Conflict Management for Instructors

A wrestling conflictHave you ever had to deal with a disruptive or highly emotional student? Have you had a student question your marking or challenge your authority in the classroom? These situations are examples of conflicts, or situations in which at least one person perceives that their interests are in opposition to others’ interests. By adopting an open and proactive approach to conflicts, you can reduce the frequency with which conflicts arise and their impact. Here are some strategies to help you both prevent and manage conflicts in your teaching.

Preventing conflicts

  • Be credible. Credibility is built from the first day of class and is continually judged throughout the term. On the first day, establish your credibility by providing some background information about your experience with the subject matter, your experience as a student, your research, etc. Show that you are focused and prepared. Keep this up throughout the term by coming to lectures prepared and sharing your lecture goals with your students. Organization, enthusiasm, solid knowledge of the content, and fairness all help to build and maintain credibility. Finally, you do not need to be perfect to be credible. If you make a mistake or don’t know the answer to a question, acknowledge the situation and focus on ensuring that the students get access to the required information as soon as possible. Defensive reactions tend to build conflict instead of preventing it.
  • Set clear expectations. Provide expectations from the start, both by writing them in your course outline and stating them in class. You can describe the goals of the course and outline roles for you and your students. You can also clearly emphasize your expectations for student behaviour and the consequences for prohibited behaviour, stressing mutual respect as a rationale for any ground rules. You can also include University policies towards certain behaviours (e.g., plagiarism) in your course outline.
  • Develop rapport. Students work better when they feel that their instructors care about them; therefore, try to reduce anonymity and use students’ names whenever possible (e.g., in lectures and when grading assignments or papers). Be present a few minutes before and after class to answer questions and chat with the students informally.
  • Use a dynamic teaching style. Good presentation and facilitation skills as well as enthusiasm for your teaching are assets that will keep students’ attention focused and help prevent distracting classroom behaviour such as lateness, talking, sleeping, etc. Using interactive teaching methods also helps to prevent distracting behaviours by involving students in the lecture.

Responding to conflict situations

Not all conflicts can be avoided with proactive measures. The following six steps describe a flexible response to many conflict situations. To practice implementing these steps, remember a conflict you have experienced and think about how these steps could be adapted to help you respond to that situation.

  1. Don’t take it personally

    Conflict situations can make the participants feel upset, threatened, frustrated, and/or angry. These emotional reactions are unpleasant and they can interfere with your ability to respond constructively. Help to control your emotional responses to challenging situations by changing your perceptions of them. Rather than angrily thinking, “That student is a jerk” or feeling miserable because “I’m being attacked”, you could think to yourself, “That student is really upset – I wonder what the problem is?”, or “This is a distraction that needs to be addressed.” By not taking the situation personally, you control your own emotional reaction, which allows you to respond in a calm manner.

  2. Choose when and where to deal with the situation

    Responding immediately to student concerns, distress and inappropriate behaviour demonstrates that you are attentive to your students’ needs and reinforces your expectations for student behaviour. For example, if students are noisy in class you can respond immediately by pausing until you regain the students’ attention, making eye contact with the disruptive students, or asking if there is a problem you can help resolve. Some situations can not be fully addressed immediately. For example, addressing a serious disagreement in class can distract the students, undermine your authority and take time away from the planned learning activities. The best response can be to note that there is a situation that needs to be resolved and suggest when and where it might be further investigated. Try to be attentive to both your needs and the student’s situation when picking the time and place. If you sense that a student is intimidated by authority, you may want to meet in a neutral location, like a conference room, rather than in your office. By meeting at an appropriate time and place, you can facilitate open communication between yourself and the students.

  3. Listen to the student

    When you meet with students, indicate that you are interested in hearing their perspectives by keeping a positive tone, and asking them open-ended questions, like “What part of the marking do you see as unfair?” When the students explain their situation, really listen: focus on their communication, don’t interrupt, and let them finish.

  4. Check your perception

    It’s very easy to misinterpret someone, especially if they are at all emotional. To ensure that you understand your students, you can check your perception of their accounts by describing your understanding and asking them to correct any misinterpretations or elaborate on anything that you find unclear. When describing your understanding, reframe their points as positive comments using non-blaming words. For example, “If my group members think they can do this to me again, they’re mistaken!” can be rephrased as “It’s important to you that your rights are respected.” Rephrasing the problem reassures the students that you are listening to them and it ensures that all the parties understand the problem. You can also ask lots of open-ended questions until you have enough information to understand the problem. Ideally, the feedback process would end when the students’ comments and body language confirm that they are sure that you have completely understood their message.

  5. Select and explain your position

    Now that you understand the students, you are in a good position to select a course of action. Be sure to choose an action that is in line with your teaching goals for the course. Tell the students what you have decided and give them your rationale for your decision. For example, when responding to a mark dispute, you might choose to review the assignment with the student by making reference to the marking criteria. In explaining your position, you might want to show an example of an assignment that better meets your expectations.

  6. Discuss next steps and document your decision

    When you have explained what you have decided to do, you can discuss possible next steps with the students:

    Finally, in many cases, you will want to document your decisions and, where appropriate, the information upon which you have based your decision.

    • If your plan of action requires follow-up on your part, you may want to briefly explain the process. For example, if you agree to review an assignment, you might want to indicate when they can expect to receive your comments.
    • You may want to direct students to other resources on campus, including counseling or health services, to get support and/or documentation.
    • If the students are not satisfied with your decision, it is good practice to direct them to an appropriate avenue for appeal (e.g., department chair).

Responding to highly emotional students

  • Schedule an appointment. If a student is too emotional to communicate his or her situation, it may help to schedule an appointment for a later time. This delay gives both parties a chance to calm down and to review the problem.
  • Open your door. This gives a chance for neutral, outside observers to witness the event. Leaving the door open protects both the student and the instructor.
  • Acknowledge behaviours and emotions. You may want to recognize the student’s emotional state at the beginning of your meeting. For example, you could say, “I can see that you are really upset. Can you tell me what you find especially frustrating?” If a student’s behaviour becomes inappropriate, point it out to the student.
  • Get assistance. If you don’t know how to approach a conflict situation, get assistance from a colleague or the Conflict Management and Human Rights Office (CMAHRO). If a student becomes very aggressive or threatening, contact the University of Waterloo police.
  • Keep others informed. If you are concerned that a difficult situation is developing, consider notifying others immediately. For example, if you are a teaching assistant, you could notify the instructor, the department chair, and CMAHRO.

Ineffective ways to deal with conflicts

  • Conquest. Trying to win an argument will turn a disagreement into a battle for dominance. Intimidation tactics can cause students to challenge you further and discourage their participation.
  • Avoidance. Ignoring problems does not make them go away.
  • Bargaining. Compromise can be a laudable way to resolve a conflict, but not when your teaching objectives get subverted by the resolution process. For example, asking a student to be less disruptive in class in exchange for a better grade on an assignment rewards unacceptable behaviour, harms your credibility, and is unfair to your other students. Make sure that your response to conflict situations is consistent with your teaching and assessment goals and is equitable to all in your course.
  • Quick fix. A band-aid solution, like changing a grade to get rid of a student, can not solve a conflict. This strategy also rewards unacceptable behaviour, harms your credibility, and is unfair to other students.