Not that long ago we celebrated “turning the corner” on the pandemic. The development of highly effective vaccinations held out the promise that the end was in sight. Vaccination appointments were at a premium. Students who had been learning remotely were slowly returning to in-person learning. We were optimistic that much of the conflict and divisiveness of the past year would subside into calm.
While we are closer to the end of the pandemic, not everything has gone as planned. Continuing conflict over masks for younger students, lack of clear guidance from state and federal agencies, and uncertainty and conspiracy theories surrounding vaccinations for older students remain flashpoints at school board meetings, stimulate heated discussions on social media, and provide fodder for cable television.
Meanwhile, on the heels of the pandemic is growing conflict and controversy about the role of anti-racism and the teaching about historical racial issues in classrooms, athletic participation of transgender students, and other cultural conflicts. Much of the energy and organization around these issues are not even originating in local communities. National and regional organizers are recruiting and energizing people to protest at board meetings, make public records requests, and engage in other efforts, sometimes even when none of these issues are on local school district and school board agendas.
Of course, the mix and intensity of these controversies and conflicts vary from school district to school district and community to community. However, the impact on educators and educational leaders caught in the middle can often be devastating. This has already been an exhausting year. Repeated rounds of intense and spreading conflict can take a significant toll on our emotional and even physical health.
In the near term, our ability to reach resolution and dissipate the conflict may be limited. Nevertheless, there are steps we can take to remain healthy and focused despite what is happening to and around us. We are not powerless and do not have to accept being victims. Here are six actions you can take to keep yourself healthy and whole in the face of the conflict and chaos you may be facing:
- Find and maintain a manageable routine. Large scale conflict can become all-consuming. If you already have a set routine of exercise, a regular sleep schedule, and a habit of healthy eating, make maintaining these activities a priority. Time with family and friends also can provide balance and reassurance, so make this time a priority, too. Meanwhile, resist skipping from problem to problem and issue to issue. Decide what most needs your focus and attention and give these issues your full attention. If you panic and lose focus, expect those who depend on our leadership to do likewise or retreat in fear.
- Focus on controlling what you can. Certainly, there are plenty of elements and aspects of conflict that you cannot control. You need to remain alert, but worrying about what you can’t control is unproductive and can be destructive to your leadership and well-being. Remember that you always have choices about how you will respond to what happens to and around you. Herein lies significant power. The choices you make and the actions you take can have a powerful influence on the thinking and actions of others.
- Make listening a priority. During conflict, listening can be among the most difficult challenges, but it is also one of most important actions we can take. We are often experiencing strong emotions. We may have much we want to say. We may feel that others do not understand and need to be corrected. There will be a time for speaking, but our commitment and ability to listen can be a powerful force. Listening communicates respect. Maintaining a high level of respect during conflict can make resolution easier to achieve. Further, focused listening can often give us access to information and clues that will help us to respond more productively and may even lead to solutions.
- Uncover underlying issues. Often the stated reason for conflict is really a symptom or symbolic of the real issue. Fear may lie beneath accusations. Feelings of powerlessness can be behind emotional outbursts. Past grievances can drive current assumptions about motivation. When we understand what is really driving the conflict and chaos we are experiencing, we often gain access to steps and strategies that can move the situation forward.
- Resist responding in kind when we are the object of suspicion and accusations. When people doubt our integrity and accuse us of misdeeds, we can find it difficult not to defend ourselves and employ similar language and behavior in response. Unfortunately, when we do, we are likely to make the situation worse. Doing so can legitimize what others are saying and leave those who depend on our leadership to doubt us.
- Maintain a long-term perspective. Remaining calm and focusing longer-term can be challenging in the middle of significant conflict. The situation can feel all-consuming and the end may be nowhere in sight. Still, we know that what we are experiencing will eventually pass. We and others involved will move on. Meanwhile, we need to be certain not to make decisions or accept resolutions that “sow the seeds” for the next conflict or compromise the integrity and effectiveness of the organization in the future. Sometimes staying in the conflict a little while longer can mean not having to reengage in the near term or live with diminished effectiveness going forward.
There is no question that significant and sustained conflict is unpleasant and can have an impact on us in the short and long-term. However, there are steps we can take to protect ourselves and the organizations we lead from avoidable consequences and diminished health. Our actions will require courage and discipline, but they are more than worth it.