Maintaining professionalism during times of conflict
One of the most frequent calls to Member Services relates to interpersonal communication and collegial issues. Callers may be experiencing a working relationship that seems to be “going off the rails” or has reached a “crisis level” and are seeking support and advice in the hope of resolving the situation. Such situations are hard on all parties involved and can generate enough stress to negatively affect individuals involved, the whole team and, in some cases, the greater school community.
When so much time is spent in the company of colleagues in the busy and demanding environment of schools, it is not surprising that interpersonal issues arise. These situations may cause feelings of anger, unease and confusion as to how best to proceed. When the problem remains unresolved, this can lead to feelings of helplessness, anger, harassment and victimization or, in extreme circumstances, health-related issues. In other instances, the teachers may feel their only option is to seek a transfer or a leave.
How do teachers respond to these situations in ways that are respectful, dignified and professional?
Helpful strategies are contained in the Healthy Interactions Program, a communication and conflict resolution program created in partnership with the ATA.
1. Who can you call?
Call Member Services — your call is confidential. Our goal is to help you resolve and/or manage the situation by exploring your options. Gaining awareness of your options can be a great stress reliever even if the outcome is not exactly what you desired.
2. Relationships and the power of reframing
One of our greatest assets as teachers is the ability to work with others and navigate relationships successfully. In our professional education as teachers we learn to expect difficult interactions with students and parents. However, we are not always prepared when the conflict occurs with our colleagues.
A useful strategy is to remember that you are only in control of yourself. You cannot make the other person behave differently. You need to reframe the situation with this awareness and focus on managing and responding to your role in the relationship difficulty.
Another strategy is to not personalize what is not personal. Colleagues may be part of your social community, but when you are in a work situation you must maintain your professional identity. Try to reframe differences with colleagues to be about aspects of your professional identity as a teacher and not about you personally. If you personalize the situation, this can negatively affect your sense of identity, confidence and capacity as a teacher.
3. The code of conduct: Handle courageously!
It’s normal for teachers to want to avoid or deny the difficulty when there is interpersonal conflict. Such responses do not address the growing relationship issue. Professionals who face and work to resolve colleague issues help grow trust in relationships. By raising the issue with your colleague, you are providing notice that you realize things have gone off the rails. You open up the channels of communication. Committing to do your part to resolve the situation shows your professionalism.
None of this is easy but, as professionals and role models in society, teachers are held to a very high standard of ethical and professional conduct. It is much healthier to have the courageous conversations rather than repeating the same narrative over and over.
When an issue arises, find a way to approach the person face-to-face, if possible.
These conversations require some planning, so it is important to script some of the key themes of concerns that outline the essence of the issue — such as respect, communication style or leadership approaches — prior to the interaction. It is also important to focus your issues and points on how you are feeling and reacting to the situation rather than on what the other person is doing. This is accomplished by using “I” statements (i.e., I feel, I believe) instead of “you are” statements.
Once this is done, ask your colleague if they would be willing to meet with you and set up a time that is suitable for you both.
If you cannot summon the courage for a face-to-face interaction, write down some of your concerns following the same communication principles noted above. Provide a copy of these concerns to your colleague. You may decide that the letter could serve as excellent speaking points for a face-to-face interaction.
By taking these steps, you are behaving at the highest level of professionalism. Regardless of the other party’s response, you have followed the Code of Professional Conduct. In so doing, you are enacting the spirit of article 13 (or 14) from the sections of the code that relate to how we need to interact with our colleagues.
There is no guarantee that the relationship will instantly transform if you follow these strategies. However, by following this approach for collegial and professional dialogue, you are exemplifying professionalism. If your attempts to meet and talk do not move the relationship to a more constructive level, you will have fulfilled your responsibility under the code. Once you have communicated the concerns either verbally or in writing to the colleague you then have every right to move the situation to the next level if you think that could be of benefit. Member Services can help.
The Code of Professional Conduct sets out a “way of being,” which addresses the conduct that is considered appropriate for a professional in the four domains of our work –– our work with students, our work with our school authorities, our work with colleagues and our work as role models of society. By acting on some or all of your choices in a situation, you move yourself from the role of victim or reactor into the role of someone who is proactive and enacting the possibility for positive change.
Remember, if you want to discuss your individual situation in more detail, feel free to call us at 1-800-232-7208 if you are north of Innisfail and 1-800-332-1280 if you are south of Innisfail.
Cynthia Malner-Charest is an executive staff officer in the ATA’s Member Services program area, assigned to the Southern Alberta Regional Office (SARO), in Calgary.