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Dealing with Conflicts in School: Advice from a Former Principal

Dec 1, 2017

by Suzanne Capek Tingley, Veteran Educator, M.A. Degree

Having to deal with teacher conflicts in school is unusual but not unheard of. As with any workplace, sometimes teachers prefer some colleagues to others, or have educational approaches or personalities that don't mix. But when a disagreement rises to a level that draws outside attention, the principal has to take action. One instance of a conflict between two teachers that I needed to mediate occurred between my colleagues Iris and John.

Read More: Fostering Healthy Classroom Debate

How a Conflict Can Arise

For many years, Iris taught fifth grade with Shondra. Iris taught the English/language arts classes, and Shondra's subjects were math and science. They were a great team and friends outside of school as well. Students loved them and parents respected them. Then Shondra retired.

In her place, I hired John, a young man right out of college. I respected and admired Shondra, but I was excited about the fresh ideas John would bring to the classroom. I also hoped he might be a good role model for our boys—perhaps he'd even get involved in some after-school activities with them. Teaming him up with a veteran like Iris would help him learn the ropes quickly. I figured she could give him some helpful tips, especially in terms of classroom management (which is always challenging for new teachers). My optimism kept me from realizing I had whipped up a recipe for disaster.

There were problems within a week. Iris was not interested in mentoring a new teacher or giving him any say in the scheduling or day-to-day decisions. John resented being treated like a student teacher. He complained about wanting a softer disciplinary approach than Iris's, and as a result, some student behaviors were acceptable in his class but unacceptable in hers. Iris thought he was more interested in being popular than holding kids accountable (and said this to him), and he said that she was too hard on them. Before their first month as a team was over, they weren't on speaking terms. Iris and John relied on e-mail to communicate and their students were caught in the middle.

Finding a Resolution

Reluctant to take sides, the feuding teachers' colleagues brought this conflict to my attention. They thought it was time for me to step in and get things on track. I considered speaking to Iris and John individually, but ultimately I decided that it would be better to meet together and put all the cards on the table.

In a neutral conference room, I began the mediation process by laying out the conflict as I saw it. I admitted that perhaps I bore some responsibility for the problem—the differences between John and Iris's styles, experiences, and expectations for students were too great for them to generate the cooperation and mutual respect needed to make a successful team.

Interestingly enough, neither wanted to admit that they could not work together cooperatively. "Well," I said, "I haven't seen any evidence of cooperation so far, and your students are bearing the brunt of the problem. This can't continue. What do we need to do to improve the situation?"

To their credit, both Iris and John admitted that they could have done a better job. Having the principal speak to them about their behavior was embarrassing, but my decision to not blame either one directly lessened their defensiveness. In the end, the three of us came up with some specific actions they would take to improve the situation, and we agreed to meet again in two weeks to monitor the progress.

Handling Conflict

I'd like to say that John and Iris ended up being great friends and continued to work together in harmony for many years, but that wasn't the case. While their relationship did improve, I reassigned them to different teams at the end of the year, and the fresh start was beneficial. Everyone learned something from this difficult experience, including me.

While this conflict might have been avoided, most conflicts in school between teachers simply occur without warning. But I've learned some techniques that other principals and school administrators can use when confronting conflict between teachers, including:

  • Focus on the problem, not on the personalities. You're looking for a solution, not for a culprit.
  • Be courteous, but don't sugarcoat the problem. Describe the effect it's having on others, especially students.
  • Keep your conversations or decisions strictly confidential. You cannot control what others say, but nothing should come from you.
  • Rather than impose a resolution, look to the participants to come up with one together. This is their problem to resolve, and you are simply a mediator.
  • Make it clear that you expect improvement and will monitor progress.

Further Reading: Book Review: Navigating Colleague Conflict with Crucial Conversations

When you're in an administrative role, it's your duty to help resolve conflicts between teachers. These situations can escalate to the point that they affect students and their education, which is not what we want as educators. As long as you have the right rapport with your teachers, you can ensure any conflict is dealt with in a timely and thorough manner.

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