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Conflict-Agile School Leaders

By Kim Marshall

The article: “Constructive Conflict” by Robert Feirsen and Seth Weitzman in Educational Leadership, April 2021 (Vol. 78, #7, pp. 26-31); the authors can be reached at [email protected] and [email protected].

In this article in Educational Leadership, Robert Feirsen (New York Institute of Technology) and Seth Weitzman (a retired New York principal) say that principals spend 20-40 percent of the school day on their least favorite activity – managing conflict: discipline problems, friction about feedback to teachers, philosophical differences, parent complaints about grades and consequences, duty assignments, schedules, and more.

“And yet,” say Feirsen and Weitzman, “if administrators are to exercise instructional leadership and instill a shared vision, they must be prepared to deal with inevitable resistance and discord… Many school leaders turn away from conflict and never realize its potential for promoting growth rather than disorder.” When they don’t step up, problems fester unresolved, including mediocre and ineffective teaching, racial microaggressions, and systemic inequities.

From their experience as school leaders and a review of the research, Feirsen and Weitzman say there are three common responses to discord:

Avoiding – This can sometimes be the correct approach, as in “Pick your battles,” but papering over deep problems with friendliness and collegiality won’t produce effective education for all students.

Attacking – School leaders who respond this way – retaliating against teachers, punishing those who cause “trouble” – may drive resistance underground, but that creates a negative, us-versus-them climate that’s detrimental for everyone.

Addressing – Feirsen and Weitzman describe three leadership skills that “reduce strife while harnessing conflict in the service of improving educational outcomes and relationships.”

Each depersonalizes the conflict and respects everyone involved.

  • Avoid being defensive. Adopting a nonjudgmental, genuinely inquisitive stance can avoid an us-versus-them, win-lose dynamic. A leader needs to cool down and slow down, taking a deep breath and looking at the big picture. One strategy is for each party to present its case while the other listens silently, then allowing only clarifying questions.
  • First things first – “Many conflicts in schools reflect competing values,” say Feirsen and Weitzman. “Heated discussions about grades mask deeper questions about the purpose of assessment and the responsibilities of teachers and students.” These underlying conflicts need to be heard and talked through before policy decisions can be made. Conflict-agility skills need to be practiced and built over time, ideally becoming part of the school’s way of operating in meetings and small-group situations.
  • Focus on actionable ideas. When people disparage each other’s character, ability, motives, and intelligence, nothing gets resolved. The leader’s role is to “separate the problem from the people,” as the Getting to Yes approach suggests, get the parties to focus on their genuine interests, not their positions, and brainstorm solutions that haven’t yet been considered. It’s helpful if leaders are conversant with common cognitive biases that prevent people from letting go of entrenched positions.

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