How can teachers embrace classroom conflict?

Elizabeth Olsson | 12 May 2021

An abstract painting with blue, red, white, and purple brush marks blended together
“The Favor” by Meghan Barge-Livshits is an abstract acrylic painting in blue, purple, red, and white. The painting is used with permission from the artist and appears on the cover of the author’s Ph.D. dissertation.

I studied classroom conflict for one school year by sitting in the back of primary classrooms and watching students and teachers interact. I turned this research into a Ph.D. dissertation titled Constructive Conflict in Classrooms and Beyond. I’m proud of this dissertation, but it contains an awful lot of academic jargon and is not the most accessible text for anyone who doesn’t enjoy lengthy discussions of ontology, epistemology, and methodology. Worst of all, the text is not written for the audience that would arguably benefit most from reading it: teachers. This post addresses this problem. It appears in my dissertation as a postscript and details the three lessons I learned as a former teacher studying classroom conflict.


I was a teacher for more than ten years, and one of the reasons I quit was that I could not handle classroom conflict. I enjoyed my job. I enjoyed working with students. I enjoyed learning new things, but I detested the disputes, discrepancies, and disagreements that derailed lessons and pushed my sanity to the brink. This is a long way of saying that when I was a teacher, I did not have classroom conflict all figured out. And, honestly, I still don’t. I do, however, have the unique wisdom acquired from sitting inside classrooms and studying conflict for one school year. I saw things that no teacher standing in front of a room, teaching a lesson, can ever see. And I learned lessons I wish I had known when I was a teacher. This post is my attempt to share the knowledge I acquired as an observer and researcher, not as an expert pedagogue. I hope that it helps teachers—those courageous heroes who face innumerable conflicts on a daily basis and show up to work the next day—feel recognized, validated, and empowered to embrace classroom conflict as an opportunity rather than an obstacle. More importantly, I hope it helps teachers identify and demand the support they need to do their jobs.


Lesson #1 Conflict will happen to you.

No matter how skilled, informed, and adept you are at managing your classroom, you will experience conflict. Conflict is the inevitable friction of social life, and try as you might to prevent, suppress, and avoid it; that friction is inevitable. The good news is that even if you can’t prevent conflict, you can handle it in ways that improve your relationships with your students, your teaching practices, and your job satisfaction. Sound too good to be true? It is. While conflict just happens, constructive conflicts don’t. They require effort, stamina, and perseverance, all of which are challenging to muster when you’re overwhelmed with the ever-fluctuating needs of the students in your care.


Nevertheless, if you learn to recognize and address conflicts as they emerge, you’re ahead of the game. Better yet, if you embrace the potential of conflict to ease tensions, clear up misunderstandings, and promote much-needed change, you have already won. This does not mean that conflicts will not hurt, but it does mean that they do not have to escalate into serious, even harmful disputes. So, when conflict happens to you, take a deep breath, step back, and reflect on your options. As I learned during my study, conflicts are finite, but solutions are infinite.


Lesson #2 You are a part of the problem and the solution.

By treating classroom conflict as a student problem—something that is commonly done in the classroom management literature—teachers avoid the uncomfortable question of how they contribute to and exacerbate the problems that arise during lessons. It’s time to take that question seriously. Asking how you contribute to classroom conflict doesn’t mean blaming yourself or assuming exclusive responsibility. It means considering how conflict arises as you interact with your students and the ways you influence those interactions.


It also means looking beyond your classroom to consider how school policies and limited resources contribute to classroom conflict. As I saw during my study, placing a single adult solely in charge of the education and well-being of twenty-two students (or ten or thirty, depending on where and how you work) is a conflict in and of itself. No teacher, however exceptional, can meet the ever-fluctuating needs of their students on their own. Unless a teacher is provided adequate support, training, and resources to teach the students in their care, they cannot be blamed when things go wrong.


Lack of adequate support is the bad news. The good news is that teachers and administrators can and often do find ways to address the conflict-prone status quo. When administrators take an interest in classroom conflict, and teachers support each other in conflict mitigation, something changes. Conflict handling becomes less onerous, and discussions of problematic classroom interaction become less taboo. My advice is to teachers and the staff who support them is to look for allies, ask for help, and provide help to others so that you can embrace the conflicts that inevitably arise during lessons and aid your colleagues in doing the same.


I also hope that you demand change. Many of the constructive conflicts reported in this study happened because an extra adult was there to listen to and support teachers and students when they needed it most. What if this extra support wasn’t considered extra but, instead, was viewed as essential? What if conflict managers were hired to provide this support regularly? What if conflict management was recognized as integral to teaching and learning? I cannot tell you the types of support you will need, but I can tell you that receiving support will help you become an even better teacher.


Lesson #3 All teachers accomplish constructive conflict, at least sometimes.

The most surprising finding in my study was that all teachers I observed facilitated constructive conflict with their students at least once. This was surprising because I expected to observe constructive conflict exclusively in lessons taught by skilled, confident, well-liked teachers. In other words, I thought that only the “best” teachers would handle classroom conflict well. I was wrong. In the first place, I was wrong to think that I could divide teachers into “the best” and “the rest.” While every teacher may have had unique strengths and weaknesses, those qualities did not make them “good” or “bad.” They made them human. As the students in my study sagely reminded me, categorizing and comparing people to each other is problematic, indeed.


Once I was able to look beyond the exceptional teacher fallacy, I was able to appreciate the good work all teachers were doing when conflicts arose. Some were more adept at conflict handling than others, but every teacher handled conflicts well at least once. Some chalked this up to luck or a good day, but it became apparent throughout the school year that constructive conflict management was not mythical power bestowed upon the chosen few. It could and did happen in lessons taught by every teacher.


There was, however, a common outlook embraced by the teachers who facilitated constructive conflict regularly: They valued their students’ well-being over the curriculum. They told me that they took time out to address conflict because they knew that if they didn’t, that conflict would get worse. They also said that this was time well spent. Judging by their levels of job satisfaction and the admiration they received from their students, they were right. What I learned from these teachers and what I hope to impart to you is that conflict-handling is just as important as math, science, or history. Teach your students the importance of proactive, empathetic conflict-handling; show them how to make conflicts work for them; value the important emotion work that conflict handling helps you do, and the rest will fall into place.

Keywords: #ConstructiveClassroomConflict #LessonsLearned #PeaceAndDevelopmentResearch #PhDThesis #Students #Teachers

Elizabeth Olsson will defend her thesis in peace and development research on 11 June 2021. Feel free to contact her if you’d like read it. And, since the defense will be streamed on Zoom, feel free to attend online. An event page with a Zoom link will be available on the GU website shortly.