Conflict in international schools: How can we move past it?

International schools pose a variety of interesting challenges that can lead to potential conflict. 

Executive boards often reflect diverse thoughts on business and education. In many countries, key positions in the school and on the board will be made up of stakeholders from both within and outside of that particular country. Whilst this range of perspectives undoubtedly brings much value to a school it can also bring conflict, and I’m sure many of us can think of examples in our own settings where disagreements and conflict have taken place as a result of these differing cultures, experiences and perspectives all coming together.

Additionally, many international schools walk the fine line between business and education which, ethically, probably causes some of the deepest rooted conflict – particularly for teachers. As Dr Denry Machin outlines in his article Sales: In Schools It’s a Dirty Word, sales within the context of schools is admissions. Drawing on Daniel Pink’s book To Sell is Human, the top 5 most associated words with sales are ‘pushy’, ‘yuck’, ‘annoying’, slimy’, and ‘manipulative’. In his article, Machin points out that sales are a critically important area of international schools (despite schools wanting to hide it), and rather a better understanding of the sales mindset can improve and enhance the admissions process to be something that doesn’t conform with these negative associations.

In a further article on the morality of profit, Machin poses an interesting question for those of us working in international or private education:

Is profit morally wrong and making a profit from education somehow inherently bad?

Ultimately, in any argument against the corrupting powers of profit-seeking, the conclusion that is drawn time and time again, is that there is often a moral conflict between profit and the interests of students, and that education should be free from these corruptive forces. Context matters here, and it is important to note that profit is not necessarily a ‘bad’ thing (profit itself is neither good nor bad) but for many people who have chosen to pursue a career in education, it can sit quite uncomfortably. 

Now, if we combine the issue of the morality of profit (in education), with the negative connotations that sales has, and the potential for intercultural misunderstandings or disagreements, we immediately have three possible sources of conflict that international schools may face.

This week I read an incredibly interesting book by Amanda Ripley entitled High Conflict: Why We Get Trapped and How We Get Out. Ripley differentiates between healthy conflict, that which can be serious and intense, but ultimately leads to positive movement and doesn’t collapse into ‘othering’, and high conflict, that which becomes a self-perpetuating, all consuming, us-versus-them conflict.

I’m a middle leader by title (although I see my role as Head of Sixth Form/University Counselling more as being an additional source of pastoral support to students), and don’t have any formal leadership expertise or training to speak of. However, what I feel I have both experienced myself, and see in many others schools that are experiencing some of the challenges mentioned, is the disintegration of conflict into the us-versus-them dynamic (often teachers versus admin/ leaders). 

In this last year in particular, many schools have had to make a lot of quick changes as a result of the pandemic; some teachers have been laid off (which might also have had a knock-on effect of increasing the workloads of the teachers that remain), holidays have been lost, additional meetings and demands on time have increased beyond what is normal (which is often high as it is), and whilst some schools are growing in enrolment, others have lost significant numbers of students, which has created additional pressures for admissions staff. During a time when we have most needed a ‘we’re all in it together’ culture, instead the stresses hitting international schools have in some instances deepened the cavern between teachers and everyone else. 

As the saying goes… ‘s*** rolls downhill!’.

Now the thing is, in an us-versus-them conflict, whilst it can feel good and righteous at times, it ultimately serves to chip away at our own wellbeing. Our jobs are our biggest non-romantic relationship, and as Ripley notes, ‘no one wins at marriage’.

When an us-versus-them divide starts in our workplace, even over what we feel strongly are good and legitimate reasons, as the losses (or decisions we disagree with) accumulate, we can end up losing our way from the common ground that we started with – the marriage that we chose to go into because, hopefully, we like the school that we chose to be a part of. 

At the core of many relationship breakdowns is a sense of not feeling understood, something that is fundamental to our sense of self. As Ripley states, being understood can feel more important than money, property or even winning.

Our leaders and managers may say they listen, and attempt to, but listening is not understanding. 

If you take this into account, along with the other potential areas of conflict mentioned above, intercultural management, sales, and the morality of profit, you can see that these areas can be tied to our sense of who we are, particularly the last two. For many teachers, being asked to do certain things that are in some way linked to making the school money, can challenge our sense of what we think education stands for, and make us more convicted in our sense of conflict. 

The goal however, is not to bring people to our way of thinking, but to extend the definition of ‘us’ in the us-versus-them dynamic. One of the ways in which Ripley states that we can move away from damaging and stagnant ‘high conflict’ is through what she terms ‘looping for understanding’. Similar to motivational interviewing techniques, ‘looping for understanding’ (developed by Freidman and Himmelstein) involves reflecting back what someone has said in order to check for understanding and is very much an active listening process. It also involves ‘going down the why trail’. 

To illustrate this point, the book discusses the process of mediation, using the example of divorce. When a couple is arguing over who gets the crockpot in a divorce, it is important to investigate why the crockpot matters so much. Perhaps the wife wants to keep the crockpot because it is symbolic and reminds her of Sunday dinners with her parents when she was growing up. The husband on the other hand, perhaps just wants the crockpot because the wife wants it so much, and the battle for it has come to represent the pain he is feeling about the divorce. Rarely is a crockpot just a ‘crockpot’ – there is often an understory to most ‘high conflicts’. 

Figuring out the symbolic ‘crockpot’ and using ‘looping for understanding’ (for both sides of a source of conflict) can perhaps extend the version of ‘us’ that we allow. This may be of particular help when, for example, negotiating salaries, contracts, school fee increases, changes in the organisational structure, or changes to expectations regarding workload/working hours – particularly when these link to issues that are emotive, such as the morality of profit in international schools. 

For any of these changes, perhaps what could be useful is to construct a mediative process (rather than just a forum for passive listening) to help improve and develop a shared understanding. If teachers are upset about new salary scales, perhaps rather than choosing to simply iterate that the changes are not up for discussion/ beyond your control, you could become curious as to why they are upset (beyond the more obvious reasoning). You could invite a discussion in which you can ask staff questions that might allow them to healthily express their feelings; What does this change mean to you? How would a freeze/decrease in salary affect how you feel about your job? What would be a fair salary? Why would this be an optimal salary? How would this change your life? When asked out of genuine curiosity, this could help you to figure out the ‘crockpot’ and the true reasons behind people’s behaviour. 

Likewise, creating a forum in which teachers can find out why a decision has been made may also deepen their understanding. In doing so, you might encourage them to ask questions of their own, such as; What does this change mean for the school? What will be the impact of this decision on the school community as a whole? Is there a bigger picture that hasn’t been shared with us? If teachers are genuinely seeking to understand something, and are themselves motivated to repair a relationship that is threatening to become fractured, strategies such as this may allow for conflict to be addressed and diffused, before it becomes damaging. 

Conflict, when managed correctly, is healthy and enables things to progress and improve. Understanding someone else’s point of view is never a weakness or a concession, and adding to our understanding of a situation is what is needed in order to move forward. Therefore, my advice for leaders is, rather than managing a fallout, find the crockpot!

Ultimately, the aim is to foster a culture of understanding which will lead towards everyone having a shared ownership of a school’s purpose and vision – as Kim Green, Head of School at the International School of Ho Chi Minh City, stated in a recent podcast. If we can work towards a shared goal that is bigger than us as individuals, then we can start to break out of the us-versus-them thinking, in which everyone loses out. 

Afterall “no one wins at marriage”.

2 thoughts on “Conflict in international schools: How can we move past it?

  1. I think you can extend this thinking to the whole community. International/private education is expensive and for many families paying for their child’s education is a significant compromise on finances, coming with sacrifices. So the idea that schools make a ‘profit’ can be a source of confusion and resentment. I have no objective data to offer but I’d suggest that most families look at school fees as an investment in their child’s future, which is slightly different from a service. This presents an opportunity, depending on the type of school. For example, in the case of the school I lead for five years, we made no profit. Instead, we made a surplus that went back into the school’s development fund. The message we would continually communicate is that fees paid for now and for the future of the school, and that every family in our 40-year history had in part paid for today’s education. That frequent reinforcement of the vision was integral to strengthening the community.

    At the school I was required, with the Board, to present annually to the community our finances, educational plans, and future fee increases, both in paper and in an annual general meeting where the community, as owners of the school, then voted for the income and expenditure. I have heard colleagues in similar schools find this fearful and it is indeed always challenging to be accountable, but I believe it gave our community a real strength. The day after this meeting I gave all employees the exact same presentation, because that’s how you get people to see the bigger picture and understand that it is our school.

    1. Hi muchwhat,

      Thanks so much for taking the time to read and comment. I’d never thought it about that way before but you’re completely right that feelings about education making a profit could be a source of conflict for families too.

      I’m sure your staff really appreciate having that information and that it significantly helps to understand the bigger picture.

      Some really interesting food for thought!



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