Andy is accused of assaulting Charlene at the weekend. Her parents refuse to let her attend school unless he is excluded. He and his parents deny the offence and say it is nothing to do with the school.
Meanwhile, an older teacher, well respected in the community and the staffroom, is resisting changes made by the leadership team. Colleagues suggest slackening the pace of change to accommodate her; others encourage bulldozing through the stubbornness.
On top of all this, the school has encouraged a "green team" of eager campaigning students, who are pushing carbon reduction. Some teachers have refused to go along with a proposed "no-car" day. Bad feeling is growing across a divided school and school leaders are trapped in the middle.
As head of a school, you could easily find all these dilemmas on your desk awaiting resolution before you've even sipped your first coffee of the week on a Monday morning. And you would know that by lunchtime a whole new set would come to your attention. As American education guru Larry Cuban says, dilemmas are part of "the genetic code" of the job of school leadership.
Dealing with these conundrums is not a skill teachers are born with. It takes a lot of training and experience to be able to pick apart such situations and find a resolution that is fair to all parties and that also protects the interests of the school as a whole.
However, experienced leaders tend to report that a filter system emerges over time which can be helpful. This can be simplified into three areas.
- Psychological: leaders recognise that dilemmas are interpreted conceptually but experienced emotionally. Separating the two can be key to finding a solution that pleases everyone.
- Political: every dilemma will have within it people using the situation to serve different interests. Identifying those interests is a crucial step towards a resolution.
- Ethical: people involved often have different, sometimes competing, values. Again, identification of these differences is an important part of a school leader's job.
For those in the first years of a leadership position, or those being trained to become a leader, these filters can prove elusive because the trainee simply doesn't have the experience to be able to interpret matters as accurately as an experienced school leader would.
All is not lost for these fledgling leaders, however. As part of my work training the school leaders of tomorrow, I have developed a toolkit designed to guide them and their senior teams through the process of resolving dilemmas.
Built around a checklist of 10 points, it calls upon a process called Cope (clarify, options, plan and act, and evaluate). This runs as follows:
1 Clarify how the different parties see the situation. Can they be helped to see points of view other than their own?
2 Clarify the emotions involved. Who is angry? Who is scared? Are you emotionally involved yourself?
3 Clarify possible learning outcomes. Who can be helped to learn and how?
4 Clarify the politics of the situation. Who has power? How are they using their power? Who has least power?
5 Clarify the ethics of the situation. Is this an issue of right and wrong? Is there an absolute principle involved?
6 Review possible options. Among other things, these might include a principled stance, conflict resolution, compromise through negotiation or an imposed solution. An option that is always available, and sometimes may be the best choice, is to take no action.
7 Plan your actions. Who needs to be involved and what is their role?
8 Plan your communications. Who needs to know what?
9 As you put your plan into action, evaluate constantly how those involved are interpreting and responding to the changing situation. Amend your plans accordingly.
10 Evaluate the consequences of your actions. What was the impact on the individuals involved and what was the impact on the community as a whole?
These 10 points do not make decisions for you when dilemmas arise, but following them should mean that any decision you make is based on sound analysis of the situation and a real understanding of the fallout of your choices.
Daniel Murphy is a recently retired headteacher and is now working as senior teaching fellow at the University of Edinburgh on school leadership programmes. He is author of Professional School Leadership: Dealing with Dilemmas (2nd edition, Edinburgh: Dunedin Academic Press).