Any school staff can and even should have a certain degree of conflict. When people are working in an environment as emotionally charged and stressful as a school, conflict is bound to arise between staff members. But teacher conflict and clashes are not necessarily negative and need to be avoided. When teachers have conflict and find a way to work through it, their professional relationships are strengthened. One of the primary roles of school leaders is to help lead staff through, and even embrace, conflict. In the process, they are building a constructive and collaborative team of teachers. Here are six tips to productively address staff conflict.
1. Help staff members talk it out.
Having a third person, especially a leader, mediate a discussion can bring calm and clarity to the conflicting parties. The administrator is usually removed from the problem and therefore can approach it objectively. Mediators can ask questions, listen to both sides, provide suggestions, and lead the discussion to a healthy end. Paul Holtzman, a professional mediator at Krokidas & Bluestein LLP, says the best time to mediate a conflict is when it first comes to light. Mediating takes skill that only comes with practice, but it is one of the most important duties of a school leader. Teachers do not expect students to resolve all of their conflicts on their own, and we should not expect the same of teachers.
2. Get the problem out in the open.
Whether it’s a disagreement on how to deliver content or someone playing music too loudly, conflict can arise for many reasons. Too often nothing is said, and feelings fester as tension builds. In their professional learning communities, staff should be encouraged to be candid with each other. Often slights and offenses are not intended and can easily be addressed. This can only be done if the problem is addressed openly.
3. Don’t make them kiss and make up.
Your role as administrator is not to make teachers into friends. Your job is to lead a school with a positive learning environment, and teachers do not need to be friends to make that happen. Whatever the conflict is, the goal should be to get teachers back on the same page so they can be effective. This does not mean teachers have to hug it out or grab a beer after the meeting. That is often too lofty of a goal and not realistic. Instead set realistic goals that can get your teachers collaborating again.
4. Use protocols so everyone is heard.
“It is critical to spend time establishing norms and making use of protocols,” says Heather Clayton, principal at Mendon Center Elementary School. Clayton says that protocols help teams avoid disfunction and have honest conversation to deal with conflicts.
There are some great protocols to make sure everyone’s voice is heard when dealing with conflict. You can set ground rules at the start of mediation, like agreeing on confidentiality or not talking over one another. Create empathy by having teachers reverse roles and assume each other’s position. Another great protocol is active listening and creating structure when someone talks or responds, or when they just need to listen. Protocols can produce calm and order in a stressful conversation and ensure that the time spent is productive.
5. Keep staff conflict out of the classroom.
Perhaps the most important rule is to keep staff conflict out of the classroom. Teachers spend most of their time with students, and it can be tempting to express frustrations to them. But there is never a healthy way to put down another teacher in front of students. It breeds contempt, frustration, and often forces students to pick sides. School leaders should always require that teacher conflict be kept and resolved between staff—and never involve students.
6. Check in with teachers until the conflict is resolved.
Revisit and check in with staff a couple of days after working through a conflict with them. Whether it’s an email or just stopping by their classroom, see how they’re doing. Teachers want to know they are cared for and that their issues are important to administrators. Veteran teacher, Stephanie Jankowski says an open line of communication between teachers and administration is the best way to foster a competent and healthy staff culture. Helping them see a conflict through to resolution is a great way to do this. Keeping the discussion going also makes sure a mediation meeting or group discussion was not just a Band-Aid for the conflict and that the real goal is finding a resolution.
Teachers and other school staff are people, and people sometimes fight with each other. There is nothing wrong with conflict as long there is always an attempt to learn and grow stronger from it. School leaders are in a position where they can make that happen.