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How To Up Your Teaching by Getting Comfortable With Conflict

Two San Diego teachers transformed conflict into a tool to improve school for their students. They think you should, too.

February 27, 2019

Leah Fabel

Leah Fabel

Teaching is about many things: solid planning, high expectations, patience, love.

But Tim Cart (San Diego ’17), a science teacher at Diego Valley East Charter School, and Faye Pacho (San Diego ’14), a teacher coach at Workforce Innovation High School, would add another skill to teachers’ repertoires: comfort with difficult conversations.

They are “absolutely, unequivocally, part of being a teacher,” says Cart, who had a career in the military and higher education leadership before joining the corps. And knowing how to have them, Cart and Pacho say, will make you a more effective leader for your kids and colleagues.

Earlier this school year, Cart and Pacho presented a professional development session to the San Diego corps about leading difficult conversations, whether with a student, a parent, or an administrator. Their advice grew out of experience. In 2017, administrative shuffles led to new policies that many Innovation High teachers found difficult to support. Pacho’s school, like Cart’s, serves a diverse group of students, 14- to 24 years old, many of whom have had interrupted educations. Students learn through a combination of independent study and individualized instruction. When new administrators proposed an end to the school’s open campus policy, which allowed students to come and go as fit their schedules, many teachers saw it as a breach of trust and worried that students would show up less, not more.

Pacho found herself in contentious conversations with the new leadership that ended up more frustrating than productive. But using advice she developed with Cart, and a little practice, she was able to work with her administrator to make their conversations less tense and bring more teachers into policy discussions.

“It’s not just about sharing my idea, but arriving at whatever is right for the students. It’s about building that coalition.”

Tim Cart

For tough conversations to work, Pacho and Cart say, name your specific problem at the outset and make sure that’s the issue everyone agrees to discuss. Don’t let tension bleed into less relevant issues that you might not be prepared or ready to talk about. Then, share your side and values, and let the other person (or people) share theirs. “Stay positive no matter what,” Cart says.

Always keep students at the center. “It’s not just about sharing my idea, but arriving at whatever is right for the students. It’s about building that coalition,” Cart adds.

At Innovation High, they’re still working out the details of the open campus policy. “But the big win is that teachers and students have more say in how it will take effect,” Pacho says.

She adds that going through the muck of conflict has helped to forge the kinds of relationships that sustain her as a teacher. As a corps member and alum teacher, “you ride a lot of roller coasters, especially when it comes to your belief in the actual change you’re making,” Pacho says. “Building bridges keeps that hope alive.”

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