I realized this morning that, over the years, I’ve known a lot of people who hated, even feared, questions and conflicts. To be fair, there can be times when it’s best to defer potential questions and conflicts, as Petra Claflin points out in this Edutopia post, but if you hate, avoid, and fear conflicts and questions consistently, there’s probably something deeper going on. Ms. B and I were talking about that at lunch on Wednesday … but we didn’t talk very much on Thursday because we were in the midst of a conflict. And as in so many conflicts, each of us was missing some important information: I didn’t know about the really scary thing that had happened to her the other day, neither of us knew that the immediate issue had been appropriately resolved already, and she didn’t know about the confusing email I had received from J’s mom. I have a feeling we’ll be back on speaking terms soon, the working relationship strengthened by the resolution of the conflict and the answering of the questions.
But lots of people try to avoid the conflicts and the questions, and when you do, you also avoid the possibility of resolution. T, whom I knew and admired for many years, was like that. Whenever a potential conflict was in the air, T would avoid it at all costs; whenever others were close to a conflict, T would half-whisper the word “Peace!” in a tone somewhere between order, plea, and prayer. T had a lot of mysterious, painful, vexing medical conditions, but it wasn’t until years later that I saw even the possibility of the connection between T’s conflict avoidance and the physical symptoms. I’m not sure T ever saw the connection, but we lost touch several years before T died. And T was far from alone.
A small working group at school had its mandatory monthly meeting on Thursday, its task to “read and reflect on” some articles about student engagement in Specific Subject Areas selected by Powers That Be. “I hate this!” said Ms. X, “It’s a waste of time, and we could be using the time better.” And it turns out, when we pursued the topic, that Ms. X wants a slightly larger group to meet and talk about common concerns we notice about particular students we share. “If they’re having problems with vocabulary, or something, in all their classes,” she said, “maybe we can figure out how to help them.” Ms. X has worked in school environments where things called Professional Learning Communities existed because they were supposed to, but all by herself, and despite that experience, she’d figured out the driving purpose behind such structures … at least the purpose according to their chief architects and advocates. “But I don’t want to put that in the minutes,” she said, “because They will just get upset.”
Poor Ms. X learned her factory-school lessons well! They (whoever They are!) should be the focus, and questions and conflicts should be avoided or suppressed because They might get upset. Ms. X has been dealing with a painful, unpleasant, and somewhat mysterious medical condition recently, too … and back when I tried to suppress questions and conflicts, I struggled for years with one that, remarkably, went into remission when I started working toward resolutions.
“Mr. S,” said K, “there’s a problem. The regular site won’t load, and I can’t get the PDF copy to load properly on my phone.” At one time, I might have admonished K, C, and K for not working, but I could tell there was an issue of some kind … and I was glad to find out what it was and help them figure out a resolution. I wonder what would have happened if I’d just assumed and made pronouncements instead! All too often, though, that’s exactly what factory-school teachers do.
“Do you know,” Another Ms. X said at the meeting, “that over the Many Years I’ve been teaching, I’ve had two or three students who never learned how to read a regular clock?” That Ms. X teaches a modern language, so telling time is an important part of her beginning-level curriculum … and so, when she met those students, she taught them how to tell time in English, too, because that’s obviously what they needed. But how many teachers along the way must have just assumed or yelled and labeled or scolded and punished instead? Were they trying to avoid questions and conflicts, or were they just “too busy,” with “too much to cover” and “not enough time” and all the other excuses that cause people to hide behind pacing guides and teachers’ editions and worksheets?
At Soup and Storytelling last night, the topic of focus was … conflict and its resolution. “You can’t really avoid or prevent conflicts,” said our wise interim rector, “except by engaging in them.” But people try … and when they try, they tend to over-function, under-function, flee, or just get hot and angry. I’ve certainly done all four, and I bet you have, too! Conflicts are scary because you aren’t entirely in control of the outcome. And questions, for factory-school teachers, are scary, too: you aren’t entirely in control, and you might not know, and that might make you look bad.
In a joyful learning community, as in any healthy web of relationships, conflicts will happen, but they don’t make you look bad. Even though nobody is entirely in control, working through the conflict will strengthen the relationships (and the community itself) in the long run, and a successful resolution can move you to a whole new level of knowledge, skill, and understanding. I’m hoping that will happen with Ms. B and me; I’m glad to see the progress with N, T, and B and with Z and Z; and I’m curious to see what other insights will arise from the questions and conflicts we all face today.