Michael Bayewitz

Michael Bayewitz is director of school support and improvement for 32 schools in Montgomery County, Maryland. He has also served as a principal, assistant principal, and classroom teacher.

Dealing With Conflict on Collaborative Teams

Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant. Simon and Garfunkel. The 1977 New York Yankees. Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis.

What do these famous teams have in common?

Yes, they were all highly successful and rose to the top of their respective fields. Shaq and Kobe won three championships together. Simon and Garfunkel won 10 Grammy Awards. The ‘77 Yankees won the World Series in dramatic fashion. Martin and Lewis made millions of dollars in Hollywood together. But each of these teams also had something else in common. Despite their undeniable success, the members of these teams didn’t always get along. In fact, they argued, bickered, and in some cases actually came to physical blows.

There is little debate that high-functioning collaborative teams are the key cog that drives the work of a Professional Learning Community at Work™. But what actually makes a team high-functioning? Successful teams maintain an equal balance of both collegiality (the respectful relationship between those who work together in a similar capacity) and congeniality (the degree to which people get along). Let’s make a clear distinction—when we think about successful teams in education, we must measure success by their impact on student learning, not by how many team happy hours they attend together. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting you slug your teammate in the jaw with your best right hook if you disagree. I am, however, saying that there is a time and place for engaging in healthy conflict.

A common misconception is that high-functioning teams are conflict-free. In reality, successful collaborative teams don’t avoid conflict; they embrace it. Strong teams are able to engage in lively, sometimes heated debate without eroding trust or compromising their ability to get their work done. Why? Because there’s a difference between the big stuff and the little stuff. To a basketball team, it’s about winning. To a school team, it’s about learning and student achievement.

Professional learning communities are characterized by having strong cultures built on the pillars of shared mission, vision, values, and goals. True collaborative teams embrace student learning as their primary purpose, and sometimes teams must go through difficult conversations in order to make this a reality. These kinds of conversations, though difficult and uncomfortable, are crucial. When teams can agree on shared beliefs about students, discuss their hopes and dreams, create common goals, and agree on a clear mission and vision, then their work becomes anchored in trust and there is clarity of purpose. When trust and purpose are clearly established, the conditions are ripe for high levels of learning for students and adults.

So, when conflict arises on a team, I recommend four simple strategies to keep in mind to facilitate communication and work through the problem:

1. Q-TIP (Quit taking it personally). Remember, your primary purpose is to ensure student learning. When students don’t learn the first time, don’t take it personally. When a teammate has had more fruitful success with his/her students, don’t take it personally. Model a spirit of inquiry with your teammates about what has worked best for them and share your collective successes.

2. Invite healthy conflict. Develop regular meeting norms for your team, and review them at the beginning of each meeting. This will help create the conditions to engage in healthy, honest exchanges that are designed to produce better outcomes for students.

3. Monitor nonverbal communication. Research indicates only 7% of what you communicate is through the words themselves. Body language and gestures send powerful messages, as do the tone, rate of speech, and volume of your voice. Pay attention to any and all nonverbal signals you may be giving.

4. Vary your approach. Is your teammate a veteran or a new teacher? Is it October or March? What have been your interactions with this colleague in the past? Consider these as well as other variables including personality, learning style, and life experience.

Certainly every school hopes to build an environment where all students succeed because people work well together and enjoy each other’s company. But personalities don’t always allow for that. So we must ensure that our teams are well grounded in their primary purpose—ensuring all students succeed. We must remind them that successful teams persevere through conflict and can actually use it as a catalyst to get better results for students. Great teammates don’t have to be great friends. Just ask Shaq and Kobe.

Comments

Jeremy Hughes

I found your comments very interesting. I appreciate the tips that are given, especially in regards to not taking things personally and monitoring nonverbal communication. Establishing healthy conflict is another way to ensure that everyone is able to express their opinions and feel as though they will not be attacked. The approach should always involve remembering that student learning is the most important thing, not a personal disagreement (or perceived one).

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christopher duplisea

You have given some great advice here. If you work with anyone long enough, conflict is inevitable. I appreciate the distinction between the 'big stuff and little stuff.' My team works really well together, but are not going to be hanging out on Friday nights. We are all at very different places in life. We are able to focus on student learning, while being safe/comfortable with the fact that we are not all best friends outside of work.

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Billy Cardenas

My name is Billy Cardenas. I am a special education inclusion teacher at Juarez Lincoln High School in La Joya, TX. As a campus we invite healthy conflict to our professional learning communities where teachers collaborate together without conflict to increase student success. Eventhough time constraints are a factor, at La Joya ISD educational excellence is the right of every student. PLCs should be used to identify and modify teaching practices by setting specific goals for at-risk students and making sure that all students learn. According to Dufour (2004), “education is not simply to ensure that students are taught but to ensure that they learn”. I am currently enrolled in a Master’s Program at Walden University where I am studying and researching why teacher networks can work. According to Niesz (2007), "communities of practice, in which learning and teaching are interwoven in social networks, may someday lead to a movement to put thoughtful professional expertise back into schooling". PLCs should shift from being teacher focused to student focus and them being collaborative. PLCs should be comprised of learning professionals in a communal environment where the symptoms that reflect should be fun, ongoing and full of ideas that can be shared amongst each other to improve areas of improvement.

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Kirstine Campbell

Thank you for your knowledge on managing and appreciating PLC conflict in this blog post! I think this has been one of my biggest frustrations -- up until I read this. I completely agree that the purpose of a PLC is to aspire to be a “high-functioning collaborative group”, but the reality is that many times it indeed falls short. And I now recognize that that is okay! Rather than feeding into the negativity or lack of enthusiasm that seems to be holding up progress, I am determined to embrace it and better understand why the situation is taking place. Reflecting on the reason for my frustration or attempting to better identify why someone is struggling with the issue at hand offers up the potential for resolving the tension more quickly. And at the end of the day, we have the same goals and mission to better our students, so I intend to welcome a little heat to the collaboration process.

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Beth Harvey

I really like the idea of healthy conflict within professional learning communities. I took note of your 4 strategies for communicating when conflict arises. The well-known and relatable examples made this article intriguing and engaging. Good read.

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Cheri Leiderman

Thank you for this wonderful entry! It was very helpful and provided many tips for my own bi-weekly PLC experiences. Just like some of the other comments mentioned, I connected to all the tips, but most specifically tip number one. We have one common goal- bettering our instruction and helping our students. We'd all be better team-players if we didn't sweat the small stuff. As a PLC group of whom is also a team, we are a family. Just like any family, sometimes we say things we don't mean. Whether someone is having issues with a student, maybe recently read a heated email from a parent; or even is simply having a bad day- when you know that you are together for a common good it is better to not let it get you down.

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Sarah Sanders

This is very helpful information, especially the tip about non-verbal communication. I have seen first hand how such communication, in a negative context, can make team work near impossible.

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Rosia Pyne-Gallimore

I am in total agreement with the strategies that are being shared in the discussion. I believe that collaboration is very essential and that many times conflicts do arise within the process. When educators are cognizant of some ground rules on how to behave and knowledge of the reason(s) for such collaboration it makes it easier and everyone feels comfortable. I especially like the second tip of inviting healthy conflicts. I am of the belief that everyone can learn from the perspectives of each other when it is done in a guided and meaningful way, its like agreeing to disagree and vise versa. Whereas there may not be total agreement there may be some amount of agreement that when used will benefit the students.

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Caroline Fearnow

These are wonderful tips. One of the things I know I struggle with is not taking things personally. Teaching math I have a lot of these moments where I want to throw in the towel because I cannot figure out what I am doing wrong. What I need to be doing is reflecting on my teaching and if I have done everything I could, then it is not me!

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Naomi McClelland

Conflict on a team can really impede student progress. Some teachers are too proud to accept that another way may be better. Keeping a common goal, student success, in mind can make it more difficult for teachers to give in to others ideas. When they believe they are doing what is best for students it is difficult for them change their methods. What do you recommend when dealing with a teacher who feels this way?

Thanks for a great blog post!

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Bela Lawless

I enjoyed reading your blog post! I have been presented with some of the problems you have mentioned. Number three non-verbal communication has really struck me that maybe me and my co-workers have a conflict because we do not verbalize what we want to say. I assume that she knows what I am trying to get across. I have been enlighten from your blog and realize that in order to have a more functioning Professional learning community i need to reflect on myself and my actions and find ways to improve them and make my learning environment a stronger one with some healthy conflict.

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Akilah pAYNE

I like how you compared good collaborative teams to Kobe and Shaq because as you said they were not always the best of friends. I do believe that it is important for teacher teams to work together in order for all students to succeed. I also like you asked is your teammate a veteran teacher or a first year teacher because I do believe each type of teacher has great information to share.

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NNAMDI AJAH

Thanks for this wonderful write-up. Collaboration will be a lot easier if we learn not to take issues personal. Positive aspect of conflict should be encouraged to enhance learning.

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Christina Rocco

I completely agree with Michael that a strong collaborative team needs to focus on student learning. However, not all teachers are onboard with the idea of collaboration. Some are still stuck in the individualistic way of teaching. Their body language is apparent when they roll their eyes or comment negatively on almost every idea presented. Don't even get me started on teacher lounge talk! Thankfully most of the teachers at my school are excited and enthusiastic at the prospect of collaboration.

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Sandra Contreras

If we keep the end in mind which should be the students, "healthy conflict" is beneficial as we agree or disagree on aspects that affect the students' learning. I personally like the Q-TIP strategy since it pertains to me so well. As a Math Coach I get resistance on proposed concepts that benefit all my students. I have stopped taking it personal when teachers get upset. I know it is not about protecting my feelings or theirs it is about the students becoming academically successful. With this in mind I embrace concept number 4 and take into consideration my approach with those veteran teachers that do not take my propositions lightly.

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Chabrinee Goggins

This blog is great! I must say I would not have thought of this. I do know that conflict is healthy but I did not realize how healthy it is. Sometimes we hold our tongue because we do not want to offend, however it may be better if we speak up and engage in a healthy conflict. It is very good to have PLC because we can learn so much from each other. Bouncing ideas off each other is an awesome way to be a better teacher. After reading this article I see that conflict is a great way to become a stronger teacher as well.

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Erica Peters

This post really grabbed my attention because I feel that one of the major issues working on a collaborative team is not saying what you really feel in fear of hurting other team members' feelings. So the Q-TIP approach really stuck out to me because that's what I need to get better at myself. So often we miss out on things due to fear, and it is the students that will be missing out if their teachers are not saying what is on their mind due to what they think others might be thinking. I also liked the comment of good team members not having to be good friends. That is so true, I can get along and work with anyone and not have a relationship with them outside of work. Every decision that a collaborative team makes should be based totally on student learning and success.
I really enjoyed reading your post and you presented many great points!!

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Alyssa Barnett

This was such a great read. Our district has just started using Professional Learning Communities in our staff development. While I see great benefits from using PLC's I feel like our district is a little unsure of what this will look like from the teacher end of things. We meet with our team every Tuesday and it has definitely been helpful in opening lines of communication. This read really helped me to think clearly about myself as a member of this team. I definitely need to watch my nonverbal communication as I am not a very vocal person and sometimes I see my colleagues wondering how I feel about a topic. Not taking things personally just came up in our last Tuesday meeting. While I am the youngest on the team I also have the second most teaching experience. I think the fact that students respond well to my lessons and personality really bothers one member of my team. While I tend to take comments personally maybe I need to turn them into a learning experience for both her and I. This was a great eye opening read and I loved that it was related to very successful teams that didn't always see eye to eye.

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Kyleigh Wristbridge

I work in a collaborative building, however we do not have PLCs. In our school, we have constant interaction with many teachers in one classroom, as well as, collaborating with colleagues at varying levels throughout the k-4 building. Recently my core has been having issues with the grade level above us regarding differences in grading and accommodations. This post really connected to me, especially #1. I take everything personal and need to remind myself of Q-TIP more often. Additionally, I have been mentoring three clinical interns (student teachers) for the entire semester and as expected there have been issues with personality differences. Tip #3 is an issue that I've discussed with one of the interns who often appears annoyed or irritated at the rest of us. Love the final quotation!

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Kelly Whaley

Our related art teachers are included in a subject area during our PLC meetings. Physical Education teachers are placed with English, Art teachers are with Math. Last year we had the opportunity to meet with academic teachers in the process of implementing their subject matter into related arts curriculum to offer students a repetitive way of learning. My question is what is our role in PLC meetings? Teachers were not very thrilled with this idea and I never really understood how I could benefit the group. Other related art teachers felt the same. We became the secretary and/or recorder. How could we really help our students and collaborate in a situation like this, especially when going over student data?

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Becca Martz

If all teachers remembered to "quit taking it personally" I think we would see a whole different dynamic in our schools, not only in the classroom but also in the faculty room and our PLC meetings. We forget that we are all working for the same common goal- our students success. I too have found myself feeling as though I am being attacked when honestly I just wasn't listening or taking the constructive criticism or advice from a veteran teacher. Tip #3 was also a great reminder. It is very easy to forget how our non-verbals are coming across to not only our colleagues and administrators but also our students. All four of these tips are great reminders that I hope to bring back to my own PLC meetings next week!

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Arisleida Crowley

This was a great read! "Healthy conflict" seems foreign to me but makes perfect sense. We may not always get along but our ultimate focus needs to be on the students. I particularly connected to tip number 1 and 4. Due to the fact that I am the newest member of our team I tend to take everything very personal and have to take a step back at times and think about what the other person is going through (tip 4). Although we are 4 completely different individuals with ranging time in our field (1-20 years) we do all still put our students needs first and differences aside.

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Dan Capriola

Thank you for this idea, as looking at conflict as a positive part of PLC relationships is fairly foreign to many of us. I think that is important to have both a long term goal of student achievement for the team, but also feel that there should most likely be bench marks to track progress along the way. Without some form of measurable success to gauge the effectiveness of PLCs, it could potentially seem as though the conflict outweighs the results, and therefore makes it easy to lose sight of the end goal. If Shaq and Kobe did not have success winning regular season games on the way to winning their championships, I imagine the relationship could sour quickly. In as much, the teachers involved in the conflicts during PLCs could find it incredibly challenging to remain positive and focused on the end goal if they do not see results along the way.

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Cheryl McGee

I really enjoyed reading about such successful teams and partnerships being able to maintain a steady balance. We must know sadness to appreciate happiness and we must fail in order to relish success. It is often that fine balance that creates greatness. I connected most with tip #4 because I do forget we are productive in different ways. Perhaps we should not hold our team meetings at the end of the day when everyone is exhausted and overwhelmed. Perhaps our new teachers should have a mentor to speak with after an in depth faculty meeting. We must remember that we absorb and learn at a variety of paces and different ways so we must vary our approach! This post has been most insightful and will definitely be used for future reference. Thank you!

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Erica Fleischman

I would have never considered #3! I am typically a pretty quiet person and I did not stop to think that it could be portrayed as maybe negative communication.

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Antoinette Billings

"Healthy conflict" is not a concept that comes to mind when I think of collaborative teams. I do, however, understand that everyone is not going to get along. When I think of any and every relationship I have been a part of (romantic, family, friends, colleagues, etc.), I can say that conflict has also been a part of that relationship as well. As a result of that conflict we either got stronger(which is great) or fell a part (it was not meant to be, so it was a great result as well).
You say that when the common goal is to improve student achievement that "then their work becomes anchored in trust and there is clarity of purpose", but what if there is one person who does not share the same goal of improving student achievement?
Your blog is very insightful and the tips you give are realistic and helpful. Thank you.

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Emily Wring

I had never considered that "high-functioning" teams are rarely conflict free. I'm not sure yet that my PLC would be one that embraces conflict, however I would say that we do deal with conflict rather then sweep it under the rug. I also could imagine using the four simple strategies with students. Although they would have to be tweaked ever so slightly, I believe that students could use them as they work and collaborate in small groups.

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Ian Young

Love the tips . . . especially #1! So often we let negative behaviors & mediocre practices persist because we are often too worried about people's feelings. It's not personal. It's not about you (the teacher), it's about student learning!

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