Conflict Resolution Guidelines For Elementary Schools
By Joe B. Hewitt, Mediator
Copyright 2008, Joe B. Hewitt.
Permission is given to copy and duplicate for use by a single school, not for sale or distribution.
With the possible exception of conflicts that as a last resort go to administration for arbitrary settlement, all conflict resolution sessions should be confidential. Nothing that is said in the session should be repeated to others. However the law requires that revelation of child neglect or abuse, and elder neglect or abuse must be reported to authorities immediately.
I. Conflict with a Colleague, One on One
When a teacher observes inappropriate conduct or bad behavior by a colleague, he/she should assume the responsibility of trying to defuse the situation.
For example: A teacher steps out of her classroom into the hall, grabs a boy by the arm, screams at him, and shoves him on his way.
The colleague who observes this should ask the screaming teacher for a private talk. If the out-of-line person is still controlled by a fit of anger, the aspiring peacemaker should become the Initiator of Conflict Resolution and ask for a meeting the following day. If that request is refused, the peacemaker Initiator has a choice of (1) letting the matter slide, and take the chance of dealing with an irate parent later, or perhaps see the inappropriate behavior repeated, or (2) reporting the incident to the school administration.
1. Go to the Conference Table
Ideally the intemperate person who has become the Respondent in Conflict Resolution will cool off, sit down with the colleague, and discuss the problem.
In the meeting, the Initiator should establish a relationship with the Respondent. For example, “I’m not trying to exert any authority over you. We are colleagues and friends. I asked you to meet with me to follow the school’s Conflict Resolution Guidelines. Following those guidelines, everything that is said here is confidential. I’m sure we both want what is best for our students. At the same time, I want to avoid any official report of this incident. I hope we can resolve the conflict amicably. I know you must have been under a great amount of strain, or you wouldn’t have reacted as you did to the child. Please tell me what led up to the confrontation.”
The most important thing the Initiator can do is to listen. Be patient. Listen to all the circumstances that led up to the confrontation. Don’t be surprised if during the explanation the Respondent will realize he/she was out of line, admit it, and vow to keep his/her temper under control. If there is something not clear, ask questions. If there seem to be contradictory statements, ask more questions. Ask for clarification. Finally, restate in your own words what the person has told you and make sure you have a complete understanding of what he/she said.
After the Respondent has completely run down, tell what happened from the Initiator’s vantage point. If there is a disagreement on what took place, don’t argue. Emphasize the parts of the incident on which both agree. Especially emphasize the common concern both have for the children in your care. That concern must be number one, and we must be able to adjust our own personal biases and proclivities so we can always act in the best interest of the children.
Discuss options to solve the problem. Write down the options on a board or paper. Scratch unworkable options. Try to get an agreement on a solution to the conflict.
Some possible options for the Respondent:
A. Contact the boy’s parents. Explain his actions that led to the confrontation. Ask for their help in preventing such behavior in the future, and apologize for overreacting.
B. Have a conference with the boy. Ask him to tell in detail what led up to the confrontation. You may find he has problems at home or with other students. He may need to visit the school counselor. Apologize to the child for bad behavior, which by no means excuses his bad behavior.
C. Resolve to be more careful in the future to head off potential problems early to keep them from escalating and keep his/her temper under control no matter what.
When a settlement agreement is reached, write it down. Make a copy for the Respondent and the Initiator. The settlement agreement can be simple. For example:
“I appreciate my colleague calling to my attention my behavior, obviously perceived as inappropriate, involving Billy Joe Smith. I will have a conference with Billy Joe and reprimand him for his behavior that led up to the confrontation and apologize to him for my inappropriate behavior. In the future I will act in a professional manner to the best of my ability.” Signed ______________________. Date ___________.
If no settlement can be reached, go to the next step: Ask the Respondent to meet with you and a mediator.
Conflict with a Colleague, Meet with a Mediator
With consent of the Respondent, the Initiator should contact a colleague, preferably one with many years of teaching experience, and ask him/her to serve as mediator.
The Mediator is in charge of the process, which is basically the same as one-on-one.
1. Go to the Conference Table
The Mediator should arrange for the time and place of the meeting between the two parties. Sit together around a table in a quiet setting. It is best for the parties to face one another across the table. The Mediator should explain the mediation process using the following check list:
1. Welcome, Introductions. (Suggest informality, using first names.)
2. Purpose of mediation. (Focus on the future) The Mediator is impartial, not a judge. No one is forced into settlement. The decision is yours. The Mediator is a facilitator to help guide the parties to settlement.
3. Procedure and process.
A. Each side is given time for uninterrupted presentation.
B. Each side is to state its position.
All participants should be prepared to make suggestions for possible solutions.
4. Caucus. (Optional. Private.) In the event either party wants to talk to the Mediator in private, they can go to another room for a private caucus. In the event the parties want to speak confidentially to one another out of the presence of the Mediator, they can caucus as well.
5. Privacy and note taking. (Everything said is Confidential. No information can be used later in an administration arbitration hearing or court. Mediator cannot be called as witness. Notes to be destroyed .)
6. Ground rules. Be courteous. Listen. Speak respectfully.
7. Discuss with the parties the approximate length of time for sessions. If anyone has to leave at a certain time, make arrangements to reconvene at a later time if necessary.
8. Get both parties to sign Waiver and consent forms acknowledging confidentiality of sessions, neutrality of Mediator, and that the Mediator can’t be called later as a witness.
A. Mediator gives each party uninterrupted time, beginning with the initiator.
B. After each party’s presentation, the Mediator should clarify issues and problems. Make sure he/she understands what each party is saying, and make sure each party understands what the other party is saying. If there are any questions, the Mediator should ask them. The Mediator should be crystal clear in his/her own mind what both parties are claiming. It is vital that the Mediator maintain neutrality.
C. Generate options. The Mediator should write options on the board or on paper. Write as many options as possible, discuss them, and eliminate the unworkable options one by one.
The Mediator should guide the parties toward settlement. Make suggestions. Consider reciprocity: “If he does A, would you be willing to do B?” Once there is an agreement on any point, write it down.
When a settlement agreement has been reached, the Mediator should make sure each party has complete understanding. Then write the agreement. Ask each party to read it, approve it, and sign it. Make copies for both parties and one for the Mediator.
If no settlement can be reached, the Mediator should declare an impasse and refer the matter to administration.
SAMPLE SETTLEMENT AGREEMENT
In the matter of an altercation between myself and a student in the hallway outside Classroom No. 143 on August 18, 2008, I agree to visit the student’s parents no later than September 1, 2008, and try to ascertain what led up to the student’s behavior that day and to apologize to the parents and student for my outburst. To the best of my ability I will keep my temper under control, act in a professional manner toward all my students, and maintain a good relationship with the parents.
Signed, John Johnson, Respondent
In the above matter, I agree to keep all the details of this conflict confidential, and will lend my support to the Respondent in the future to prevent such conflicts.
Signed, Jane Doe, Initiator
Signed, Bert Brown, Mediator
If mediation does not result in a settlement, the next step is to go to the administration. The Administrator should talk to the Initiator to learn the about the conflict in question and make a decision whether to act as mediator in a second attempt at mediation in a confidential setting or have an administrative hearing and arbitrarily make a decision dictating the terms of settlement.
If the Administrator and Respondent agree to a confidential mediation session, the Administrator might want to invite the child, and/or his parents to be present at least part of the time during the mediation.
The Administrator-Mediator should follow the same guidelines as the colleague Mediator outlined above:
1. Go to the Conference Table
In the event the Administrator-Mediator does not achieve a settlement, the only recourse is for him/her to exercise authority and act as an arbitrator, handing down a binding decision.
II. Conflict between Teacher and Parent
In this situation the parent might bring an accusation against the teacher, so the teacher becomes the Respondent with a responsibility to try to resolve the conflict one-on-one if possible. Having been apprised of a complaint made to Administration, the teacher should contact the parents asking for a conference.
1. Go to the Conference Table.
Use the same techniques outlined above in the section, I. Conflict with a Colleague, one-on-one.
The teacher should invite the parents and child to tell the whole story. Ask them to sign the confidentiality agreement. Explain that it in no way prevents them from appealing to the Administration if the conference fails. They may refuse to sign. Continue with the conference regardless.
Encourage everyone concerned to tell all, father, mother, child. The teacher should make sure he/she understands each position. Ask questions. Repeat in your own words. Clarify.
If during this process a parent uses abusive language, the teacher must be firm, and tell the parent that the teacher will have to conclude the conference and refer it to the Administration if they can’t continue the conference with civility.
Ask for options to settle the conflict. Offer options. Write them down. Discuss them. Narrow them down and try to reach a settlement agreement. Consider reciprocity.
Once you have reached an agreement, write it down, and ask everyone to sign it. Make copies for everyone.
SAMPLE SETTLEMENT AGREEMENT
In the matter of a dispute between Teacher John Johnson and Billy Joe Smith in the hallway outside Classroom No. 143 on August 18, 2008, all parties agree to the following:
Billy Joe Smith agrees to follow classroom rules, not be loud and disruptive, and to treat the teachers with respect.
John B. Smith agrees to maintain normal, loving parental discipline over Billy Joe and encourage him to good citizenship.
Susan L. Smith agrees to encourage Billy Joe to do his homework, get enough sleep, be on time for class and maintain good dietary habits, especially leaving off the three high-energy drinks he had been consuming daily.
Teacher John Johnson agrees to keep his temper under control, act in a professional manner toward all students, and maintain a good and friendly relationship with Billy Joe and his parents.
Signed, Billy Joe Smith
Signed, John B. Smith
Signed, Susan L. Smith
Signed, John Johnson
Date, August 21, 2008.
The teacher may on rare occasion encounter a person who agrees to everything, but refuses to sign anything. In that case the teacher should get the parent to verbally affirm that he agrees and leave it at that, hoping he will fulfill his part of the settlement.
III. Conflict between Teacher and Administration
Here danger lurks. Any time you have a dispute between a person and one in authority, you have an uneven playing field. Obviously the teacher may feel intimidated. The Administrator may be gun-shy, afraid of litigation. At best the situation is tense.
SAMPLE SCENARIO: John Johnson is a teacher and coach who feels discriminated against because he is male in a culture dominated by females. He has made a formal complaint to the Principal and the Assistant Principal, both women, accusing them of giving him the worst possible assignments in the cafeteria, hall monitoring, playground, and school bus monitoring. It has been going on for five years. He has complained several times. He still gets the worst assignments, and the younger women with less experience get the best assignments. Mr. Johnson says he’s fed up, and if he can’t get some justice from the Administration he will appeal to the School District Administration and possibly file a lawsuit.
1. Using a Teacher Mediator
The ideal would be for the two to agree on a teacher-Mediator to settle the conflict and keep it in the family. It is doubtful that Mr. Johnson would agree to a fellow teacher as Mediator unless it is an older woman for whom he has a lot of respect, or perhaps another male teacher whom he could trust to be impartial. The Administration would probably not consent to a close friend of Johnson’s to be mediator. However, if a peer mediator could be agreed upon, it would be better than the alternative escalation.
In this case Mr. Johnson is the Initiator, and the Principal and Assistant Principal are the respondents.
The selected Mediator has to take charge of the mediation process, even though his superiors are parties. He may find it difficult. The situation is like a president of a large corporation playing on the company’s baseball team, taking instructions from the coach who is one of his employees. All concerned must accept their roles in this particular situation.
Since time schedules and history will play an important role in this mediation, the Mediator should request that all pertinent documents be brought to the mediation session. For example, Mr. Johnson claims he was given the worst cafeteria detail for the past five years. Those records will be needed.
Confidentiality is especially important.
Another requirement in this kind of mediation is that the parties have full authority to settle. You don’t want to get near a settlement and have the Principal say, “I can’t agree to that until I talk to the Superintendent,” or Mr. Johnson to say, “I can’t agree to that until I talk to the union.” If both parties do not have full authority to settle, the Mediator should postpone the mediation until all parties with that authority can be present. Other than making sure that requirement is met, the Mediator should follow the same course of action outlined above in I. Conflict with a Colleague, One on One, Meet with a Mediator.
Allowing the Initiator to vent is especially important.
After everyone has had their say, the Mediator might ask to look at the assignment records for the past five years, and lay them out on the table. It might be obvious that Mr. Johnson was mistaken on one point and that the Administration did seem to dump on him in another. The best way to get the truth out on the table for all to see is for the Mediator to ask questions. He/she’s not taking sides, just trying to clarify the information.
After the Mediator starts listing options, it might be necessary to separate the parties, leaving the Respondents in one room and taking the Initiator to another room. In those caucuses, the Mediator can make suggestions more freely than he/she could in the presence of the other party.
The Mediator can also re-state the other party’s position to make sure it is understood without the other party thinking the Mediator to be partial. For example, in a private caucus with the Principal and Assistant Principal, the Mediator might say, “You can see that John is angry. If we can’t come to a settlement agreement in mediation, you know what will come next. Dealing with the School District is an unknown. You don’t know what they’ll do. If it goes to court, it’s even more of an unknown except that it will cost a lot of money. The best way to be sure of the outcome, is to arrive at a settlement agreement both you and John can live with. Now according to your records, you did assign John to the southeast corner of the parking lot, not-so-affectionately known as ‘The Pit,’ a hundred days last year. Would you consider it an option to make a change in that pattern? . . . etc. etc.” You wouldn’t want to say those things in Mr. Johnson’s presence, so a caucus is called for.
In a private caucus with Mr. Johnson, the Mediator might say, “I really think the Administration is seriously considering remedy to your problem. I hope you will work with them in coming up with something that both of you can agree to. The alternative is scary. If you go to the School District with this, you don’t know what will happen. If you file a lawsuit, it will cost you a fortune to prosecute the case, and you still don’t know how it will turn out. The best solution is to work something out here in mediation. Now you said earlier that if the Administration would give you a better assignment in the cafeteria, you wouldn’t mind doing some extra duty in ‘The Pit’ because you understand that your strength is needed there to corral some of the more rowdy boys . . .” etc. etc.
Going from caucus to caucus is called “shuttle mediation.” Sometimes it is the best way to go. If the Administration agrees to one point, urge Mr. Johnson to agree to another. Soon you have an agreement. Write it up. Get everyone to sign it, and go home friends.
SAMPLE SETTLEMENT AGREEMENT
In the matter involving a grievance by John Johnson, against the Administration, alleging unfair assignment of non-teaching tasks, the parties, having full authority to settle the dispute, agree to the following:
The Administration renders to Mr. Johnson an apology for treating his physical strength as a liability rather than an asset by assigning him to especially onerous tasks that should have been shared more equally with other teachers. The Administration agrees to remedy that situation by using a roster wheel of teachers and assigning him only his fair share of each of the non-teaching duties except in instances where he specifically agrees to do more than his share. The roster wheel system is to be set up no later than September 20, 2008.
Mr. Johnson agrees to do his fair share of the non-teaching duties as assigned by the Administration using the roster wheel without complaint, and agrees to do fifty per-cent more of the southeast section of the parking lot where his physical strength is needed.
Signed, Assistant Principal
2. Using an Outside Mediator
If either party refuses to use a peer mediator, the Administration should contact the School District. If the School District does not have staff mediators, or if the Initiator is afraid they too would be biased against him, an outside professional should be hired.
3. Out of the Family, Out of Control
If all else fails and the Initiator files a lawsuit, it will be up to the School District’s attorneys to fight the battle.
The usual sequence of events:
The Initiator hires a lawyer. The lawyer files an original petition with the court alleging the Initiator, now the Plaintiff’s charges. The Defendant attorney files an answer. The court sets a trial date months in advance. The court orders the case to mediation. The court-appointed mediator gets all the parties to the table.
Now the situation is much more complicated and around the table we have, the Plaintiff and his lawyer; The School District Lawyer, and the Principal and/or an Assistant Superintendent of Schools representing the Defendant. The scene is played out much like the scenario above except the Plaintiff will probably be asking for a large amount of money in addition to redress. The lawyers are charging large fees. Both parties have to pay the Mediator. He tries to get everyone to cut their losses and settle because if they go on to trial, costs will be multiplied and the outcome will be in doubt.
Recommendations for Ongoing Conflict Resolution Program for Elementary Schools
1. Duplicate the sections on Conflict with a Colleague, One on One and Conflict Between a Teacher and Parent, distribute them to the entire faculty with a cover letter stating that it is every teacher’s duty to defuse conflict by initiating intervention.
2. Ask teachers to volunteer as peer mediators. Duplicate the entire set of guidelines and give it to the volunteers. If they will study the guidelines and scenarios, they will be better equipped to do a mediation. It is important that they use the check list.
Get those volunteer mediators together in a self-study group. Assign some to write a scenario. Assign parts in role playing exercises. Let them take turns being the Initiator, Respondent, and Mediator. With two or three mock mediations behind them they will be ready to do peer mediations.
3. Train volunteer fifth graders to do student mediations. Many schools are doing this successfully. It is not only beneficial for students in conflict, but also for the student mediators. Experience as a student mediator helps equip them for future positions of leadership.
Resources for training teacher mediators:
Nancy Ferrell, PhD, nkferrell @ sbcglobal.net, 214-320-0144.
Glenn Currier, MA, learners @ swbell.net, 972-965-3125.
Resources for training student mediators:
Irene Zucker, Verbacom Executive Development, www.verbacom.com, 972-386-8372.
WAIVER AND CONSENT FORM
(To be signed before mediation begins.)
This waiver and consent form is executed in exchange for participation by the Mediator in the mediation of a dispute between
___________________________________ and ______________________________________
It pertains only to the matters arising during mediation of that dispute.
1. I understand that the Mediator is not a legal advisor. I agree to hold the Mediator harmless for any observations, suggestions or implications that he/she may make in the course of mediation.
2. I waive any right of action that I may have against the Mediator for any allegation of wrongful conduct on his/her part.
3. I agree to the necessity that mediation be confidential and; therefore, agree that I will not call the Mediator, to act as witnesses in any court or administrative hearing.
4. I agree to treat anything said by the opposing party as part of an offer to compromise and settle the dispute being mediated. I further agree that statements made during mediation shall be treated as offers to settle and shall not be admissible should this matter result in litigation or an administrative hearing.
5. I specifically agree, however, that a fully executed settlement agreement can be admitted to any court proceeding without my objection as evidence of such settlement.
Signature of Party Date
These guidelines are based on a workshop Mediator Joe B. Hewitt has done for elementary schools.
For information on having such a workshop in your school, contact us.
Mr. Sandy Zucker
Mr. Sandy Zucker