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Leadership Insights

Addressing Power Struggles in Classrooms and Staff Rooms

By Nicole Mace, MEd August 27, 2018

Teachers are leaders in the classroom, collaborators in the staff room, and influencers during faculty meetings. In our unique profession, walking through the school can change our roles instantly. Working with our students, colleagues, and administrators involves multiple personalities and personal objectives.

Often, these differences can lead to conflicts and power struggles. Instead of fearing conflict, try to embrace it. Leadership qualities are needed in each of these roles in order to work toward solutions. Leadership, in any capacity, is a tremendous teaching and learning opportunity and that’s what we do best, right?

Power struggles can look different depending on who is involved, so let’s address each type of struggle and review helpful strategies for you and your colleagues to use as you work to achieve a more cohesive learning community.

Teacher-student struggles

Most veteran teachers can spot classroom power struggles a mile away. The student who chooses to engage in a power struggle with the teacher is used to being in charge (at home or with peers) and has no problem challenging the teachers’ boundaries. If the teacher plays the power card to force the student to do something or cuts them down in some way, it may lead to a cease-fire, but it could send the wrong message to that student and others, and lead to more difficult situations down the road. Instead of thinking of ways to establish dominance, think of ways to defuse the situation quickly and efficiently.

  • Set high expectations. At the beginning of the year, clearly communicate that you have high expectations of them and remind students of those expectations often. Set the bar high so that students rise to the occasion, but make sure what you expect of them is still attainable so that each student can experience success in your class.
  • De-escalate as quickly as possible. Address minor infractions in a way that keeps the focus on student learning and doesn’t escalate the situation, which encourages the student to act out further. Often their behavior is tied to other areas of their life: struggles at home, social or emotional issues, etc. This does not excuse their actions, but it’s a good reminder to try not to take it so personally when they act out. It’s often not about you, so dealing with the issue swiftly and directly while staying calm is best. The power struggle is eliminated when the situation can be diffused and consequences are dealt out after the lesson with time to discuss the situation, hold the student accountable, get to the root of the issue, and find a better way forward, together.
  • Validation goes a long way. It’s important to make time for a private conversation with the student after an incident has occurred, but it needs to be beneficial for both of you. Sometimes we’re tempted to stand our ground, dismiss the student’s feelings, and ignore the student’s issue or concern. This doesn’t teach the student anything new. Try a different approach: validation. Actively listen to the student as you would listen to a colleague, acknowledge their feelings (anger, frustration, etc.), and then communicate acceptance. Once the student feels validated, you can ask open-ended questions to further the conversation, build rapport, and make a plan for the next time the student has this feeling. In this conversation, you’ve become a team with this student in their own learning, helping them find better ways to communicate and cope, and creating small achievable goals for the future. The consequence can still be delivered as long as the student understands that the consequence is related to that specific behavior, not the feelings they felt. If they choose to behave that way, that consequence is the result. Learn more about embracing the value of student perspective.

Disagreements with other teachers

As teachers, we spend most of our day as the leader of our class, constructing the procedures, learning the culture, and working toward specific objectives for our students. Once we leave our class to meet with a colleague, the dynamics shift. Some find this quick adjustment challenging. I find that power struggles among teaching peers are far and few between, primarily due to the fact that we are not there for the power and the fame. Still, we know that overall, power and trust in teachers have diminished over the years. That has impacted how we feel about things like sharing our ideas and concerns, proving our point, being a valued member of a team, and/or trying to make a change in our department or school.

So how can you tell if a noncohesive work relationship is due to a power struggle? Ask yourself one question: Is that colleague focused on collaboration or on control? Again, the goal here is to diffuse the situation in order to resolve the conflict.

  • Find common ground. After listening to your colleague, find what connects you. Sometimes the connection has nothing to do with the job. Acknowledging a common thread is a powerful way to build rapport and change the tone of conversations. Remember, you are a team and good teams start with good relationships.
  • Validation is at it again. Before pulling a little harder on the tug-o-war rope, think about the goal of the conversation. Understand that a power struggle comes from underlying feelings. Begin this discussion by validating your colleague’s feelings. Reflect on their comments, acknowledge their feelings (usually centered around feeling underappreciated, overworked, or frustrated), and then accept their message. This does not mean that you have to agree 100% with your colleague, but that you’ve heard him. Validation puts the conversation on a path of less resistance and leads to a solution.
  • Use the WIIFM factor. The What’s In It For Me (WIIFM) factor reminds us that everyone has their own objectives to achieve. Describe the ways the proposed solution will help him get what he wants to gain quick buy-in. This strategy helps to avoid conflict from the start as the conversation becomes less of a power struggle and more of a helping hand. It reframes the situation so that it’s now “us vs. the issue,” with the two of you working together as equals.

How administrators can prevent and address conflicts

The previous two sections are written from the teacher’s point of view. This section is for our brave administrators. Administrators must understand methods of reaching children, inspiring teachers, and managing the logistics. With so much on their desk, control can start to feel like the only means of survival. However, control or micromanagement can quickly lead to an unhappy work environment, which affects everyone involved.

Let’s look at some sound strategies to overcome power struggles and build leadership skills that empower others.

  • Foster the right school culture. Logistics keep the school running; the mission drives the school’s purpose. But the culture defines the school’s feeling. I cannot overstate the importance of a positive school culture. The culture weaves its way through the halls, staff room, playground, classrooms, and of course, the administration office. What kind of feeling do you want your students, staff, and parents to embrace as they walk into your school?
  • Be aware of the power imbalance. As the leader, beware of the imbalance of power between you and your staff by empathizing with the person. The rule of thumb is to listen 80% and talk 20% of the time. This ratio aids in turning the leadership office from a complaint zone to a solution zone. Your staff members will feel heard and valued as you work together toward a solution.
  • Show that you value every voice. I’ve worked in both large and small schools ranging from 25 to 50 staff members. Regardless of the number, the personality differences are apparent and can be challenging. To avoid power struggles, try to even the playing field between your introverted and extroverted staff members. Just as a teacher would do in the classroom, find a method for each of your members to process and communicate comfortably. This may include sending out reading materials 24 hours before a meeting so those who do better with time to prepare a response have that option. Try conducting a live poll during a meeting or a survey after a meeting so that introverts can share their opinions and feel heard without having to speak in front of the entire staff. The goal is for each member to know that their voice is heard, appreciated, and equal to others.

Power struggles are nothing new to the workplace, yet the school environment brings a different twist to the topic. As leaders in education, we are expected to know how to best handle each situation to create and maintain a productive workplace.

Teachers and administrators understand the importance of their leadership roles and often choose to advance their knowledge and skills by earning a MEd or EdD with a concentration in leadership. As much as we know the importance of pedagogy, we also know that an effective leader also understands the importance of human interaction and community.

Nicole Mace earned a MEd in Educational Technology from Lesley University and a professional graduate certification in instructional design from the University of Wisconsin-Stout. She’s spent nearly a decade in education, teaching multiple grade levels in the U.S. and South Korea and working as a lead instructional designer at the college level. Currently, Nicole serves as an adjunct online instructor and a freelance instructional designer. Her website offers key resources for instructors looking to crack the code on quality online instruction.

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