Conflict at the workplace is stressful in any traditional business, but teaching is such a personal career, and having a team that cannot coalesce can be exhausting and demoralizing. Team planning meetings, lunchtime, PLC’s, and hallway bantering may be too much to handle when palpable tension is present.
While it is rare to find a team that agrees on everything and works perfectly together, most little issues and disagreements can be resolved respectfully among peers. Upon occasion, there are teams that simply cannot get along well enough to be productive, and administrative intervention is required.
When a team is functioning as a divided group, it may appear in several different ways.
Sometimes teammates will agree while sitting in a meeting then go to their own classrooms and ignore everything that was discussed.
Other times one member of the team is particularly contentious, making everyone feel on edge during every meeting.
Another common problem faced is when a team member or members have more progressive or research-based ideas on a traditionally-minded team.
Regardless of the cause, if the conflict is great enough to interfere with really working together and being productive, don’t be afraid to ask for assistance from your administrator.
One of the first things it is important to do if you find yourself on a team where there is palpable tension is to consider what role you might be playing in the problem.
In meetings do you automatically assume that a particular person’s ideas are going to be ridiculous or impractical every time they start to speak?
Do you find yourself eager to discuss the things that someone said after a meeting?
Is it possible that you are being intentionally argumentative or difficult?
Are you doing something that communicates to your colleagues that you think your ideas are superior to there’s?
It’s natural to get along better with some people, but are you and your buddies at work making others feel left out by congregating behind closed doors, regularly talking about your out-of-school gatherings in front of others, or planning joint activities with just your classes rather than the whole team?
If you realize that you are part of the problem, make a conscious effort to be more inclusive. Perhaps you will need to speak privately with others in your group about the way all of your actions may be coming across. It may even be appropriate to acknowledge some of these things with the person who has been left out (but you don’t want to make them feel even more awkward).
If you are the one who finds themself on the outside, pause and do some candid self-reflection. Is this a pattern you have seen in other relationships? If so, it’s possible that you may be doing something that pushes others away. Or, it could be that you simply tend to approach teaching from an unconventional way.
Consider asking a trusted instructional coach or administrator for their perspective and feedback.
But, it is also quite possible that you are being singled out or mistreated due to no inappropriate actions of your own. If this is the case, it is completely OK to directly address your concerns with the appropriate parties, but only if you feel safe doing so. If you attempt this, but no progress is made, or if you feel that doing so would only make the problem worse, you should take your concerns to the appropriate leader and seek their assistance in rectifying the situation.
It may be necessary for the administrator to have a meeting with everyone on the team present. The administrator should establish clear expectations and goals for the meeting at the onset.
If it is a team that has trouble communicating without certain people dominating the conversation or being offensive, it may be necessary to start by handing out notecards and having everyone write down their answers to questions, like:
-What motivates or inspires you about teaching?
-What is your goal for your students?
-What is the goal of working with this team?
-What are this team’s strengths?
-List 2-3 things that you think are keeping this team from reaching its goals.
-List 2-3 things that you think are keeping this team from working well together.
-What can you do to help make this happen?
The administrator then collects the cards and leads a discussion with the group in which the responses are read (anonymously) with the goal of starting a respectful conversation. The goal is to realize that all participants (hopefully) have some sort of common goals and expectations along with strengths and meaningful contributions to share.
The anonymity of the responses may allow for more novice or quiet teachers to speak up.
Act with caution, though. The presence of an administrator and established norms and expectations should keep it from devolving into a personal attack on anyone. If things start to move in that direction, the administrator can attempt to redirect or even adjourn the meeting if necessary. Without proper planning and if not handled appropriately, an intervention gone awry could result in deeper and irreconcilable divisions.
We know of one gifted teacher who was working on a team with whom she had pretty significant philosophical, pedagogical, and social differences which resulted in misunderstandings and even disagreements on the team. The campus principal called a team meeting and attempted to resolve the conflict by giving everyone permission to voice their grievances and frustrations with this teacher. The result was a loss of trust, confirmation of differences, and very hurt feelings.
The teacher was never able to find a comfortable place within that school community again and ended up leaving teaching altogether not long after.
While it is commonly understood by teachers that education is a field in which one is unlikely to get fired once they are on a term contract or tenured, a teacher’s veteran status should not exclude them from being corrected, written up or even placed on a growth plan if their actions are having a detrimental impact on the effectiveness of their team.
Be aware of subtle patterns of manipulation. What you’re noticing could be bullying - it doesn’t just happen to students. This could take many forms:
- Comments indirectly challenging or refuting every suggestion or idea that certain members of a team put forth
- Nonverbals like eye rolls and other mocking or demeaning facial expressions, along with sighs or unwelcoming body language while specific team members are speaking
- Social activities that obviously exclude only one or two members of a team
- Ignoring or leaving one person when out on simple things like making copies or checking mailboxes.
Administrators shouldn’t let teachers get away with behavior like this, but they also have to be made aware when this has been happening. No one wants to be known as the complainer, and there is a legitimate concern about making a situation worse or retaliation. But, this behavior is unprofessional and should not be allowed; it can be sensed and often even observed by the students who are learning about social interactions from their teachers in addition to reading, writing, and arithmetic.
It is advisable to start with indirectly addressing a situation if the actions are subtle. Give the teachers in question the opportunity to correct their behaviors by reminding the team of appropriate behaviors and expected meeting norms.
If this doesn’t get the situation under control, administrators should not be afraid to directly address the individuals at fault. Always document these conversations. If the actions are strong enough, word this as directive and document it as such.
One teacher should not be allowed to get away with behaving in a way that negatively affects the effectiveness of others.
Unfortunately, you may find yourself in a situation where you can’t win and are not getting the help from administration that you need. You have to take care of yourself and not allow others to negatively impact your teaching or your personal mental health. Document the different ways that you have tried to resolve the conflict and when you have spoken to administration about the issues.
As a last resort, you may have to simply go to your room, close your door, and do what you know is best, accepting that you may not fit well on that team. Be the best teacher you can be for your students. Don’t neglect required responsibilities like attending PLC’s or team meetings, but learn from past experiences and be intentional about when and how you share your ideas.
However, don’t be an island. You need community, but you may have to be creative in where you find it. You may find a like-minded, accepting teacher on another team or even at an in-service with teachers from other campuses. There are also countless education groups on social media (though, you want to look out for and avoid the groups that are just there to complain without looking for solutions).
Start working towards finding a better work situation once the year is over. You could consider asking to teach a different grade level or subject, or you might ask to transfer to another campus. If you want to start fresh, brush up your resume and apply for positions in school districts you have heard good things about.
Or, it might even be time to go back to school and pursue educational leadership so you can help rectify problems like this for other teachers. Your experiences could go along way in helping others feel supported and be successful.