By Karim Ullah
Conflict is a normal part of our individual and collective life and is integrally linked with human idiosyncrasies. Our individual ‘differences’ which shape and determine our ‘values’ often breed situations of disagreements, differences of opinions and viewpoints in our interactions with others around us. Conflicts come in varying sizes and scales ranging from those emerging between two persons to those antagonizing two or more nations at global level. When managed wisely and resolved carefully, conflicts can become sources of knowledge, happiness and peace.
My motivation to unpack and share insights related to the notion of promoting peace through conflict management primarily came from the scholarly guidance of my course coordinators Dr. Mola Dad Shafa and Dr. Sadrudin Pardhan in the ‘Effective Management Practices’ class that I recently attended as part of my M.Ed. course work at AKU-IED, Pakistan. I would also like to acknowledge and express my gratitude to Dr. Farid Panjwani, Dean, AKU-IED Pakistan for his guidance and initiative of promoting the culture of ‘writing’ at the Institute. His message to faculty and students primarily inspired me to take this initiative of writing and publishing this article.
As part of the assignment to fulfil the course assessment criteria, I selected ‘conflict management’ to develop this reflective paper illustrating the various dimensions of this increasingly important theme in the contemporary world. More specifically, I explored the role of leadership in anticipating, managing and resolving the day-to-day conflicts to promote peace in schools.
For having their pivotal roles in the overall school management, the head teachers play key roles in improving students’ learning outcomes, ensuring a peaceful working environment, implementing school policies, involving community in school, delegating tasks, managing school finances and making the day-to-day decisions related to schools. Therefore, it becomes extremely important for headteachers, be they novice or experienced, to continue learning and sharpening their leadership and management skills to be able to achieve the strategic goals of their schools.
Managing conflicts effectively is one of the essential qualities of headteachers. In schools, conflicts take place on daily basis and are unavoidable (Msila, 2012). This paper presents the different aspects of ‘conflict’ that relate to policies, resources, diverse views and individual differences amongst the school family.
Moreover, this paper also explores the key sources triggering conflicts and how headteachers manage and/or resolve them in schools. Furthermore, the paper also makes a few recommendations related to the management and resolution of conflicts in schools.
School—A Place of Social Interactions
School is an organization where teachers and students come from different backgrounds and bring different ideologies. Therefore, their different thoughts, values and priorities often give rise to conflicts, which are bound to happen due to the numerous interactions taking place between different stakeholders. It is primarily due to the human interactions taking place simultaneously at various levels which make schools prone to conflicts. Ohaka (2016) endorses this assertion that multiple natural and artificial tendencies usually lead to conflicts in school contexts.
The conflicts represent different mindsets between and amongst different stakeholders. School leadership has to be sensitive about the unattended and intensifying conflicts as they can divert and affect the school development goals (Abah, Itodo, & Haruna, 2019). School leadership has to remain alert to resolve such conflicts at the initial stage. By their nature, conflicts can be neither constructive nor disruptive, however, the way they are dealt with can make them positive or negative (Ghaffar, 2009). Conflicts often start at a micro level but have the potential to get out of control, hence, the need to manage and/or resolve them at the earliest possible stage.
Our experiences of leading schools in the rural and mountainous context of Gilgit-Baltistan of Pakistan show different causes breeding conflicts in schools. Some of these key causes include lack of communication, personal characteristics, authority, rewards, resources, human relations and allocation of duties. Interestingly, Ebire and Olusola (2020)’s study also endorsed these causes in other contexts in the world. Research also convincingly clarifies that conflicts are undesirable and generate hindrance in the workplace, especially when they are not handled desirably (Goksoy & Argon, 2016). What follows is a set of sources that in most cases trigger conflicts in schools in Gilgit-Baltistan, Pakistan:
The Leadership Inadequacies in Schools
The concept of leadership is integrally linked with the concept of legitimate power and influence in schools. Headteacher is the most important leader in a school who has to perform multiple roles to achieve the school goals. Headteachers are the managers of their schools who are responsible for whole school development planning and application. Effective management of schools can increase learning opportunities for the school family. The quality and performance of a school is directly linked with the quality performance of its leader. Nevertheless, for not having adequate professional experience and competence, headteachers face different challenges during school operations particularly in handling human resources. Headteachers need to cultivate their professional development to fulfill their roles in shaping school culture and school improvement that will lead to minimizing conflicts.
Conflict may create unmanageable situations in schools, which may disrupt the process of school operation. The management of such situations in schools requires leadership and managerial expertise of headteacher (Salleh, 2012). What we have seen in real school contexts is that in some cases, when headteachers are not well-trained, they run into resistance from teachers in different school matters. For example, task delegation, decision making, job assignments, working conditions, stakeholders’ expectations, managing resources, performance appraisal, and addressing financial issues are some of the management areas where headteacher may face resistance from the workforce.
Headteachers are expected to handle conflicts at the school level employing their inter- and intra-personal skills. Managing conflicts needs energetic and trained headteachers, therefore, school leader should work with teachers as a team and initiate to resolve the emerging issues. It is possible that the mediation made by headteachers may not eliminate conflicts, but it is expected that the efforts of headteachers will provide the trajectory in converting conflicts into opportunities for learning and promotion of peace in schools.
The Communication Gaps
Communication is the process of establishing meaningful relationships among the workforce in any organization. However, poor communication increases uncertainty that, in turn, leads to conflict. It is to address the communication gap that headteachers need to keep the school family informed about the decisions and policies. Informational conflict occurs in organizations when the stakeholders are unaware of important information, or when they are misinformed.
Several conflicts occur in schools on daily basis due to lack of communication, for instance, the intra- and interpersonal conflicts and/or the intra- and intergroup conflicts are examples of such conflicts. Collaboration and compromise are usually available as alternatives in a conflict situation (Karim, 2015). Hence, the strong need for headteacher to create a collegial and cooperative atmosphere in schools that will instill a spirit of teamwork, respect, value and acceptance in school which will be helpful in minimizing conflicts and promoting peace in schools.
The Dilemmas of Performance Appraisal
It is based on the results of staff performance that schools entertain teachers with rewards. This is a good practice to encourage teachers and to recognize and appreciate their efforts and achievements. Different performance appraisal tools, policies and standards are considered in the process of identifying and rewarding teachers. Schools, as progressive institutions, have to use the rewards and compensation system to maintain and increase morale and motivation of staff. However, when put to practice, the performance appraisal mechanism encounters numerous challenges in achieving the goal of rewarding and motivating staff (Harbi, Thursfield, & Brigh, 2016).
My experiences of working as a teacher and headteacher before joining the current degree program showed that most teachers were unhappy with the appraisal system as, understandably, a selected few teachers who met the criteria got rewards while others developed a sense of deprivation and inferiority. Since all teachers performed their duties related to school development throughout the year and a majority of the school functions are interdependent. But the fewer teachers who got the prize (i.e. salary packages, bonuses, extra benefits and allowances) promoted a sense of conflict amongst the others. The literature also endorses the fact that salary review based on performance is demotivating because employees often feel it like a judgment (Leddy, 2015). Furthermore, an atmosphere of bias developing among teachers can affect the students learning outcomes. Performance appraisal can create conflict between headteachers and teachers, particularly where appraisal practices are perceived as unfair. Literature has also highlighted some factors that might affect teacher performance that includes unfairness, favoritism, personal bias, lack of resources, and leniency.
The conflicts arising from performance appraisal are difficult to manage and quite challenging to stop. However, this can be minimized by handling the actual sources of conflict. Headteachers or appraisers can institute a positive impact on performance appraisal and rewards that will further raise employees’ satisfaction, i.e. a basic condition to promote a friendly and peaceful work environment in schools.
The Challenges of Interdependence and Individual Differences
An effective school culture demands collaboration of internal and external stakeholders to achieve the common goals. However, as human beings we are also constantly influenced by our individual differences and worldviews, hence, working with others can be easier said than done. In school contexts, for example, the intrinsic, egocentric, high-handed and domineering nature of some members of the school community could always cause conflict. Headteachers also play the role as mediators in schools to manage conflicts taking place between teachers and/or among students. For instance, in a school setting teachers and students are both interdependent when it comes to achieving the teaching and learning goals. Teachers also depend on their colleagues in many ways as they seek help from each other, they share and seek ideas, lessons, and other activities on an ongoing basis in schools. Some teachers may respect others’ ideas and views while some may resist them for various reasons.
In schools, there are situations where teachers have to depend on others to get their tasks done. In cases where the task of a teacher is dependent upon the work of another, there can be potential for conflicts to arise. When teachers are in an interdependent situation, they tend to slip into the mode of blaming co-teachers when something goes wrong. In addition, there is competition among teachers for resources, positions, performance awards and retention of personal status which may create conflicts. Likewise, teachers try to protect their vested interests but have no consideration to accommodate others needs in schools. This approach leads to a culture of competition which often promotes antagonism and balkanization in schools.
In most schools, students can also be seen in competition and in interdependent situations. In schools having co-education system, gender differences, individual abilities of students, family background and cultural differences, unfavorable learning environment, bullying, and demands of students emerge as sources of conflict among students. The boys often take their superiority showing physical strength, while girls learn to gracefully manipulate. Different viewpoints of students in group work at times also lead to generate conflicts amongst students. The teachers have a role to manage such conflicts right at the stage of their emergence to preempt them from damaging relations amongst students.
Scarcity of Resources
There is an increasing demand on daily basis to get resources in schools, especially those related to the human resources, curriculum, policy, financial and material resources are the much sought-after resources needed to maximize learning opportunities for stakeholders. Most public and private schools have limited resources. The greater the limitation of resources the greater the potential for conflict (Isabu, 2017). We have limited resources in schools that are shared during the teaching and learning activities. For example, there is a single compound microscope in a middle school laboratory and twenty-five students are supposed to use the microscope to examine the given specimen. Such a condition can create clashes among students when they struggle to use the microscope.
There are many other common resources at schools that are shared in a working situation like the computer lab, library, and sports equipment and playground. However, such scarcity of resources may create potential chances of conflict among students as well as teachers and headteacher.
Time Pressures in Schools
Teachers in schools are bound to accomplish their tasks well in time. As a headteacher, I found it difficult for teachers to perform an array of tasks within the given time in the classroom. Because the role and responsibilities of teachers have increased due to the larger demands of 21st-century learning skills, the allocated time is more or less constant which is usually thirty-five to forty minutes per class period. However, teachers’ classroom performance appraisal has fixed marks for time management while teachers are not able to do justice with the planned activities within the available time. Thus, it emerges as a factor for potential conflict between teacher and appraiser.
Besides the classroom teaching, headteacher delegates additional tasks to teachers expecting them to complete them well in time. This is a good sign to timely manage the delegated activities. But headteachers have to consider the nature of the task, capacity and ability of teachers to meet the target. Likewise, the teacher also gives home assignments to students and are supposed to complete the task within the given time and date. Some students complete their tasks timely while others cannot complete it on time for a number of reasons. Such cases may lead to conflicts between teachers, parents, and students. Teachers should also consider students’ working capacity and understanding level concerning the amounts of tasks vis-à-vis the allocated time.
This article ends by sharing a few conflict management insights which might guide headteachers in effectively dealing with the issues facing them on day-to-day basis. For instance, the research insights suggest that disagreement should not be suppressed, instead, it has to be exposed (Armstrong, 2008). It is important to ensure that the issues which caused conflicts in the organization are explored, analyzed and resolved. Conflicts are not necessarily negative, they, in fact, depend on how we handle them. However, conflicts will remain emerging in schools due to individual differences but when they are not resolved timely, they could contribute to anarchy. Therefore, headteachers should strive to nib them in the bud, i.e. on the manifesting stage.
Conflict is not a tangible product, but it rests in the minds of the people who are parties to it. Furthermore, the conflict will become tangible when it manifests itself in arguments and threats emanating from the parties involved to each other (De Janasz et al., 2013).
It is, therefore, suggested that school leaders should play an active role in managing conflicts. It should be a priority for school leaders to handle the conflict situation in the organization. The school leaders set the tone for conflict management using different strategies. Their work experiences can help headteachers in dealing with challenges. Therefore, using different strategies and planning to resolve conflicts will certainly yield positive results. Some of the key conflict resolution insights are suggested below that will help school leaders and teachers to minimize, resolve and/or preempt conflicts and promote peaceful and friendly environment in schools.
- Communication is the key to resolving conflicts. Keeping the stakeholders informed about the school activities and policies will bridge up the communication gaps and will minimize the sources of conflict. Besides, it can also do wonders when a culture of coexistence is created by involving students, teachers and parents in school activities to live and learn together.
- Delegating leadership roles to teachers and engaging them in anticipating, identifying and addressing the communication gaps between different stakeholders can help in avoiding conflicts. Establishing student bodies, e.g. a school representative committee (SRC), will also help in reducing, managing and resolving conflicts.
- Building working relationships with other schools and organizations will provide an opportunity to learn and share school activities that will promote trust, love, respect, and acceptance amongst different stakeholders. In turn, this will help in minimizing the risk of inter-organizational conflict.
- It is highly important to practice an impartial, fair, equitable and transparent reward system in schools that is a source of motivation and satisfaction for all stakeholders. For this purpose, we need to get staff involved in agreeing on the criteria for rewards related policies and practices. Since all staff contribute to school’s progress, recognizing and celebrating their contributions should be the institutional priority.
- Empathy is vital in breaking the ice on both sides of the conflict. Understanding the differences, respecting others’ worldviews and respecting their ideas, beliefs and values will help in promoting peaceful coexistence in schools.
- The technique of ‘force-field analysis,’ i.e. endeavoring to reducing resistance rather than exerting pressure to iron out discords between the conflicting individuals and/or parties can be an effective approach to manage conflicts. Using force field analysis, headteacher can resolve conflicts by identifying the forces for and against change.
- Exercising patience and humility during the process of conflict resolution will offer solutions and minimize deadlocks and hard strikes among parties.
- It is also advisable to employ the ‘role-reversal’ technique in negotiating solutions for disagreements. By using this strategy, the roles and responsibilities of parties are exchanged so that both parties try to put themselves in others’ shoes and try to understand the rationale from their perspective. This strategy helps resolve conflicts by softening their resistance towards the other party involved in the conflict.
- ‘Humor’ has also been noted to work as a powerful tool in conflict management. However, it requires individuals to be well aware of its ‘relevance,’ ‘strategic importance,’ and ‘sensitivity’ in using humor as an instrument increasing human motivation to address the conflict. Humor has an amazingly effective role in softening the hard stances related to conflicts.
- It is also desirable for headteachers to know when to use the concepts of ‘accommodation’ and ‘compromise’ when they are faced with deadlock situations in addressing conflicts.
In a nutshell, conflict is unavoidable but effective school leaders can manage it by using different strategies. All we can do to resolve conflicts is to understand their nature through the lens of human relationships, see them as sources of learning, use a framework to objectively analyze the conflict situations and try to seek solutions that satisfy both parties by applying the principle of win-win: i.e. winning on both fronts of ‘argumentation.’
These strategies may seem trivial in their nature and scope, they are experience-based and tried-and-tested in real school contexts. Each of these strategies has the potential to manage, resolve and/or preempt conflicts and promote peace between and amongst individuals. We must also bear in mind that the peace between two individuals is integrally linked with the global peace, that we all so desperately need!
The contributor is an M.Ed Scholar at the Aga Khan University – Institute for Educational Development. He is also a Headteacher.
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