Managing disagreements at work: a guide for teachers and education staff

Teachers and education staff manage a range of relationships every day. Disagreements are inevitable, but what can you do about them?

Guides / 4 mins read

Be aware of non-verbal communication, such as body language, choice of words and tone of voice. Ask to clarify where the other person is coming from, and to be sure you understand what they mean. Speak slowly, as this can calm both of you down.

See it from their perspective. Try and imagine where the other person is coming from and what is motivating their perspective. Remember that two people can have drastically different views of the same situation, so imagining how you'd feel and react from their perspective can help foster better understanding in any conflict situation.

Speak in person and LISTEN. Tone of voice and meaning can easily be misinterpreted in e-mails and texts, plus it can appear impersonal or as if you do not acknowledge their concerns seriously. Also – be an active listener! Ask to clarify their concerns to be sure you understand where they are coming from.

Write it out. Write out all your feelings in a letter (do not give it to the person!), then extract the matter-of-fact items from your concerns and put it into a list to discuss with them. Re-word any talking points in your list so that they are non-confrontational, while still being clear. Make sure to separate the issue from any heated feelings you have about the person, and try to keep it to facts. Use 'I' statements – 'I felt a lack of respect' vs. 'you were disrespectful of me', and so on.
Know what’s outside of your control. What can you control and what can't you? Focus on what you can influence and what is not your responsibility.

Here are some tips for managers who want to avoid conflict among their team members

  1. Match complementary personality styles
    It is important for senior leaders and headteachers to try and arrange for staff who work together or interact regularly with one another to have complementary personality styles.
    However, this may not always be possible, or personalities may start off working well together and the relationship becomes strained over time. In these situations, fostering an honest discussion between the two parties, with a mediator if needed, may help to try and increase understanding.
  2. Establish clear roles and expectations
    Establish clear roles and make sure everyone knows who they report to. In the case of any cut-backs, it may also help to reassure remaining staff that their position is secure. Offer time-management tips to help staff manage new workloads, and where possible, allow staff flexibility in their schedules and deadlines.
    On projects where two colleagues clash, the creation of firm expectations, division of roles or explicit procedural instructions can help minimise the conflict. This way, each person can work independently on their part of the project.
  3. Set standardised goals for student achievement
    Where colleagues disagree over teaching styles, try to establish common, standardised targets that each must reach. This way, each can see that they can both get comparable results from their pupils despite having different approaches to getting there. These goals would have to be measured objectively (e.g. by standardised test scores, etc.).
  4. Resolve past issues
    In these cases, revisit what caused the initial conflict and try to resolve it. Any instances of bullying should be addressed the same way that standard bullying policies are implemented (e.g. as a disciplinary action or grievance). Perhaps the school can offer assertiveness training for the staff member who struggles to stand up for him or herself.
  5. Get to know your staff
    It is important to assess what motivates one person over another. Assessing what is truly bothering a person can help resolve it – for example, they may be outwardly asking for a pay rise, but what truly motivates them is recognition. Their needs may be met by granting something other than what they asked for initially.
  6. Seek out staff feedback and act on it where possible
    Getting a general idea of staff satisfaction at the institution can be useful information for management. Gather feedback through regular anonymous surveys, and where possible, consider implementing any ideas for improvement shared by the staff. 

Disagreements between parents and teachers

Parents and teachers may disagree about things such as classwork, curriculum, teaching style, assignments or how peer relationships are managed. In these situations, it is important for teachers to keep in mind that they and the parent have different perspectives. A teacher's role may include imparting structure and discipline in order to run the classroom smoothly, and imbuing knowledge in a way that – at the very least – national and school curriculum requirements are met and the student succeeds in exams. A parent may feel they need to defend their child, and will understand and view their child in a different context than a teacher does. For example: A child might be reserved at home but act up at school in front of an audience of peers; alternately, a child may be outgoing in the comfort of home but painfully shy at school.

To hear more about getting the best out of parent and teacher relationships, you can watch this engaging discussion on the topic: 

Here are some tips for avoiding conflict with parents:

Keep an open line of communication

Involve the parents in students' learning and progress. Let them know about classroom activities and what the curriculum and goals are for the year. Alert them to when you are available and when they are welcome to visit. Also clarify how you may be contacted (this increases the chance that they will contact you during times/methods you have set versus at random!). Lastly, prepare the parent for any items to be discussed in any parent-teacher meetings.

Conflict often brews from misunderstandings and lack of communication. . Ask what their goals and expectations are for their child that year. This communication can create a better understanding and also make the parents feel that they are an active part in their child's educational development.

Know the policy

Learn about your school's official policy on disagreements and grievances, just so you know what steps to follow should the need arise. This should be in your employee handbook, if available, or check with your human resources department. It is a good idea to make sure you have the policy in writing.

Use discretion

If you have any concerns about a student, policy, or relationship with a parent or colleague, be careful where and when you discuss this. It is not a topic for discussion in the staffroom where other staff or students can overhear. It is best discussed with someone you trust in a private setting so that rumours don't get started. Additionally, it is a violation of the parents' privacy to have any of their concerns voiced indiscriminately.

Managing disagreements constructively

If a conflict does arise, it needs to be managed proactively and positively. First, try to be informal by getting advice from your union or manager. If that does not resolve the issue, go through your workplace's official grievance procedure. The process for resolving disputes in schools typically goes as follows:

  1. Talk to class/subject teacher
  2. Meet with head teacher
  3. Talk to local authority
  4. Engage in mediation

Disagreements with students in Further and Higher Education

When it comes to resolving disputes between students and teachers in higher versus further education, the tactics one should use vary little. In further education (FE) disputes are sent to the local authority to resolve, whereas in higher education (HE) they are not. 

Every HE institution needs to have a fair complaints procedure in place when a student disagrees/complains about an issue. This is usually resolved at the HE level and does not require that a third party get involved. If these issues cannot be resolved, it can usually go through the Office of the Independent Adjudicator:

As per the Higher Education Act 2004, all universities in England and Wales must subscribe to the Office of the Independent Adjudicator (OIA), an independent body that reviews individual complaints by students against universities. The OIA has no regulatory powers over universities and cannot punish or fine them.

Students studying for a foundation degree at a Further Education college can also go to the OIA if the issue is not resolved or they are unhappy with the response.

Written by: Workplace Options (June 2015)

Disclaimer: This document is intended for general information only. It does not provide the reader with specific direction, advice or recommendations. You may wish to contact an appropriate professional for questions concerning your particular situation.

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