Gary K. Clabaugh, Emeritus Professor of Education, La Salle University

Schools as organizations have four unavoidable conflicts built in. And how each of these conflicts are decided is absolutely critical because it establishes a school’s character. In fact, it defines its very nature. Here is an explanation of each of these conflicts:

  •  Following Policy vs. Sensitivity to Individual Differences: To the extent that policy is followed, individual differences must be ignored. If a teacher is required to teach according to a script, for example, he or she cannot make adjustments for the readiness of individual students. Similarly, if a school administration sticks strictly to the rules, they cannot effectively deal with unique circumstances. But policy based on individual differences is inefficient; and increases fairness problems and the likelihood of favoritism. We should also note that today’s schools and school systems tend to favor policy over sensitivity to individual differences. That’s largely because a bigger school and/or school system is simply less able to efficiently accommodate individual differences. Imagine a one room school with 1 teacher and 20 students; then think of a contemporary school with 40 teachers and 1,000 students. Clearly, for purely practical reasons, a policy emphasis will win out in the much larger school. But the question still remains: to what degree can individual differences be disregarded before it becomes demoralizing and counter-productive?
  • Delegating Authority vs. Pursuing Authorized Goals: If authority is delegated, school employees, possibly students as well, more strongly pursue their own personal goals. Teachers, for instance, have their own professional and ethical goals that frequently come in conflict with school policies and procedures. Imagine a teacher who strongly disagrees with a school policy that both parties in a fight be equally punished. The teacher thinks students should not be punished if they were resisting persistent bullying. On the other hand, school administrators have neither the time or energy to check on every detail of a school’s functioning. Plus they often distrust putting teachers in policy making positions — particularly if the administrator bears the brunt of these decisions —
  • Process vs. Product: Another conflict involves focusing on product or process. The essential questions are how would we divide our attention between these two concerns? And, when in conflict, which should take precedence? If people are given projects which they pursue the whole way to completion, this is a product orientation. But if they are assigned repetitive, piecemeal tasks, such as repeatedly teaching American history to 7th graders, this is a process orientation. All teaching involves both. The question is, what is the balance? Lessons can be planned with a product orientation. If so teachers can expect to see some development and completion over time. But these same teachers will rarely, if ever, get to see the long-range effects of schooling from kindergarten through 12th grade. In fact, often no educator’s truly oversee long term product completion. In higher education, for instance, it is uncommon for educators, before granting a degree, to evaluate how much of the educational product is actually complete. So if graduates turn out to be ignoramuses, someone in a previous stage of the process can always be blamed. As to whether process or product is presently dominant, process is in the ascendency. Our omni-present factory style  schooling always pools children for mass processing because it is far more efficient economically; not because there is a scintilla of evidence that a more satisfactory product is achieved.
  • Power vs. Morale: In most schools openly discussing power issues is discomforting. Wielding it seems oppressive — even despotic. In consequence school board members, administrators and teachers all are loath to even discuss its use. Instead they take refuge in policies, rules, procedures, and so forth. Nevertheless, these school roles necessarily involve the use of power, for motivation, control of resources, and so forth. Nevertheless, using that power threatens to undermine the morale of those commanded. Take, for example, a school board selecting textbooks or a curriculum without input from teachers. Demoralization will surely follow. Similarly, a teacher’s unnecessary expressions of authority demoralizes the students. And a school board acting without regard for the superintendent’s opinion will certainly undermine his or her morale. Nevertheless, there still are times when power must be utilized. The trick is using it wisely and with full awareness of its effect on the morale of those on the receiving end.