Calm in the Storm
Minimizing conflict and maximizing cooperation with parents and families
It’s no secret that over the past few years, public education has become a flashpoint in our ongoing culture wars. What began with tensions over masking and vaccination requirements has spiraled into a seemingly never-ending series of conflicts over Critical Race Theory, banned books, gender identity and expression, and more. That’s not to mention the more commonplace conflicts schools have always faced. If you’ve been in this job for long, you know that just about any decision a superintendent makes will be met with some level of opposition.
This climate of dissent is intensifying, and it’s taking its toll on school leaders. According to a 2022 poll by education company EAB, 36% of “veteran superintendents”—those with six or more years of experience—were planning to retire within the next three years. In the same survey, 80% of all superintendents said that “managing divisive conversations is now the most challenging aspect of their job.”
Of course, there’s no perfect solution that can completely eradicate conflict and pushback from your schools. In fact, that may not even be desirable; after all, conflict is often a healthy part of community relationships. So instead, we’ve compiled a few strategies to prevent, minimize, or de-escalate those conflicts, making them a little more manageable. Our hope is that these ideas will help you find some calm in the storm of conflict and controversy, where you can focus on your top priority: your students.
Wouldn’t it be nice to stop conflict before it starts? Well, here are a few strategies that work—most of the time. These aren’t foolproof solutions, but they can help minimize the amount of discord that arises with your parents and families.
If we’ve learned anything over the last few years, it’s that misinformation and disinformation are dangerous. In no time at all, a false rumor or misunderstood policy can snowball into a screaming match at a board meeting.
Your best defense against misinformation is crystal-clear, proactive communication. If people know exactly where to find the truth about your district’s policies, they’re less likely to buy into whatever toxic rumor is going around. That’s exactly why Enumclaw School District in Washington created a “Trending Topics” page on their website. Accessible from the site’s main menu, the page includes links to board policies on several controversial topics like equity, gender inclusivity, and sex education. Parents and community members don’t have to guess at the district’s responses to these issues; they’re all clear, transparent, and easy to find.
“It’s been received well,” says Jessica McCartney, Enumclaw’s director of communications. “Even if someone disagrees with the policy around an issue, at least they can gain some clarity on what’s happening in the district—because in my experience, it’s rarely what they’ve heard.” The page makes things easier on staff members as well. “When teachers get calls from concerned parents, the page keeps them from having to track down all that information,” says McCartney. “It’s a nice resource to point to when you don’t have all the answers.”
If you fail to communicate about potentially controversial issues, your families’ minds—or even the local rumor mill—will fill in the blanks with worst-case scenarios. But when you address those issues proactively and transparently, you assuage those fears before they have the chance to take root. “It’s really empowering and settling when people can understand what’s actually happening,” McCartney says. “Everyone can move from ‘what if’ to ‘what is.’”
Collaborate with your community.
Think of the biggest controversies in education right now. From Critical Race Theory to book banning, many fraught issues stem from one common source: parents wanting more control over their children’s learning.
How much control should families have over what schools teach or how they operate? That’s up for debate. But we can say one thing with confidence: Considering your parents’ perspectives and including them in your strategic planning is almost always a good move. When you invite families to weigh in on new initiatives or projects, you diminish the chance that they’ll get up in arms about them.
Dr. Matt Montgomery is the superintendent of not one, but two Illinois districts: Lake Forest School Districts 115 and 67. Both are high-achieving school systems in affluent communities—but even with those benefits, certain challenges emerge.
“Parents and teachers have really high expectations, and the students have very high expectations of themselves,” Montgomery tells us. With so much pressure to succeed, that environment can become “caustic” for kids. But when students are doing well academically, parents and families are sometimes reluctant to support change. After all, if it’s not broken, why fix it? “Of course we strive for academic excellence,” Montgomery explains. “But our students also need balance and life skills—abilities that will allow them to succeed in a rapidly changing world.”
Rather than handing a life skills initiative down to his school community, Montgomery started a conversation. Bringing together students, teachers, staff, families, and community leaders from both districts, he asked a question: What qualities and skills would the ideal student have? The answers agreed upon by the collaborative group would make up Lake Forest’s “Portrait of a Learner.”
Alongside competencies like “critical thinking” and “adaptability,” the final Portrait included many of the life skills both districts had hoped to instill in students, like “communication” and “confidence.” “The number-one characteristic that came forward was empathy,” Montgomery says. “That’s the one that resonated the most with our people.”
This semester, strategic planning at both districts “is going to be aligned to the Portrait,” Montgomery tells us. Now, both districts—families included—can use the Portrait they all collaborated on as a guidepost. If parents keep in mind that they want empathetic kids, they’ll be more likely to buy into initiatives that support that goal. “A clear vision helps focus and prioritize the work,” Montgomery says. “Our Portrait is like a North Star for our school community, creating clarity and alignment of goals for our faculty, staff, and students. With that common framework, the sky’s the limit.”
Unfortunately, while these preventative measures can fend off some challenges before they occur, your schools will inevitably deal with some level of opposition and conflict. But if conflict is unavoidable, how do you handle it? The answer is effective dialogue.
In her book Beyond Your Bubble, Professor of Counseling Psychology Dr. Tania Israel offers practical advice for fostering understanding and de-escalating conflict through healthy, empathetic dialogue. While she focuses primarily on bridging political divides, the principles she shares could apply to any ideological disagreement. Dialogue, she says, is distinct from diatribe—angrily venting frustration at the other point of view—or debate—trading clever arguments to one-up each other. “Dialogue isn’t about winning,” Israel writes. “It’s about understanding.” The more we understand someone else, the better we can empathize with them—and empathy almost always deescalates conflict.
Before you jump into a dialogue, consider these guidelines:
• This conversation should happen offline. In Beyond Your Bubble, Israel emphasizes that dialogue is most effective when it’s “face to face, not Facebook to Facebook.” Conversation on social media, she writes, “tends to focus on the expression of one’s own views, without trying to comprehend other people’s positions. This may feel satisfying in the short term, but it does not promote mutual understanding and connection.”
• One-on-one is best. “It’s challenging to try to repair relationships in a public forum,” Israel tells SchoolCEO. “When people are observing our behavior, we often try to demonstrate solidarity with those who have similar views.” Unfortunately, this alienates those on the opposite side of the issue. In a one-on-one conversation, you can focus on addressing your conversation partner’s specific viewpoint.
• Both sides must be open to conversation. Dialogue is a mutual back-and-forth, and it re- quires both sides to enter into the conversation in good faith. No matter how open-minded you are, you can’t have a dialogue with someone who’s not interested in understanding your point of view.
• Your safety comes first. School issues often bring up powerful emotions for both families and educators, and, as you know, it’s not unusual for discussions to get heated. However, if you feel physically threatened, you have no obligation to continue the conversation. “Don’t worry about being polite,” Israel writes. “Just get yourself out as quickly and safely as you can.”
Examine your thought processes.
Before you begin a conversation, it’s important to get your thoughts in order. Here are a few guiding questions to consider as you prepare.
How am I thinking about this other person?
How do you feel about the person on the other side of this conversation? Do you really have a clear picture of them, or is your view clouded by bias?
“Most of us have a lot of cognitive biases that skew our understanding of people, especially those we perceive as different from ourselves,” Israel tells SchoolCEO. “We tend to view people on a different side of an issue as being more extreme than they actually are and as being misinformed or uninformed. We might question their motivations and even their morality, and we are more likely to see people who disagree with us as being motivated by political ideology or even hatred.” However, most of the time, this isn’t the case, she says. “It’s important that we correct that misperception.”
To counteract this thought process, Israel encourages intentionally adopting a charitable view of the person you’re disagreeing with. After all, even if you believe they’re totally wrong or misguided, they probably aren’t malicious. “You might try identifying some of their good qualities,” she writes. “Find out more about their context if that helps you soften toward them.”
What do I hope to get out of this?
Before entering into a dialogue, it’s helpful to establish a goal for the conversation. Are you hoping to find common ground? Understand the other person better? Convince them of your point of view?
It’s pretty common to enter a conversation like this attempting to persuade the other person that your ideas are correct, and that’s not necessarily a bad goal. It is, however, very difficult to accomplish. “Have realistic expectations of your power to shift someone’s views,” Israel suggests in Beyond Your Bubble. “Success may be incremental and require prolonged contact, or it may not happen at all.”
The good news is that there’s a huge difference between disagreement and active conflict. While a bitter conflict can be damaging, disagreement is a healthy and even essential part of human life. To have a successful dialogue, you don’t have to convince anyone that you’re right. You just need to de-escalate the conflict—and all that takes is empathy and mutual understanding.
Practice active listening.
If you want to successfully de-escalate conflict, it’s crucial to prove to the person on the other side that you see where they’re coming from. “The safer and more understood people feel, the more they will be open to engaging in dialogue,” Israel writes. “They are less defensive, less agitated, more able to express their views, and more likely to listen to yours. They will be more willing partners in seeking common ground and less resistant to opening their minds to alternative ways of thinking.”
To foster this feeling in others, it’s not enough to let them air their grievances while you wait for your turn to speak. If you really want to understand someone else—and make them feel understood—you have to practice what Israel calls active listening.
According to Israel, active listening begins with nonverbal attending. This term encompasses all the small actions that show someone you’re giving them your full attention. These can include keeping moderate eye contact, leaning forward in your seat, nodding occasionally, or saying “mmhmm.” While they may seem insignificant, these little gestures signal to the speaker that you’re interested in what they have to say. Remember, though, that “the final key to nonverbal attending is the nonverbal part,” Israel writes. “You can’t listen to somebody very well if you’re talking.”
Next, Israel encourages active listeners to reflect, or repeat what the speaker just said back to them. This shows the speaker that you not only heard them, but also understood their point. It’s okay to slightly rephrase or paraphrase the point your speaker is making, but be careful not to editorialize or change the substance of what they said. If you disagree strongly and don’t feel like you can outright repeat a statement, say, “You feel like…”
Even if you agree with their sentiment, now isn’t the time to say so. Agreeing “puts you in an evaluative position rather than an understanding position,” Israel writes. “It puts the focus on your preference, and implies the importance of your judgment, rather than signaling to the speaker that you have understood their assertion.” The goal here isn’t to make a point—only to make the speaker feel understood. So instead of saying, “I agree,” try saying, “I hear you” or “I understand.”
Once you’ve attended and reflected, you can deepen your understanding of the speaker’s perspective by asking questions. “It might be helpful to dig a little deeper, to encourage somebody to say more about where they’re coming from,” Israel tells SchoolCEO. “Often we cut people off because we want them to say less. But to foster healthy dialogue, we really need to make sure that we’re understanding the fullness and complexity of their position before we respond.”
Be sure to keep it short. “The more airtime you occupy to ask your question, the more you draw the focus to yourself rather than trying to understand the other person,” Israel writes. And, as with your reflections, remember to stay neutral. Don’t ask questions that imply a specific answer, like, “Don’t you think…?” or “Wouldn’t you say…?” Again, you’re not trying to make a point; you’re trying to understand the other person.
Respond with empathy.
You may be wondering when it’s your turn to speak. But to be honest, the hard work of conflict resolution is mostly listening. When it does come time for you to express your thoughts, make sure you continue to acknowledge your conversation partner’s point of view. “You won’t always be able to align to what this person wants,” Israel says, “but once you know where they’re coming from, ideally you can explain why that policy is in place or why it’s being enforced in the way that it is, so that it makes sense to them.”
Most importantly, stay calm and kind. As Israel puts it in Beyond Your Bubble, “antagonism does not change minds.”
It may seem like schools are at the epicenter of cultural conflict these days, but Israel believes there’s a reason for that. “Schools are sites of diversity within communities, so of course schools are where these conflicts are going to play out,” she says. “As adults, we often have more opportunity to separate ourselves from people who are different from us.” But public schools are, by definition, for everyone. Somehow, we have to learn to live with one another.
As a school leader, you know how difficult that can be. But as Israel points out, “at their cores, superintendents are educators.” By dealing with these contentious issues in a healthy and productive way, you can show your community how it’s done. “Sometimes, we’re afraid to spend time with a differing position because we feel like that will legitimize that other position,” Israel says. “But when superintendents are willing to do that, they’re modeling some of the very skills we encourage students to learn.”
Every time you listen carefully to a viewpoint you disagree with, every time you treat someone with compassion, you’re moving us all toward a better world. You can’t blow away the storm clouds of conflict and division—but you can act as a lighthouse, guiding your community to calmer, kinder shores.
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