Course 2: Embracing Conflict, Disagreement, and Dissent


During my years as a teacher, I considered myself a conflict-averse person when it came to working with colleagues.  I did not like confrontation.  I saw myself as someone who would take the necessary steps to make things okay – even if that meant avoidance.  I was polite about disagreement and often turned the other cheek in the face of behaviors and ideas I found confusing, questionable, or downright unprofessional.  After all, my job was to teach kids – not tell other colleagues how to act.  That’s what we have administration for…right?

Upon beginning my work as an assistant principal, one truth quickly emerged – avoiding conflict was not an option.  In fact, one could argue that my job is about conflict – wading into troubled waters and helping others make their way to shore.  Another truth was glaringly evident: I had received virtually no preparation for the fraught situations I was responsible for resolving – deep interpersonal rifts (between students, between students and parents, between students and staff – and between staff) that were often years in the making.

Experience is often the best teacher; that said, the sink-or-swim approach often taken in tossing young site leaders into the fray without deeper preparation in the emotional rigors of our work is a poor recipe for success.

Course 1 in Leadership School 2.0 asks us to consider our own tolerances and triggers as we navigate the myriad personal relationships that comprise our lives as school leaders.  Course 2 proposes that we take deliberate, ongoing steps to cultivate a climate in which conflict, disagreement, and dissent become a normal part of how the organization functions.  This course is based on the idea that honest, trusting relationships amongst staff are the key factor in creating dynamic and powerful learning opportunities for our students; if two brilliant teachers hate each other, it is likely they will choose to avoid each other at all costs – if not actively undermine each other in private and in public.  What organization can work optimally when people inside it close themselves off to each other?

The most significant authority we wield as site leaders is the power to get people talking to each other – to center the staff-wide conversation on points of convergence rather than all the ways people disagree.  If power is defined by control of resources, then the site leader wields incredible power in controlling the time available to get a school staff to sit down together – as small teams and as a whole group.  How will we allocate that time?  Will we dedicate it to surface issues of school functioning, or will we provide the structured time and space to celebrate and struggle together?  To decide together who we are and what our future will look like?  Steve Zuieback calls this the “Below the Green Line” work that is critical to the health and sustainability of our organization.

The capacity and resilience to do this work don’t just happen; the beginner doesn’t run 26 miles on Day 1 of a marathon-training program.  Moving a staff of 50, 75, or 100 is slow work – site leaders must give themselves permission to go slow, to be messy, and to be attentive to the moment as they consider how to best utilize the time available to them.  As Tom Schimmer says, these changes in institutional culture are like driving at night – you have a plan of where you want to go, but you can only see a few hundred feet ahead at a time.  Detours and changes of course are all possibilities – and they don’t deter from the goal of reaching the ultimate destination.

If little to no time is spent helping staff see each other as people with unique feelings, experiences, and perspectives, then we guarantee a very limited capacity for staff to take a real interest in each other.  We ensure that fewer bridges will be built and that differences have the opportunity to fester into a state of permanent entrenchment.  We ensure that conflict, disagreement, and dissent remain scary realities we need to avoid.

As professional educators, we want to focus on the kids and stay away from adult drama.  However, Course 2 makes a radical proposition: to do our best work together, we can’t turn away from the adult drama – we need to all embrace the collective challenge of living and working alongside each other every day.  It is no different from the work we do to sustain and grow our relationships with our families, significant others, and children.

If we ignore the fact that people are complicated, that behaviors are contradictory, and that “drama” and politics will always play some role in the functioning of any human organization, then our campuses will fill up with splinter groups that are mutually distrustful.  Forget about power struggles between staff and administration; the worst relationships will be in the trenches.

Why spend precious time doing this?  Because in doing so we build trust and credibility – in leadership, and in each other.  We move beyond surface politeness (artificial harmony) and into a deeper state of honesty.  Does this feel scary?  Yes.  In doing so we move beyond simple adherence to our roles in order to adopt the shared responsibility of keeping each other accountable to a broadly held set of beliefs around how we function in our shared space.  Our disagreements (conflict) underscore our collective commitment to students.  We can’t and won’t agree on everything – and would we want to?  I would be leery of any relationship – or organization – that claimed seamless agreement on all levels.  I would worry about a school where struggle and process weren’t immediately evident.

I would wonder if the zombies had taken over.  Or, as the Table Group puts it, if people had “quit and stayed” – the scariest proposition of all.

By embracing conflict, disagreement, and dissent, we recognize complexity as a normal and healthy state of being.  We cultivate a mindset of empathy and adaptability toward others; we recognize their unique perspective without having to necessarily agree with it.  The leader can’t mandate that everyone like each other – but the leader can and must commit themselves to helping staff know and trust each other on deeper, more honest levels.  People will look to the leader to take the first steps into that scary place before doing so themselves.

Questions to consider for leaders in Course 2:

How do you dedicate and structure sufficient time for your staff to celebrate and struggle together?

How do you build the capacity of staff to make commitments to each other across differences? 

How do you bring conflict and disagreement out in the open so that it doesn’t fester in the parking lot?

What do you do when you have staff members that share a long-standing dislike of each other? 

How do you attend to the needs of “product” people in process-driven protocols meant to build relationships?

“Classroom Community Rules” image courtesy of Mrs. Gallagher’s A3 Kindergarten class.

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