Identify, listen and empathise

Sunita Biswas

That a teacher wears many hats is, of course, old hat! Among the many hats, one is being used more frequently today. And that is the hat of the teacher as a negotiator, as a mediator, a moderator and as a referee. A non-judgmental, unbiased, objective interlocutor who must, when required, pour oil over troubled waters and build bridges over them.

Conflict is a natural part of human interactions and conflict situations abound in life. And equally in a school. In the classrooms, administrators’ offices, inside staff rooms, down the corridors, in the canteen, riding on school buses, running amok on the school playgrounds… it makes you wonder if there is any harmony at all in a school community. So a teacher has to learn to firefight and troubleshoot and assume many different kinds of leadership roles.

Here we will look at four areas that require conflict resolution through negotiation – negotiating between students, negotiating with parents, negotiating with other teachers and negotiating with self. Teacher-student relationships have changed over the years as students and parents are more aware of their rights and less likely to consider the teacher to be always right. In this situation the teacher must have strong negotiating and communication skills to resolve conflicts.

Every classroom has dream days when everyone seems to be working in perfect tandem. And then a single bad day, when one small thing – a missing pen, a cruel comment, a broken promise, a secret revealed, a few more (or less) marks – it could be anything at all – starts off a vicious downward spiral. And soon groups are formed, accusations are hurled, past incidents are raked up, nasty and mean behaviour is blatantly exhibited, harmony takes a nosedive and conflict reigns supreme. Younger children tend to rush to the teacher first over the smallest disagreement. This tendency, according to the law of human nature, diminishes as the students grow older. However, even though older students tend to approach the teacher only when they cannot handle the situation themselves, the teacher’s role as a negotiator at that alarming stage is even more critical.

Parents today are an integral part of the school community and they are very involved in the growth and development of not only their child but in that of the whole school. They lead super busy lives but they come forward to contribute and share responsibility. On the whole, parents are genuinely concerned and their interactions are positive and productive. But sometimes situations of conflict do develop and usually revolve around something that affects their child. Parents sometimes do not approve of school policy or they may disagree with teaching methods or schools and parents sometimes have a different understanding of what that involvement should look like or, at times, expectations of a child’s capabilities do not match. This creates situations of conflict.

Sunita-Biswas

Resolving conflicts between students or helping them reach solutions is something that every teacher has had to do, sometime or the other. But do teachers practise what they preach amongst themselves? Resentment over duty allocations, or impatience with someone else’s way of doing things, or perceptions of “favouritism” and “leverage” – all make colleagues bristle and seethe and sometimes erupt into arguments and disputes. A normal school term will have a long timeline of varied events and activities, in addition to the regular academic work, so there is always at least one deadline breathing down a teacher’s neck all the time. Team work is required in equal measure as much as individual inputs. When this does not happen, the overall performance of the school community suffers. The most profound price is paid by the teachers themselves…their enjoyment of their jobs, their ability and desire to devote themselves to their work, even their performance…all can be negatively impacted by living with prolonged interpersonal conflict.

And finally we look at the demons that a teacher wrestles with within herself. If, and when, these demons are laid to rest, negotiation in all other conflict areas becomes easy. Conflicts that rage within a teacher’s mind range from feelings of high self-worth to low self-esteem. They can be feelings of being exploited or unappreciated or misunderstood. There can be conflict in the teacher’s mind about how much control is too much control, how to remain approachable without being taken for granted, how to facilitate learning without spoon-feeding. The workload is heavy and spills over beyond school hours to eat up precious family time leading to feelings of frustration and guilt.

For all these areas of conflict there are the usual, common responses. These are avoidance, acquiescence, confrontation, and resolution. Avoidance works when tempers and emotions are high and stepping back to “cool off” can sometimes help in de-escalation and prevent more damaging flare ups. Similarly, acquiescence, or giving in to the other side, can sometimes be the more constructive response, especially if more will be lost through damaged relationships. However, the danger with both avoidance and acquiescence is that if it becomes a consistent pattern of avoiding conflict in the hope that it will go away, and if the problems persist and fester, or become aggravated, then solutions become that much more difficult to achieve. Confrontation entails an adversarial response that is based on the belief that only one side is right. It becomes a win-lose situation and again does not serve a long-term purpose. Thus conflict resolution through negotiation is the only way.

Negotiation, first of all, begins with the acceptance that conflict is normal and can happen. Close on the heels of this comes the belief that a solution can help you to learn and grow. Armed with this positive approach, the next step is to establish at the outset that it is not a competition or a match with a winner and a loser. Not I-win-and-you-lose. Not even You-win-and-I-lose. The ideal goal should be We-both-win. For this collaboration, cooperation and even compromise may be necessary.

Whether a teacher is resolving conflicts between students or with parents or colleagues or one’s own self, the guidelines to effective negotiation remain essentially the same. Three ground rules or requirements need to be laid down at the outset and respected while the negotiating process is on. One has to begin with identifying the problem, giving it verbal (or sometimes written) expression, and remaining focused only on the problem, and on the facts related to that particular problem. The aggrieved person/s may not drag other things into it. They must especially leave behind all baggage from past conflicts. The next key requirement is active listening. A patient hearing by both parties and the moderator, without any interference or interruptions, sometimes defuses the problem at the outset. The third absolutely vital ingredient to successful negotiation is to keep far away from playing the blame-game, name-calling and “writing-off” anyone. No bias or prejudice and no assumptions or presumptions can be allowed to creep into the ongoing dialogue. Instead, the maximum empathy that one can muster is never enough.

It takes skillful and sensitive negotiating to resolve conflicts effectively. More so, given the high-stress zones that schools are increasingly becoming. The teacher’s role in all this has to be “high-control-high-support” to build strong, trusting relationships across the school community.

With all the hats that teachers everywhere are wearing with aplomb, it’s time we doffed our hats to them!

The author has, at various times over the past two decades, taught all classes from Nursery to 12. At present she teaches History and Music at the middle and senior school levels at Modern High School, Kolkata. She can be reached at sunitabiswas@gmail.com.

Related articles

The disruptive child
Breaking it right
All knotted up inside
Barriers within build barriers without
Responding to conflict