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Joyful Conflict in Schools
Retired Superintendent of Schools
Conflict is a normal part of life, learning, and school. Conflict
includes disagreement, competition, and discord about something of
value to each party. Negotiation is the customary method to resolve
disputes. Conflict initiates a brain sequence of emotional arousal,
conscious feelings, and purposeful thinking. Unfortunately, joyful
feelings and empathic thinking are unusual in conflict negotiations.
Ancient fight, flight, or freeze responses typically follow feelings of
fear, anxiety, or anger. Fear prompts escape, anxiety encourages
avoidance, and anger goads confrontation. Empathy and happiness are
commonly associated with creative and considerate conflict resolution.
Simultaneously emphasizing feelings and goals leads to joyful
achievement. Positive or negative approaches to conflict in school can
either nurture or poison the school culture.
When I was beginning to teach, I was inspired by a school opening
address. The superintendent recognized happiness as crucial to
education. He proclaimed joy as the way we were to teach. This became a
cultural ideal I emphasized throughout my thirty-year career as a high
school science teacher and superintendent of schools.
School culture may be defined as “the way we do things around here”.
Culture embraces feelings as well as patterns of thinking and behaving.
Culture is created and reinforced through social interaction. Open
expression of feelings, valued learning styles, and socially accepted
conduct are continually observed and become codified. Instruction and
practice in these codes of conduct are internalized by everyone. This
cultural process seems consistent with the formation and reinforcement
of neural networks.
Patterns of emotional arousal, conscious feelings, and collaborative
thinking can also become the taken for granted way to resolve conflicts
in school. Instruction, modeling, and guided practice can nurture ways
of handling school conflict that simultaneously solve disagreement and
leave participants feeling joyful. The following positive conflict
solving approaches are intended to be used in concert.
In a recent IAE Newsletter
article, Barbara Given describes Polyvagal Theory, an adaptation of the
common freeze/fight/flight response to stressful situations.
Polyvagal Theory focuses on socially stressful situations, and
seeks to heal them (Given, March, 2016).
The Basics of a Strategy that Seeks to Heal
Insist on positive assumptions about the other
intentions, verbal, and nonverbal communications. This often means
consciously overcoming negative feelings and thoughts. Premeditated
smiles and friendliness will be contagious.
Recognize and respect the other person's
experiences, and culture. A relationship based on trust and respect
will be built up over time.
Pursue dialogue to discover
shared interests, rather than
self-interests. Brainstorm propositions that attain shared interests. Attempts to win
initial positions or advance self-interests generate negative feelings
that lock people firmly into their position.
Be rigorous in
ensuring that each person's goals are
fairly. Apply fair decision criteria such as school goals, research
findings, and conflict precedents. Both parties will support solutions
that are fair and achieve goals.
disclose what will happen for each person if the
is not resolved. Each person needs to adjust negotiating flexibility in
light of relative gains and losses from a stalemate.
Case Study Examples of Healing
The following case studies are based on my experience as a teacher,
staff developer, and school superintendent. They illustrate positive
and negative approaches to conflict. The first case study examines a
contract dispute between a school division and a teacher association.
The second conflict involved myself and a student who had been defeated
by grade nine science. The third conflict was between two grade twelve
1. School Division and Teacher Association
A school division and teacher association were in protracted contract
negotiation. Teachers wanted to increase preparation time for
elementary teachers. The school division was opposed because it would
require a property tax increase for additional teachers.
Teachers were insistent about the need to level preparation time for
elementary and secondary teachers. The school division wouldn't budge
either. Each side was frustrated and annoyed with the other party's
The teacher association announced that teachers would begin a series of
rotating strikes. Service would be withdrawn in one or two schools each
day until contract demands were achieved. This would be a relatively
inexpensive strike for teachers. The uncertainty of which school would
be closed would be difficult for the school division to manage.
Furthermore, uncertainty would be problematic and exasperating for
parents. Parents would pressure their elected representatives to end
The school division announced that it would lock teachers out of all
schools following the first rotational strike. The teacher association
was unable to provide sufficient strike pay for all teachers so the
rotating strikes were postponed. Negotiations were locked in a mutually
untenable and unwinnable situation. A previously positive relationship
was being poisoned by mistrust and anger.
Fortunately, a division administrator who had received training in
shared interests negotiating convinced both sides to attempt this
approach. It worked! A consultant in shared interests negotiating
assisted the sides to a mutually satisfactory agreement. Trust and
positive relations were mended as this approach was entrenched.
2. A Grade Nine Student
I met Helen when she was assigned to my grade nine science class. Helen
was repeating grade nine science for a second time. Helen expressed
exasperation with and antipathy toward basic math and science. Helen
had previously acted out when she was frustrated with class projects.
She seldom worked in class, skipped regularly, and eventually dropped
grade nine science. She was defeated and it was now my challenge to
help Helen meet the requirements of grade nine science.
I asked Helen to meet with me following our first science class. I
smiled and told her I was happy that she was now in my science class so
I could help her pass. I asked her how she liked to learn in school.
She told me that she liked the language arts and social studies. She
liked doing research in the school library and writing reports on her
research. I asked her if she would like to do science research in the
school library and write reports for me to review. She agreed and we
jointly selected a significant number of science reports based on her
interests and the science curriculum. Due dates were agreed for each
report. She agreed that she would not leave the library during science
I occasionally went to the library to check on her progress and to
assist her with research. We met after school to review and evaluate
each of her science reports. Helen completed all curricular
requirements for grade nine science. Helen exhibited trust and respect
for me throughout her high school career. This is one of my enduring
memories of teaching.
3. Two Students
Dave and Barry sat together in my grade twelve physics class. They were
friends and excellent students. One morning as the class was about to
begin they abruptly stood up, yelled at one another, and began a
vigorous fist fight. I immediately separated them and asked them to
stay after class for follow up.
After class I informed them that the school rule was that they would be
suspended or expelled for fighting at school. I told them that I was
willing to deal with the fight as a classroom conflict if they were
willing to negotiate a solution to their dispute. Each of them quickly
agreed. They were willing to shake hands, apologize, and commit to
I told them to forget what they were each trying to achieve by fighting
and instead talk about their shared goals for a negotiated solution.
After a time, they agreed that they each wanted a mutual friend to
clarify the kind of relationship she wanted with each friend. The
solution was individual dates with the girl where they would ask her to
clarify the relationship she would value with each young man. This
clarified a desirable and workable relationship among the three
friends. Barry and Dave restored their friendship and each earned a
high mark in grade twelve physics.
These three cases illustrate pain from negative conflict and happiness
from positive conflict resolution. Teaching a simultaneous emphasis on
feelings and goals in conflict resolution will also create a school
culture where positive feelings and goal attainment are supported.
Joyful conflict can become the norm for students and teachers.
References and Resources
P.L., & Luckmann, T. (1966). The
social construction of
reality: A treatise in the sociology of knowledge. Garden City, NY:
Brooks, A. (2015). Emotion and the art of negotiation: how to use your
feelings to your advantage. Harvard Business Review.
Fisher, R., & Ury, W. (1983). Getting to yes: Negotiating agreement
without giving in. New York: Penguin.
Gleave served as Superintendent of staff development and
Superintendent of Schools in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, for twenty-three
years. He now writes professional articles. His Ph.D. is from the
University of Oregon.
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