As discussed in last month’s article, conflict is an inevitable part of school life. While astute leadership can certainly prevent many contentious issues from percolating, there always will be sources of conflict totally beyond the principal’s control. What is always very much within the principal’s control, however, is how he/she addresses this discord.
Students clearly have either a direct or indirect connection to the overwhelming majority of school-based conflict. In terms of resolving conflict, however, parents and/or staff typically play a critical part. Working productively with these two stakeholder groups, therefore, is a key aspect of the principal’s role.
This month’s article endeavors to deepen our exploration of conflict resolution by discussing key considerations for principals when dealing with parents and staff members.
Conflict Involving Parents
As much as conflict resolution is, by definition, a reactionary process, principals can proactively establish the framework for more productively addressing conflict if and when it arises.
School leaders must make a concerted effort to be highly visible and readily accessible throughout the school year, which creates natural opportunities to informally connect with parents. These routine connections help lay the foundation for gradually establishing familiarity, comfort and trust. These existing interactions greatly improve the dynamics of the conflict resolution process.
The bottom line for the principal is that who you are matters as much, or more, as what you are.
When issues involving students arise, the timeline for parental contact is extremely important.
On the one hand, a principal’s credibility is greatly compromised if he/she immediately calls home with few or no specific details. Waiting until key facts can be confirmed, however, can lead to initial contact occurring several hours after the incident. Neither approach is ideal, or frankly acceptable, as parents deserve ongoing communication, as the situation unfolds.
Parents need to know in a timely manner, and principals also want to ensure that they discuss the issue directly with parents before the student gets home to share his/her thoughts. It is of paramount importance to deal strictly with confirmed facts and convey observations, without jumping to any premature conclusions.
Depending on the severity of the conflict, one or more meetings between parents and administration may well be warranted. The principal must ensure these conversations provide a respectful and safe environment for all.
It is imperative for the principal to remain calm and welcoming, as one is modeling appropriate meeting decorum. As much as parents may well be understandably emotional, no raised voices, inappropriate language or threats can be tolerated. If all parties are not emotionally ready for a productive meeting, it should be postponed to another mutually agreed upon time.
The student may or may not be involved in part of the meeting and parents are welcome to bring an advocate. The meeting should conclude with a plan that will be actively monitored over the next few weeks.
In terms of bringing closure to the conflict, principals need to be seen as both decisive and compassionate. In other words, they are not only making key decisions as highly competent professionals, but also truly appreciating parental concerns.
These final decisions may well not be popular, but parents and students need to know that they are fair and that they are the result of a thorough and thoughtful investigation. Working through these types of stressful situations goes a long way towards either strengthening or weakening the trust level between home and school. The principal’s only promise should be to continue to work for the best interests of all students.
Conflict Involving Staff
Principals need to develop and nurture strong professional relationships with all staff members. The fundamental pillars of these relationships must be communication, consistency and accessibility.
Staff deserve ongoing communication with the principal, both in person and electronically, throughout the school year. Understandably, few things are more stressful and less appreciated than frequent surprises.By the same token, the principal needs to set a calm, predictable tone throughout the school and ensure all staff are held to the same standard. Finally, everyone should feel confident that they can readily access the principal as issues arise.
If these pillars are already firmly in place, then addressing any future conflict involving staff becomes a much less daunting proposition.
One of the greatest challenges for any administrator is to be seen as supportive of staff while being open minded and reasonable with students and parents. During any contentious meetings, the principal’s manner can easily be seen as either unconditionally supporting staff or cowardly acquiescing to parental pressure.
Never is this balancing act more important, and more heavily scrutinized, than during the resolution of a significant conflict. It is imperative in these situations, that the principal be as publicly supportive as possible of the staff member, while also being seen as firm but fair by students and parents. If the staff member involved clearly has made some regrettable comments/decisions that triggered the incident in question, the principal should address these concerns privately at a later time.
Appreciate the Grapevine
Principals must remind themselves that any seemingly private conversation with a given staff member may well enter the public domain very soon thereafter. The staff room is a powerful, and very real, social network that provides fertile ground for information and misinformation to quickly spread.
The collective staff antennae are particularly alert whenever a staff member is involved in conflict resolution involving administration and parents. These are the seminal moments in which staff are looking for the principal’s support and word of this support or lack thereof is soon common knowledge among all staff.
Principals can also utilize this social grapevine in a discreet, yet deliberate, manner to reinforce their priorities, expectations and vision.
About the authors
Jamie Bricker and Jack Barclay are retired school principals who live just outside of Toronto, Ontario. They co-host the Matters of Principal podcast.