Dealing with Conflict in Homeschool Groups
- Carol Topp The Old Schoolhouse
- 2010 23 Feb
Have you ever witnessed conflict in a group? It is not pleasant. The tiny community of Cades Cove, Tennessee, had two Baptist churches. This pioneer village in the middle of the Great Smoky Mountains had a population of only 685 at its height, but the Baptists could not worship together. A historical marker explains that the Baptist congregation split over a conflict on missionary work.
Conflict is very common in families, churches, and communities, and it can arise in a homeschool group also. Disagreements may stem from many sources, including unmet expectations, differing goals and views, misunderstandings, or hurt feelings. Fortunately, conflicts can be reduced in several ways.
Proactive steps prevent tensions from growing into conflicts. Successful homeschool groups can be proactive by fostering an attitude of respect, sharing decision making among several people, crafting policies, and having a clear mission that everyone understands.
Attitude of Respect and Cooperation
An attitude of respect and cooperation lessens conflict. A group can foster an attitude of respect by emphasizing important values in life. The Mason Homeschool Co-op in Cincinnati, Ohio, has several practices that reinforce their values. They are a Christian homeschool group and begin each co-op day with prayer, depending on the Lord for wisdom, safety, and guidance. Group prayer emphasizes their foremost value: dependence on God. Secondly, they value families and the role of parents. Leaders defer to a child's parents in regard to any decisions that directly affect the child. Specifically, the leaders will go to a parent first with a behavior or discipline problem rather than instituting co-op-wide discipline policies. This practice establishes respect for the parents and their unique values and parenting styles.
The Mason Co-op requires everyone at the co-op to volunteer for two hours during each co-op day and then allows one "free" hour without obligations to teach or help in a class. This policy promotes the values of cooperation with others and caring for self. A co-op member said, "This co-op is better than others, because here everyone helps out; it's not just a few people doing all the work." Sharing the workload fosters cooperation. Offering free time to a homeschooling mother demonstrates respect for her need for refreshment, relaxation, and a chance to connect with other moms.
Examine your co-op practices to determine if they promote your group's values and priorities. For example, if your group professes that parents are the primary teachers, then conflicts may arise over having too many paid instructors.
Shared Decision Making
A board of leaders that discusses policies and problems can do a lot of preemptive work to avoid conflicts. One person should run not try to run a homeschool group single-handedly. The decision making should be shared among a board of at least three people. The Veritas Homeschool Co-op strives to have a good representation of co-op members on their board, including both new and experienced homeschoolers. Before the board makes major decisions, like a change in the time or date that the co-op meets, they question a few members for feedback. This helps to break the news gently and allows members a say in what happens in the group. The Veritas board makes decisions as a group, and this lessens conflict significantly.
A homeschool group needs a policy manual to guide it through decisions and conflicts. The primary purpose of a policy manual is to avoid problems before they come up. For example, if a member wishes to bring a sick child to co-op, but the policy states that sick children remain at home, a leader can avoid conflict with a parent on co-op day simply by pointing to the policy. A policy manual is best written when cool, impartial heads prevail. A policy manual might include the following topics:
• Responsibilities of parents, students, and teachers
• Money and payment policies (When are payments due? Are there late fees?)
• Recess and lunchtime rules (Can children play outside?)
• Cleanup and building use (Some rented buildings do not allow food; others allow only clear liquids.)
• Dress codes
• Student attendance and missed sessions
• Grading, homework, and credits
• Behavior guidelines (No running, no yelling, no punching, etc.)
• Sickness (When a child may not attend co-op because of illness, fever, rashes, etc.)
Purpose and Mission
"Where there is no vision, the people perish," says Proverbs 29:18. Without a clear idea of an organization's mission, members often form their own ideas about the group's purpose. These varying ideas may give rise to conflict. For example, if your group members expect to participate in a small, close-knit group, there may be conflict if the group grows and adds new members. A short mission statement can effectively communicate the group's purpose to the members.
Mission statements need to answer two questions: (1) Who are you? and (2) Why do you exist? Be clear and concise. Since you cannot meet the needs of everyone, carefully choose your focus and your purpose. The purpose of another homeschool group called Double Digits is stated as follows: "A fellowship of preteens and teenagers in an academic setting." A student's age must be in the double digits in order to join (hence the clever name). Double Digits is clearly not for preschoolers, and this focused mission lessens misunderstandings and conflicts.
Many conflicts can be avoided with respect, cooperation, shared decision making, policies, and a clear mission statement. However, even the best planning cannot stop divisions and disagreements from occurring. Conflict must be managed well, or it can destroy a homeschool organization and its mission.
How to Manage Conflict in a Homeschool Group
Even in the most well-run group, conflicts can arise. Ken Sande's book, The Peacemaker: A Biblical Guide to Resolving Personal Conflict, challenges common thinking about about how to handle conflict. Sande points out that simply overlooking an offense is actually a healthy response to problems. Proverbs 19:11 says that "the discretion of a man deferreth his anger; and it is his glory to pass over a transgression." Quickly forgiving an offense is a wise move. Overlooking, which is a type of forgiveness, is a deliberate attempt not to dwell on an offense, talk about it, or grow bitter over it. Members ask, "Is it really worth fighting over?" and decide it is not. Encourage your members to overlook slight offenses as a proper way to handle disagreements.
Confession and Reconciliation
Some offenses are too large to be overlooked, perhaps, for example, because a relationship has been painfully damaged. In this case, confession and reconciliation between parties are needed. Reconciliation involves gentle restoration of the relationship, and it may involve confession on someone's part. All parties who need to be reconciled should ask themselves these three questions:
• Have I said something unkind?
• Have I gossiped about the person or problem?
• Have I tried to control others?
In order to restore a relationship, confession to the other party may be necessary. Reconciliation is not merely confrontation; it is a sincere attempt to restore a relationship. Remind members to ask for God's wisdom and a gentle, humble spirit before they approach the other party. Each party should aim to be clear and specific.
Merely complaining about another's behavior rarely helps a situation. The goal is restoration of a relationship, not assigning blame or accusing others. Members should use "I feel" statements, such as "I feel like a scolded child," to explain the hurt feelings they may feel.
The creative use of stories to make your point can be very helpful. An excellent example of using stories comes from the Old Testament prophet Nathan. (See 2 Samuel 12.) Nathan had the unpleasant task of confronting King David about his sins of adultery and murder. Nathan wisely used a story of a poor man with only one lamb to expose the situation and help David comprehend his own greed.
The final step, mediation, should be used only when a professing Christian refuses to be reconciled. Mediation occurs when an objective, outside person is invited into a conflict. The goal of the mediator is to facilitate better communication and to explore possible solutions. Matthew 18:15-17 provides guidance for mediation:
Moreover if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother. But if he will not hear thee, then take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established. And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church: but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as a heathen man and a publican.
In homeschool groups this could mean bringing the issue to the board or deferring the conflict to the member's local pastor or church. Ultimately, the homeschool group may consider asking the offender to leave the group if the conflict cannot be resolved. It is sometimes better for one member to be asked to leave than for the entire group to suffer.
Managing conflicts can be best handled in a proactive manner by promoting respect and cooperation, having shared decision making, and establishing clear policies and a clear purpose. Encourage your members to settle disputes by overlooking an offense and reconciling their differences with each other. Use mediation carefully as a final step to resolve conflicts.
*This article published on February 23, 2010.
Carol L. Topp, CPA (www.HomeschoolCPA.com), author of Homeschool Co-ops: How to Start Them, Run Them and Not Burn Out, is a homeschooling mother and Certified Public Accountant who uses her accounting skills to help homeschool organizations.
Copyright 2009. Originally appeared in The Old Schoolhouse Magazine, Winter 2009/10. Used with permission. Visit them at www.TheHomeschoolMagazine.com. For all your homeschool curriculum needs visit the Schoolhouse Store.