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  • Writer's pictureMike Vachow

Conflict and Care

Updated: Sep 1, 2023

Last week, NAIS published its 2023 Hot Issues Survey results. Here are the 5 hottest challenges and opportunities in independent schools according to the 310 heads who responded last fall:

  • recruiting and retaining faculty and staff

  • responding to conflict in and about independent schools

  • caring for students and staff during stressful times

  • ensuring school sustainability

  • balancing the demand for more programs with the availability of resources and existing programs

In my visits with heads in the Association of Independent Michigan Schools this summer, I heard that these issues remain top of mind. For simplicity's sake, let's put the last two to the side; they're legacy issues. And, for number one, I direct you to the many pieces I've written on recruiting and retaining faculty. I'll focus in this blog post on numbers 2 and 3.

Most importantly, numbers 2 and 3 are inextricably linked. Until adults can model and teach courageous, productive conflict resolution and civil discourse, they will be hamstrung in empowering students to do the same, leaving children in an environment of fre-floating anxiety where their ostensible guides prove themselves to be feckless at best, noxious at worst.

In their acceptance policies, independent schools have a distinct advantage--as long as they are clear at the outset on what the school's values look like in everyday practice. This is a bigger challenge than it might seem as our tuition-driven revenue structures often cause scarcity bias to distort our decision making. If, as the Smiths arrive with the list of books they'd like removed from the library, you find yourself thinking, yep, saw that coming, you know that you have missed the most important conflict resolution moment: the enrollment process.

Conversely, the autonomy we extend to our employees makes us vulnerable, particularly in a cultural moment like this one. Finding themselves scrutinized, even under attack, individual educators, whole schools risk overcompensating and projecting onto their students battles that they are developmentally ill-prepared to grasp much less fight, even falling into the trap of fulfilling the zero sum game that some groups use as a wedge: even if you're not convinced that SEL is Marxist indoctrination, you should be concerned that it's taking up time for math instruction.

None of this is easy to navigate, to be sure. There's the first amendment, for one, and, in some places, state laws that threaten to encroach on our independence. There is also the timeless truth that unless you write your own story, others will happily do it for you. Independent schools outline their essential narratives in their missions and values. We must be courageous and clear enough to understand what they mean, describe what they look like in action, and use them as our lodestars as we navigate complicated circumstances. The kids truly won't be all right until the adults step up.

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