Conflict Resolution in Education and Using Third Parties to Negotiate
The school I work at is a junior high school in Massachusetts. It is considered an inner-city school, rich in culture and diversity. The school committee recently determined that one of the three existing foreign languages would need to be removed and replaced with a math class. The language to be eliminated would be determined by the principal who could enlist the assistance of any faculty member to aid him. In this situation, the principal asked me to assist him with the decision.
South Jr. High currently has three languages: French, Spanish, and Latin. The Latin classes are reserved for the “talented and gifted” students. The principal did not want to eliminate Latin because having a Latin class as an option attracted better students (academically), which translated into higher testing scores on standardized tests. In Brockton, there are four junior highs and each resident of Brockton can choose which junior high they want to attend regardless of where they live in the city.
Therefore, either Spanish or French would have to be eliminated. Both the teachers that teach French and Spanish were hired in the same year, so seniority would not be a determining factor (also a union issue). However, one teacher would be out of a job at South Junior High. It was not an easy decision.
When dealing with a conflict it is important to deal with it immediately. The school was split among faculty members concerning which language to discontinue. The only way that I felt could work for this type of conflict would be to become a mediator. Mediation is a great way to open communication channels. Mediation increases the chances of a somewhat peaceful resolution to a potential crisis situation.
I knew my role, as mediator would be to foster discussion between the parties and guide them into finding creative, mutually acceptable, and resolution of the dispute. The purpose of mediation is to have collaboration. The bottom line is what is best for the children and not for the teachers. I constantly had to remind the language department why they had started teaching in the first place.
I was a friend with both sides however it did not matter to me which language would be sacrificed. It did not impact me personally or professionally. I think it is this reason that I was selected to mediate the discussion. Additionally, the mediator really has no “power” like a judge, he/she is only there as a facilitator.
Mediation is important because it gives everyone the chance to be heard. Since I had never been a mediator before I knew that I would be required to have certain attributes entering the discussion. For example, I would have to use patience, be persistent and consistent, be creative, be an active listener, establish trust between both parties, stay focused, and remain unbiased throughout.
Mediation became just the foundation of the final decision. Based on what was discussed at the mediation I presented what I felt to be truth to the principal. He then called all parties in to discuss further. In many ways the mediation had turned into arbitration.
Arbitration is when someone listens to both sides and renders a decision. The principal was in fact the person who would make the ultimate decision, so the more he knew the better. The teachers involved had attempted in vain to turn this decision into a labor-management dispute, which would involve the teachers union. However, like stated earlier, the teachers had to be reminded that this decision was made by the school superintendent, endorsed by the mayor’s office and the school committee, and was not a personal issue but more an educational issue. The people that would benefit from eliminating one language would be those students that now would be enrolled in two math classes. On the standardized test the state of Massachusetts requires Brockton to participate, there is not one mention of foreign language. However, there are two days strictly delegated for math testing. It is not hard to see why one language if not all languages on the junior high level be eliminated.
Arbitration is considered faster, cheaper, and final when compared to mediation. Mediation is an important fact-finding first step towards arbitration. The principal took on the “datacrat” approach to resolving the conflict. He was very organized, depended on written documentation that I had submitted, gathered all valuable information, analyzed all facts presented, and made a decision. I adopted the style of “relators” by keeping good balance between friendships with disputants, attentive, good listener, tried to maintain a pleasant atmosphere conducive to healthy discussion and good communication.
It was determined that French would no longer be taught at South Junior High School. The principal made this decision immediately after the arbitration meeting. I was very impressed at the professional way that this dispute was handled. Both parties could not be happy. Only one teacher out of two would have a job come September. However, both teachers felt that they had the opportunity to say something about their individual programs.
I think it is important to recognize that mediation and arbitration are both good things. Both have a purpose: to solve a dispute. The two create safe and secure environments where both parties should feel comfortable to talk. Communication is the key to solving any conflict. The biggest difference between the two methods is that mediation does not always make a decision. Mediator’s sometimes only offer solutions and the two parties decide. Arbitrators actually make binding decisions. Once a conflict has reached arbitration the two parties know that a decision will be made. Mediation does not always result in a determination, which is why it can take longer to resolve.
I truly believe that anyone that has heard both sides to a conflict and has all the information in front of them or is made available can make an unbiased and honest decision. In my opinion I feel that going straight to arbitration before mediation is a waste of time because it still leaves holes for questions? Once a decision has been made, both parties should be required to move on and accept the situation.
I kept reminding everyone involved that what was best for the children was best for everyone. Most of the students at my school speak a second language already, so perhaps no languages should be taught at the junior high level. Of course that is the decision of the superintendent and not a bystander.
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