Effective conflict management for educators
Punished students exhibit a domino effect: they blame teachers, take out their frustration on peers and passively resist assigned work.
Lorraine Stutzman Amstutz and Judy H. Mullet
The goal of restorative justice is to provide an experience of healing for all concerned.
South African educators are generally faced with a myriad of challenges that have very little to do with the primary reason why they have embarked on their callings. In addition to the expected difficulties inherent in teaching children, they are also faced with a multidisciplinary barrage of additional risks and expectations, all seemingly conspiring to make the educator’s daily task more difficult if not downright impossible. We see examples of these extra problems in our news – departmental financial constraints, poor leadership and management results, poverty and inequality in communities spilling over into the school environment, hostile and aggressive learners, and an endless array of modern challenges continue to make the life of an educator difficult, often to the point of resignation.
MISDIAGNOSING THE PROBLEM Debates about resolving this national crisis mostly centre around a need for additional finances, with occasional references to better training, better leadership and better management skills. Sometimes we shake our heads and blame social media or “this generation”, parents or some other excuse. All of these proposed solutions are true to some extent – but they confuse the solution with the cause.
Of course schools need more money and better management skills. These are however symptoms of a larger malady, one that hides in plain sight. Most if not all of these symptoms, such as management and leadership errors, poor provisioning, a lack of real-world skills, threats and violence in and around the school environments, poor results and others can and should be traced back to their source: unresolved conflict. Such unresolved conflict, those that we see in factionalism, cronyism, professional disputes, political influence, community interference and manipulation, dysfunctional families and so on all flow downhill and end up in the educator’s classroom.
In getting the diagnosis wrong, we throw money at the problem, we have meetings and we make promises that will be broken, we blame each other, we make new appointments, we draw up new lists and performance agreements, and we know that they will fail, with very few exceptions. We have become a part of the problem, in that we continue to deal with the symptom, and we never get to the disease. This creates cyclical conflicts, despair, a lack of trust and confidence in the involved systems and in each other, it directly impacts on productivity, educational standards, educator retention and several important other professional markers.
STANDING WITH OUR EDUCATORS – THE SOLUTION
Late last year I wrote an article setting out my proposals on the national solutions that we should be implementing so as to address this problem at its roots, and to teach conflict competent and conflict confident children (see “Conflict and children – a proposed approach for training and conflict competency”). These proposals, if considered at all, will take time to discuss and implement. In the meantime, educators have to deal with the warzones that some of these schools have become. In addition, any structured conflict management program at a school is often seen by management as an unaffordable expense or a nice-to-have that can be considered next year.
Once we understand that all of these symptoms, from poor performance to community conflict to leadership failures ever so often arise from unresolved conflicts such objections should disappear automatically. What then can be done on a more localized level while the macro-situation hopefully makes progress? For the next few months I will be involved with a multi-level conflict management roll-out at several schools nationwide. The application of these levels depend on several dynamics such as the size of the school, the level of conflict experienced at the school, the operational requirements and goals of the environment and so on. A brief summary of these conflict management levels can be set out as follows.
LEVEL 1: WORKING WITH THE SCHOOL, COMMUNITY AND OTHER INVOLVED PARTIES
Here a full assessment of the prevailing unresolved conflicts is done, and all involved and affected participants are included in the conflict system that gets designed specifically for that situation. The specific school remains the driver and main decision maker, but resolution extends to political and departmental conflicts and obstacles, service providers, communities, the students themselves and, of course, the educators on a personal and group level. Such a program includes bringing to bear all conflict resolution mechanisms and skills in order to identify, resolve and transcend such conflicts in a lasting manner, and to leave behind robust and self-maintaining systems and processes. In addition to consultation processes, mediation and other remedies, a tailor-made program is designed for the school, training and coaching is done, and the major existing conflicts are addressed. Fully transferable conflict skills form an important part of this level of conflict management. Group and individual coaching at the appropriate level is recommended.
LEVEL 2: WORKING WITH THE SCHOOL ONLY
Here the wider community of political and departmental leaders, community involvement, service providers and others are not included in the design and implementation of the conflict management, and only the specific school is focused on. An assessment of conflict causes and triggers at that level is conducted, specific conflicts are addressed and educators (group or individuals) are coached to effectively handle classroom conflicts and onsite parental conflict. As with the previous level, the specific deliverables and measurable outcomes are designed in conjunction with the school and affected individuals.
LEVEL 3: WORKING WITH INDIVIDUAL EDUCATORS ONLY
As we mentioned above, it is of course understandable that not all SGBs or educational decision makers will agree on the extent of and solution to the conflict management challenges faced by the educators. This still leaves the educator at the coalface of the problem. We have also noticed recently that some educators do not want their schools and colleagues involved in combating these challenges, they simply, as individuals, wish to lose their fear of these conflicts and be more conflict confident and conflict competent, and in those instances we simply work with such individual educators (either publically or confidentially and privately) to achieve these goals of theirs. As with the other levels such educators receive comprehensive coaching designed around their own needs and challenges, at a pace that suits them.
CONFLICT MANAGEMENT APPLIED TO SCHOOLS: A FEW MODERN IDEAS While the various tools of educational conflict management have made great strides in becoming preferred conflict options in many overseas countries, we lag behind in understanding and harnessing the immense, cost-effective and simple benefits available to our educational systems and educators. A few summarized examples may illustrate what may be if we open our minds to these solutions.
The conflict management field of study and research traditionally feeds from a variety of other disciplines, such as psychology, social and behavioural sciences, neuroscientific developments and a host of others. These are not fads and experiments, but proven techniques designed to effectively deal with the conflicts that lead to the cyclical, even generational conflicts that we seek to escape. So, for example we see a renewed understanding and valuing of conflict itself as a creative power, we see the various techniques and solutions flowing from the concept of restorative justice, a rejection of the older approaches of conflict avoidance, an emphasis on offender responsibility and victim protection, the reintegration efforts and techniques necessary and so on.
Great work is being done in the recasting of conflict narratives as honest and constructive conflict stories. This prevents the failed strategies of ignoring such historical events, or minimizing them, or editing them in harmful ways. The design and implementation of conflict stories is a most effective and measurable way of resolving school conflicts.
These modern case studies and research, including an effective application of the restorative justice principle, means that such communities, schools or individuals will be set free of the reactive way of either trying to prevent conflict from happening, dealing with isolated events on an untrained and ad hoc basis (often doing more harm than good), and move them to a much more sustainable, healing and healthy way of dealing with conflict. Conflict avoidance and conflict dread is replaced with conflict confidence and conflict competence. This empowers the educator with a far more holistic ability to deal with conflict ranging from disputes centred in race, gender, class and other categories.
This way of approaching conflict, with the educator at the heart of the process, enables the participants to acknowledge the role of trauma in local, community and individual instances, and to truly heal and transcend the problems that are often ignored, misunderstood or exacerbated.
CONCLUSION Many of the older methods of discipline and educational conflict management have not been re-assessed in decades, and several of the techniques and programs used in our schools actually and demonstrably do more harm than good in some instances, and in others simply are the wrong tools for the job, leading to the unintended and ongoing consequences we dealt with in the beginning of the article. The solutions are there, they are costs effective, they can be internalized and rolled out in a manner of weeks, they are fully-transferable long-term solutions and they transform lives. Why are we not using them if we are sincere when we say that we wish to help our educators and their precious charges?
(Andre Vlok can be contacted on firstname.lastname@example.org for a sources index, further reading, conflict mandates and coaching, comment or any further information)