When teachers disagree

By Michael Harslem, April 2015

Free Waldorf schools – seen from the outside – often appear to be an “idyllic world”. Many teachers and, above all, parents are all the more surprised when they experience conflicts in schools which are not dealt with or resolved.

Photo: © Rein Van Oyen photocase

In my experience as a developmental consultant and consultant in conflicts in over eighty Waldorf schools I have noted that

• the conflicts between teachers themselves are the most difficult to work on. Mostly they are so-called cold conflicts. They smoulder for years or sometimes decades under the surface. When they erupt, they can split a whole college of teachers or school,

• every conflict is clearly necessary because the problem could not be solved in any other way,

• every conflict bears within itself the opportunity for change, further development and learning.

That conflicts between teachers are so difficult to resolve is because

• all belong to the same professional group and thus display the same professional characteristics,

• they are involved in the same activity – even if in different fields/subjects – with the same clients so that potentially they can become involved in competition or conflicts of interest with regard to the pupils and parents.

This requires a particular alertness and consciousness in dealing with the competitive situations and mutual dependencies which arise as a result. In positive cases the teachers work well together in a team and support one another both in their own subject and in different subjects among one another. The tensions and opposing views which arise in this context can be well and quickly overcome as a rule and do not lead to conflict. In negative cases conflicts occur when in objective differences a level of understanding can no longer be found and they are therefore then projected on to the personal level. For as long as this happens in the open there is the risk of ever greater escalation but on the other hand the conflicts are open and can be worked on. We describe such conflicts has warm or hot conflicts.

Cold conflicts – inner withdrawal and paralysis

It becomes more difficult when the conflicts are suppressed or even denied; the destructive energy can no longer escape but remains internalised and the conflict is not visible to others. Often it is suppressed to such an extent by one or both parties that it is ordinarily no longer in their awareness. Then it can no longer be worked on and we speak about cold conflicts. But such an avoidance strategy does not resolve any conflicts. An increasing number of hidden incompatibilities and negative sentiments develop which first make the climate cool down and then increasingly poison it – often with superficial friendliness and the appearance of harmony. In such a social climate confrontational people can obtain a lot of power and influence because although the others are annoyed, they will avoid conflict and “fall into line”.

If this game shows itself to work, such people will always get their way – often without even having to become confrontational. The anger of the people affected is suppressed and expressed on the quiet in the staff room or the car park. Such a development leads to social paralysis and inner withdrawal.

But there are also people who seek confrontation because they need friction and resistance to have an experience of themselves. They stoke conflicts by exploiting every dispute. How long such a situation can be borne by a community depends on the level of power possessed by the confrontational people and what dependencies there are on them because they occupy important posts and appear to be irreplaceable.

In the long term, cold conflicts either lead to the paralysis becoming every greater, the sickness rate rising and burn-out occurring – or to a hot conflict which is often triggered by a minor issue.

Since there are always pupils and thus also parents linked to the teachers, conflicts between teachers can mostly not be restricted to those involved. Thus those not directly involved are often drawn into the conflict leading to growing emotionalisation and rapid polarisation of the whole social environment.

When those in power are disempowered

Conflicts necessarily arise where other possibilities of resolution are no longer available or perceived. Conflicts are part of life. They also always offer the possibility of change and renewal. They are necessary so that something can be let go of with which we have a strong connection. The only question is whether they are recognised, how they are handled and whether and to what extent they can unfold their inherent destructive dynamic.

In order to recognise them, attention has to be directed at their origin. Every change process in a social organism bears within itself the possibility that its subjects cause latent conflicts to erupt and become hot. They are always also about changes in behaviour, in attitude and the distribution of power. The attempt, in particular, to introduce a new (horizontal) management culture will mobilise considerable resistance and conflict potential after years of laissez-faire with self-serving habits.

This can be illustrated using the example of the introduction of a new management culture. After long and thoroughly undertaken processes, a free Waldorf school elects two new management bodies with clear remits and powers: a school management body consisting of three people and human resources body also consisting of three people.

The election process reveals that some of the current people “in power” were not put on the short list by the college of teachers. Finally three people for each body are found in a transparent procedure who then in the election receive the support of a large majority of the college. Everything is laid down in a management agreement and signed by all those involved. Everyone is happy that – after years of dissatisfaction and paralysis – the college as now finally become able to act again. The school board and the parents are also happy that there are now specific contacts with clear responsibilities.

Then these bodies start their daily work. In the task description, everyone had expressed the wish that certain behaviours in the college which are socially incompatible, have a demotivating effect and placed a burden on interpersonal relations should finally lead to consequences. So the school management attempted to draw up rules of procedure for the college which described desired ways of behaviour and allowed for the possibility of sanctions in the event of non-compliance. When they were debated in the college there was already a fierce discussion as to whether something like this was permissible and compatible with the spirit of the Waldorf school. The latently existing two “camps” in the college suddenly appeared again. Agreement is reached that there should be a test phase of six months for the college’s new rules of procedure.

Now these new bodies have to act in order not to disappoint the expectations placed in them. Their task is to change established behaviours and habits so that something new can arise. That did not go down particularly well, resistance arose, latent cold conflicts emerged and became virulent in some people. The previous “informal power holders” played a central role in this. As a rule they found great difficulty in coming to terms with the new management situation. Because they were not elected to the new management bodies, they were resentful and tried to retain their power by working against the new management bodies – mostly informally as before.

• They refused to support the new management bodies (passive resistance).

• They engaged in open opposition and tried to cast doubt on all measures.

• They constantly criticised actions and persons both behind their backs and openly.

• They did not keep to the new agreements – both secretly and demonstratively –

• And thus provoked measures against themselves which they were then vocal in pillorying as unjust and which gave them the opportunity to act against the new management (power struggle).

Standard accusation of misuse of power

A further field of conflict for the new management bodies arises through teachers who have difficulties in their teaching or with their colleagues, be it in terms of the content of their subject, teaching methodology or for social or human reasons.

With regard to the reasons which affect their fellow teachers – be it lack of punctuality in appearing for lessons, failures when they are supposed to substitute for someone or in supervision, absences without good reason, non or only occasional participation in meetings – the school management has the clearly defined task to intervene.

Possible reactions of those concerned are

• not to react at all, ignore advice and warnings, wait for the accusations to “go away”,

• to agree to everything but do nothing – and thus force the school management to keep dealing with it,

• to complain bitterly about the school management to others, stir up negative feelings,

• to feel unfairly treated and blame the school management,

• to feel the victim and seek allies, enough of whom can as a rule be found,

• to claim that one has something against them personally and keeps picking on them (accusation of bullying),

• to fall ill and blame the school management for that.

Since these are matters which affect the person, the human resources management becomes involved to clarify the situation in the meeting with the colleague and achieve an improvement.

There is then a repetition of the game with the school management. Depending on the behavioural type, the person concerned may also go public in the college or even tell the parents and pupils about it to try and garner sympathisers there.

Things become even more difficult for the human resources management if it is to do justice to the expectations laid down in the management agreement to be mindful of educational quality and improve it. Here it has to enter very delicate territory which is taboo in many schools. It requires on the one hand great sensitivity and on the other hand also steadfastness and persistence since “weak” teachers in particular very quickly feel under attack when they are faced with criticism. It can frequently happen that the human resources management will encounter massive resistance from the person concerned – but also from other colleagues who want to prevent their own quality as teachers being scrutinised. Depending on behavioural type, some of these teachers succeed in mustering a whole college of teachers against the human resources management if for example they have been given a (justified) warning.

These colleagues attempt to negotiate their educational shortcomings on a personal level. A latent conflict turns hot. A popular method is to accuse the management bodies of misusing their power – a charge which calls forth an emotional response and produces spontaneous solidarity with the victim, particularly if parents and pupils are mobilised.

How can management bodies be protected?

Such conflicts can place a great burden on the management bodies of a school. In order to avoid being wholly taken up by conflicts, a professionally staffed conflict group should be set up when new management bodies are created to protect their work. That is where all conflicts can be referred so that the management bodies no longer have to deal with them. People should be appointed to this organ who are trained in mediation or conflict management. Nowadays such people can very likely be found among the parents of a Waldorf school. Such a conflict group should be set up transparently and the rules agreed in the process should be supported by the majority.

Waldorf schools urgently need a new management culture for all the justified concern about the associated conflicts. Management means structuring the processes required by the social organism in a socially compatible and healthy way. This applies above all with regard to decision-reaching and decision-making processes.

The task of the management bodies consists above all in turning a problem into a process with all the people concerned which is structured in a way such as to lead purposefully to the solution of the problem. The more carefully and transparently this process is structured, the more trust the school management will gain in the college of teachers and also among parents and pupils. Such trust then provides the necessary backing to solve also difficult problems and every problem resolved in a well managed process will strengthen trust.

In this way a diverse – that is, peaceful and sympathetic – collaboration can be developed also when opinions are split in which conflict situations are recognised early on, are constructively resolved and  are seen as developmental opportunities.

About the author: Michael Harslem has been a developmental consultant for people and organisations in the fields of personal development, development of the social organism, learning to learn and practice research since 1986.