How do we effectively deal with student complaints, appease parents who are not pleased with what happens at school in terms of their children’s learning, and keep teachers motivated despite difficulties and conflicts at work? These are questions that school leaders constantly grapple with. However, due to lack of strategic thinking and the inability to confront people in situations engulfed in unpleasant interpersonal tension, ineffective leaders tend to either brush off the issue and let things remain the way they are or partially respond to quickly fix the problem, hence temporarily neutralizing the situation. These are ingredients for disaster, in the long run.
Uncovering the mask
Instead of trying to pretend to know much about leadership and behave professionally toward resolving issues, we would do ourselves a favor if we go back to the basics of human interaction and problem solving. One does not need to be a rocket scientist to solve the day-to-day conflicts and tension that arise in a school. We should bear in mind that professionalism in work does not necessarily mean that we give up our natural tendencies and ability to work with others on humanitarian levels. In an attempt to professionalize everything, we forget that some problems are easily solved if we pay attention to the basics of human living.
When students, parents, teachers, counselors, and leaders come to me for advice on conflict resolution, I give them one simple suggestion. However, I also realize that it is not easy for everyone to see the value of the proposal made to them. My suggestion, almost always, requires them to get together and talk the issue over with people who affect and are affected by the whole situation. In my opinion, as long as conflicts involve people, there is no other better, more humane way than to talk things over and get things clarified. This is a fundamental strategy used by humans since time immemorial. And it has never failed, when done properly.
The answer that I give to teachers, counselors, and leaders when they face conflicts that need immediate resolution is to get together with the people involved in a conference. Conferencing is powerful. Conferencing allows people to re-establish lost trusts, build bridges that were previously burned down, and develop relationship based on openness and transparency, even if this means building everything right from the scratch.
Vital component and process
Regardless of how a conference is executed, the primary aim of any such exercise should be to clarify expectations. Often, problems are perceived (not real). Most problems are problems because we look at them as such. In reality, they may not be problems. However, when something is perceived as a problem, that itself is enough to ruin a social institution like a school. An effective way to handle misperception is to bring into light existing perceptions, analyze and evaluate them, correct wrong perceptions, and adopt new, more accurate ones. This has to be done out in the open, in the presence of people implicated in the conflict situation.
For example, if students complain about a teacher being ineffective, then it is the responsibility of a leader to bring those two parties together and 1) allow them to express their perception toward and expectations of each other, 2) compare perception and expectations to identify similarities and differences, 3) correct wrong perception by clarifying expectations and coming to a consensus as to how each party would respond to each other’s needs, and finally 4) be committed to operating in the context of new perception and expectations.
At the heart of this whole process, it is important to know that both parties are not to be blamed and in their own way, are doing their best to function well in the school. The actual problem that we need to address is clashes in expectations and our response should be to get people together and clarifying expectations.