Managing disagreements factsheet

Education staff manage relationships with numerous people including colleagues, managers, parents and students. It is therefore inevitable that a disagreement will happen at some point, so learning how to manage them productively is vital. The end goal is to re-establish a peaceful working relationship, but first, one must mitigate the situation and negotiate a resolution between the two parties.

What is a disagreement?

disagreement is conflict caused by strain in relationships or a situation at work. Conflict between colleagues can be caused by a number of things, such as:

  • changes in workload or job roles
  • poor communication and misunderstandings
  • unclear expectations or job guidelines
  • lack of adequate training or sympathy from supervisors
  • unresolved issues from the past

Disagreements are often sparked or exacerbated by personality and cultural differences, varying work philosophies and ethics, conflicting needs and expectations, power struggles, pure misunderstandings as well as many other possible scenarios.

Disagreements between colleagues

These are some common reasons why conflicts crop up between work colleagues:

  • Personality clashes: Different personalities can inevitably lead to disagreements, whether it be due to differences in teaching philosophies, communication styles or purely due to different mannerisms.
  • Different working styles: At times, people may disagree or misunderstand another's working style. One teacher may, for example, encourage creative thinking in his or her pupils, whereas another may prefer to apply a more heavily structured curriculum. One may view the other as too rigid, whereas the other may view the first as being lazy or too lax.
  • Power struggles: Sometimes, roles and leadership are unclear. This can result in one person assuming control over other staff against their consent, or teachers or staff members feeling unclear about whom they should report to.
  • Past issues: Staff members may have had struggles in the past that were never completely resolved, causing them to resurface later in similar (but unrelated) situations. Past conflicts may have been as a result of competition for the same resources or opportunities, or resentment over a colleague's management style. Alternatively, one staff member may have felt bullied by a colleague. Any of these can result in passive-aggressive 'revenge' actions later on.
  • Change in workload or roles: Have there been cut-backs? Did one staff member receive a promotion while another did not? These events can result in increased workloads or new job roles. Employees can become fearful about their job security, or resentful of being supervised by someone they previously regarded as their equal. Additionally, extra work can cause added pressure, which inevitably breeds an environment of tension and conflict.
  • Needs and expectations: Conflict often arises when one does not feel his or her needs/expectations are sufficiently met by their work (whether it be due to perceived lack of respect or acknowledgement, insufficient pay, or being too swamped with work to fully have time for a personal life). Most employees can agree on a certain number of shared needs: expectations for pay, job satisfaction, fair supervision, amicable working relationships and a healthy work-life integration. Other needs vary from person to person: one person may do their job because they enjoy sharing knowledge with others, while another may do it to satisfy their own curiosity and need for research. One teacher may just see it as a job that pays the mortgage, while another can't imagine doing anything else. One may be looking for respect and esteem, while the others are humble and only want to impart knowledge on others.

Here are some tips for avoiding conflict in working relationships:

1. Match complementary personality styles

It is important for senior leaders/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 a clear hierarchy 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. Consider employee feedback

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. The Education Support Partnership’s Positve Workplace Survey could help you gather staff feedback.  

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.

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


Self-help strategies

Many disagreements can be resolved simply by starting with an apology or having a discussion to clear up any misunderstandings. The sooner you do this the better! If appropriate, start with an apology. If not, at least acknowledge the other party's feelings and concerns. By doing this, you are showing them that they are being taken seriously and that you respect their viewpoint. Without this a conflict can easily escalate, sometimes unnecessarily. Therefore, put the fire out as early on as you can! If this does not work, it may have to be escalated to more formal grievance proceedings.

Calm down. Take a breath and count to 10. Avoid any sudden outbursts that are just expelled emotion versus rational thought. Also try to be aware of when the other person is doing the same thing – just reacting emotionally – as it may keep you from taking offense or counter-reacting.

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.

Step in the other person's shoes. 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.

Determine your power. What can you control and what can't you? Focus on what you can influence and what is not your responsibility.

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:

Office of the Independent Adjudicator (OIA)
www.oiahe.org.uk

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.  

How we can help

  • Help for individuals  
    Sometimes work (or just life) can be tough. A challenging student, an Ofsted inspection, personal financial worries; there are many stresses on those who work in education. That's why we offer free, confidential help and support, no matter what your problem.
  • Help for organisations 
    Working in education is demanding so we’ve designed a set of services to help you check how your teams are coping, troubleshoot problems and boost everyone's wellbeing.

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.