When tempers flare

5th March 2004 at 00:00
STAFFROOM CONFRONTATIONS: Early resolution is the best course of action

Schools are pressurised places. Long working days, endless paperwork and extra-curricular responsibilities can cause stress levels to soar. In such an environment, the potential for rows with colleagues is often amplified.

Left to fester, minor disagreements can turn into full-blown conflicts.

Faye Martin would know. She is trying to restore her professional reputation after a disagreement with a senior member of staff got out of hand.

"I've never really got along with my year manager," says the French teacher, who works at a large comprehensive in Hertfordshire. "I'm in my second year of teaching, so I still feel I need extra support with classroom management. She's a very experienced teacher and is respected by the students, so when I was having some difficulties with my form, I asked her for some advice.

"She immediately decided I was struggling, told the head, and he came to observe me with the class a few days later. Because I was nervous, I didn't come across well and the head decided to ask other senior staff to observe.

I felt as if I was being punished for having the courage to ask for support."

However, when Ms Martin tried to raise her concerns with her year manager, she received a very frosty reception. "I was quite nervous about approaching her, but thought she'd be reasonable," she says. "But she went on the defensive and asked if I was trying to tell her how to do her job.

"A few hours later, I was being questioned by my head of department about the situation. That's when I flipped. I saw her (the year manager) in the staffroom afterwards and asked her what the hell she was playing at, running off to my head of department instead of trying to resolve the problem with me. There were quite a lot of people around and she was clearly embarrassed.

"Looking back, I'm not proud of the way I behaved - I gave her a real mouthful - but I was so angry, I just couldn't stop myself."

According to Tom Lewis, head of services at the Teacher Support Network, staffroom disputes are not uncommon. He says: "In a pressurised school environment with heavy workloads and long working hours, relationships between colleagues can be difficult."

Liz Fletcher, headteacher at Patcham high school in East Sussex, agrees.

"People's values and beliefs are often more precious to them than their possessions, and teachers, as a profession, often hold very strong values," she says.

"But it is important to remember that when conflict about a work issue occurs between teachers, it isn't always negative. If the problems are resolved, it can have a positive outcome."

According to Mr Lewis, early resolution is the key. He believes Ms Martin was right to approach her year manager about her concerns, but reminds teachers how important it is to keep your cool.

"If you have a problem with a colleague, it's important to tell them how you feel, but make sure you give them an opportunity to say their piece," he says.

"Learn to recognise and control your defence mechanisms in tense situations. Remember, it's sometimes best not to respond immediately. It can be better to wait until things have calmed down and you feel less impassioned."

It is also vital to keep it private. As Ms Fletcher puts it: "If emotions are running high, it's important to depersonalise the argument. Moving to a 'neutral' place, away from an audience is essential."

A frank, private discussion with your colleague may often be enough to clear the air, but if the situation escalates, it may be necessary to seek support from a colleague or senior member of staff who can mediate a discussion.

"Even with mediation, differences may not be resolved in one session, but both opinions must be articulated as fully and as early as possible," says Ms Fletcher.

"Listen now, but hear later is a valuable maxim; reflection and space can play a huge part in the resolution of differences. It's always worth striving for consensus, even if it is time consuming. Ultimately, the personal and professional dignity of both people must be preserved, as well as clear ground rules established for any future encounter."

This worked for Ms Martin, who requested a neutral member of staff to sit in on a discussion between herself and her colleague. "My year manager apologised for making too much of the problems I was having with my class and admitted she could have handled the situation differently," says Ms Martin.

"I apologised for yelling at her in front of colleagues. Since we talked, she has been much more supportive."

But if attempts to reconcile a dispute with a colleague are unsuccessful, you may decide to take more formal action, which could mean talking to your headteacher, and, if this is unsatisfactory, your union. Mr Lewis advises teachers in this situation to keep a diary of attempts to resolve the situation and any relevant incidents. Many schools have anti-harassment policies that provide clear guidelines on how to cope with more serious conflicts.

Some names have been changed


Advice for controlling staff relationsl Keep cool! If you're losing your temper, put off your response until later.

* Make sure your colleague has a chance to have their say too.

* Keep disputes private - move to a neutral venue.

* If necessary, ask another colleague to mediate.

* If the problem escalates, keep a diary of reconciliation attempts. Talk to your headteacher or union.

* Remember, professional disagreements, if handled well, can be constructive.

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