avenue for change.”

“Principals have a crucial responsibility to be role models and leaders who do not shrink from or subdue conflict, but rather instill a school culture that honors different voices and ideas,” write Feirsen and Weitzman, who are the chair of the education department at the New York Institute of Technology and a retired middle school principal, respectively. “The most egregious effect of conflict is the missed opportunity to build capacity when schools are stymied by dissension.”

Nurturing the conditions for what the authors call “conflict-agility,” a mindset that aims to ease discord by “harnessing conflict in the service of improving educational outcomes and relationships,” is an ongoing process—and a critical one because, the authors note, “dissension does not simply vanish if it is ignored or driven underground.” When skilled leaders don’t shy away from conversations about, for example, “critical race theory, institutional power relationships, implicit bias, and inequitable outcomes,” they help build the school’s capacity for improvement and communicate a willingness to honor and hear all voices in the school community.

Here are a few suggestions from Feirsen and Weitzman, and a current superintendent, on how to address conflict in a productive, collaborative way.

Build Trust and Buy-In

Scott Taylor, superintendent of Highland Park Public Schools in New Jersey, begins his work day by “making the rounds”: walking the hallways and peeking into classrooms. “Just by cutting one to two hours out of my office day to spend a few minutes in each classroom and hallway of my small school district, I’ve learned more about the little (but often very important) things going on than I would have learned from email, phone calls, or hearsay,” Taylor says. Being highly accessible while “spending quality time talking and listening to teachers and support staff,” he discovered, is key to “showing everyone that I care about the school district at every level.”

When school leaders invest time and effort in building a positive culture of trust among the adults in the building, there’s a direct and powerful impact on the effectiveness and success of the organization as a whole. “Relational trust is the connective tissue that binds individuals together to advance the education and welfare of students,” write Anthony S. Bryk and Barbara Schneider for Educational Leadership. “Improving schools requires us to think harder about how best to organize the work of adults and students so that this connective tissue remains healthy and strong.”

Consider Language

Becoming mindful of the language used in connection with conflict—using language that’s respectful and “depersonalizes” conflict—is a critical first step in conflict-agility, write Feirsen and Weitzman. For example, they suggest, you might say, “Let’s clarify what the issue is—and what the issue isn’t,” to shift a conversation toward what needs to be addressed. To allow people to note their concerns but also signal that you expect to prioritize productive solutions, you might say, “We’ll look backwards for a few minutes, but mostly we’ll look ahead.”

While a natural, knee-jerk reaction to criticism is defensiveness, a “nonjudgmental, genuinely inquisitive stance” can be a lot more productive, Feirsen and Weitzman note. Take a minute to cool down and consider the big picture. Say a teacher objects to a performance review, for example: “Instead of reacting quickly with a justification, first breathe deeply, consider there may be underlying concerns,” the authors suggest, and then try restating the teacher’s position as you understand it and asking if your understanding is correct. That will buy you time to think, and offers the teacher both respect and an opportunity to clarify their thoughts.

Resolve Individual Concerns

In their early days as school leaders, Feirsen and Weitzman write, they often prioritized implementing their own agendas, inadvertently signaling that these goals were more important than the concerns and conflicts of staff members. “It took us decades of school administrative experience to realize that other people were not ready to consider policy or programmatic objectives unless we resolved their concerns at the outset,” they write.

So, for example, a new inquiry-based learning initiative might get teachers worrying about balancing their schedules, or whether the new curriculum would put some students at a disadvantage. Start by checking in with educators, Feirsen and Weitzman write, so you can work to resolve these individual concerns first before tackling your objective—doing so shows consideration and ultimately builds trust.

Make Space for Multiple Voices

Many of the conflicts that arise in schools can be traced back to differences in value systems, Feirsen and Weitzman observe. “Heated discussions about grades mask deeper questions about the purpose of assessment and the responsibilities of teachers and students,” they write. “Student discipline disputes reflect competing theories of child-rearing and managing behavior.”

But digging into differences in value systems is unlikely to easily lead to practical solutions. Instead, the authors recommend a different, subtler tack: “Rather than charging head-on into broad value questions, we recommend school leaders engage those directly impacted and work with them to identify ‘good enough’ solutions that enable stakeholders to achieve their goals at least in part.”

To provide opportunities for staff to exercise group problem-solving skills—with the goal of paving the way to taking on more substantive conflicts in the future—Feirsen and Weitzman suggest, for example, kicking off faculty meetings by asking staff to identify one or two agenda items that affect the entire school community and asking the whole team to commit to resolving these together. The group might brainstorm how both faculty and administrators could, as a team, address a rise in hallway behavior incidents, solving a schoolwide issue while exercising problem-solving skills—and preparing the team to handle bigger issues in the future.

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