Information Age Education
   Issue Number 188
June, 2016   

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Joyful Conflict in Schools

Doug Gleave
Retired Superintendent of Schools
Saskatoon, Saskatchewan

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 person's 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 feelings, beliefs, 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 achieved 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.

  • Openly disclose what will happen for each person if the conflict 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 physics students.

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 intransigence.

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 strike.

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 period.

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 their friendship.

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

Berger, P.L., & Luckmann, T. (1966). The social construction of reality: A treatise in the sociology of knowledge. Garden City, NY: Doubleday.

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.

Given, B. (March, 2016). Polyvagal Theory helps to explain the joy in learning. Retrieved 5/12/2016 from


Doug 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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