Reimagining Conflict: 3 Tips for Principals

Posted on Wed, Jul 31, 2013 @ 15:07 PM

new principalMost of us are taught to see conflict as something painful, something to be avoided. Principals, of course, do not have the luxury of hiding and waiting for conflict to go away or resolve itself. While we can’t change this simple fact, we would like to share three of Sandra Harris’s tips to help principals reimagine the way they see conflict. 

Silence is a powerful thing
In her book, Bravo Principal, Harris recounts an encounter she had with a disgruntled father whose son didn’t make the varsity basketball team. Instead of turning him away, she invited him into her office where he paced around the room and raved for 15 minutes about the incompetence of the coach and the “even greater weakness of our school in having a woman principal” that could not control the coaches.

While the man ranted, she simply sat at her desk and jotted notes on a yellow legal pad. She didn’t agree, disagree or visibly react at all. When the man exhausted himself, he sat down and said, “I guess I really lost it, didn’t I? I feel better now—and you know, my son is only a sophomore; I think being on the JV team will be a good experience for him.” Weeks later, she saw the same father at a school event. Smiling, he approached her and introduced his spouse saying, “This is one brave lady and a great principal!”

What’s the lesson? By listening, acknowledging the conflict and saying little (or sometimes nothing), we can often avoid pointless arguments—and perhaps even make new friends.

It’s easier to deal with a little smoke than it is to put out a raging inferno
Most of us view conflict as something to be feared, but Harris challenges us to view it as something positive. While that doesn’t mean that confrontations will necessarily be fun, they can be less painful if we view them as a “building and bonding” experience, especially if we address potential problems before they fully manifest.

Take advantage of informal conversations as an opportunity to root out potential conflicts. Harris gives the example of a principal who bumped into a parent at the local grocery store. When the principal asked the how things were going at school, the parent said, “Fine, I think.” Instead of accepting this answer—which belied an underlying issue—the principal asked for clarification. He learned that more than a month into the school year, the English teacher had yet to return a single paper.

The following week, the principal was able to speak to the teacher and brainstorm strategies to make it more feasible to return work in a timely fashion. Because the principal caught the issue early enough, he was able to deal with a little plume of smoke instead of a raging inferno.

Empower teachers by creating a unified school vision
As Harris suggests, scholarship has long emphasized the “importance of empowering teachers by giving them opportunities to make decisions that facilitate a positive school climate.” Harris’s study of 123 teachers drives home the point: In her research she found that all 123 teachers stressed the importance of being empowered; one out of four teachers said “the single most important act their principal did was to empower them to share in identifying and clarifying the school vision.”  

Conflicts are minimized when all of us—administrators and teachers—are working in step towards a common goal. Collaborate with teachers and put that common goal into writing; make it a living document, one that everyone in the school helped create.

If you’re interested in collaborating with teachers to create a unified school vision, we walk readers through the process in one of our recent blogs, 5 steps to creating a unified school vision statement.

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Topics: Educational Leadership Degree, Educational Leadership Master's Programs, effective principal, Role of Principal in School, Becoming an effective principal, aspiring school administrator

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