I'm not very good with conflict. It makes me really uncomfortable, I don't think I'm particularly good at achieving positive outcomes when it happens, and I do many things to avoid it. I think there are a lot of educators who feel the same way. I also think that's a big problem.
I've been involved in multiple conversations lately where we've been discussing changes that we believe would have a strong positive impact on our students, but then we hesitate because we are worried about causing conflict with some of the adults. Let's be clear, we feel strongly that these changes are best for students, so there are no qualms about the changes themselves, our concern is over how some of our colleagues will react. We're worried that some of them might be angry, others might be dismissive, or - perhaps the biggest concern - that some of them might have their feelings hurt.
This has primarily arisen in relation to two different but related concerns. First, that if one or more of us change what we do in our classrooms, other colleagues who will then have the student after us will be frustrated because the student is not adequately "prepared" for their class. This might be a colleague we know at our high school, or a more generic "colleague" who is a college professor should our students pursue higher education.
The second concern is a bit more personal in the sense that we're worried about hurting someone's feelings. We're concerned that they will take our proposal for change as a personal attack, or as criticism that they aren't performing their job well. We generally like our colleagues, we know they care about our students and our community, and we know they work hard. So we don't want to cause them emotional pain, and we don't want to criticize or undermine their commitment and the hard work they are putting in.
But here's the thing: we need to do it anyway. We are not here primarily to meet the needs of our colleagues, we are here to meet the needs of our students. That's why all of us - including our colleagues - are here. If we truly believe that an idea can make a positive impact on our students, we need to be willing to pursue it even if it does have the potential to frustrate some colleagues or even cause them to be emotionally hurt. Now, I'm not saying we shouldn't be empathetic about this, or that we shouldn't do our best to approach these colleagues with care, concern and compassion. Often their anger or their hurt has a legitimate basis, and arises out of legitimate concerns with the idea that we'll need to address. And we should always treat people kindly, even when we disagree.
But that's not the same as saying, "Go slow," or "Let's don't try to take on too much at one time." The students at my school only have four years of high school. They don't get a second chance at it. They don't get a "do over." If we take two or three (or more years) to make a change that would be beneficial to them, then that's too late for those students we have right now. We can't be more concerned about our colleagues' feelings than we are about the learning of our students. We can't hesitate to bring up new ideas that will positively impact 2150 students because one or two or even twenty of the adults in the building might not be comfortable with the idea.
There's an old saying in education, "Care enough to confront." It's usually brought up in the context of confronting students, of talking with them about some action they are taking that we don't feel is beneficial for them. But I think we need to apply this equally to ourselves. We need to care enough to confront each other and ourselves. Care enough not to shy away from conflict if conflict is what it's going to take to make the changes that are necessary for our students.
As I wrote about recently, we need to lead. Our goal shouldn't be, cannot be, to manage our students, to manage our colleagues, to manage our schools. Our goal cannot be to simply keep everyone happy, whether they be administrative or teacher colleagues, college professors, or parents. As I said in that previous post, it's hard to lead if you're not out in front. We need to be out in front. We need to not put our colleagues' needs ahead of our students' needs. We need to care enough not to avoid conflict when conflict is necessary. We need to care enough to be uncomfortable.