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UIC TA Handbook - Managing Conflict

By Caryn A. Bills

Former Ombudsperson
Office of the Ombudsperson

 

Introduction

Some conflicts which TA's experience may appear in the form of grade disputes, grading policies and practices, differences in opinions during a lecture, special consideration for extenuating circumstances for missed exams or deadlines for assignments and course requirements. As the Ombudsperson, I meet with various students whose problems could have been extinguished at an early stage. Instead, the problem sustained energy and developed a life of its own. Consequently, students file a formal grievance related to unfair treatment in the classroom. Some student conflicts are not accurate depictions of legitimate grievances, however, some do lead to formal grievances which can become complex, lengthy, and time-consuming for all parties involved.

How do you manage conflict?

Before conflict can be managed, it must be understood. Conflict has been defined as a situation in which interdependent people express (manifest or latent) differences in satisfying their individual needs and interests, and they experience interferences from each other in accomplishing these goals. Faculty, administrators, and students need one another; interdependence is a given in higher education. In your role as a TA, you will encounter this interdependence and it is critical to understand the cultural differences and diverse expectations that exist among the students in your classroom. These differences may even occur between yourself and your assigned professor. In order to manage conflict in your classroom or among your colleagues, it is recommended that all involved parties work toward common goals which are clearly defined by you (i.e. syllabus). Being cognizant of conflict resolution mechanisms will help you identify and prevent potential inflammatory problems/concerns prior to escalation into a grievance.

Managing Conflict

A critical component to managing conflict is listening. You must listen carefully to all involved in the conflict. Too often, there is a rush to resolve conflict before full attention has been paid to all of the people and the issues. Don't just address the top of the problem and leave the root because the root may begin to grow again, creating the same problem later--either for the same person or a different one.

Identify the Conflict

Who is involved?

Identify all of the parties involved in the conflict and under­ stand the relationship and power differential of those involved.

What is the conflict?

What happened? What are the feelings and emotions sur­ rounding the conflict? What are the issues?

When did it happen?

When did the conflict begin? is it ongoing, cyclical, intermittent? will it escalate?

Resolution Attempts?

What attempts have been made to manage the conflict? Is it recurring and if so, what was done in the past to pre­ vent the conflict?

Consequences of the conflict?

What will happen if the conflict is not resolved? What will happen if it is? What gains and losses are perceived to exist as a result of the solution?

Identify the Solutions

Develop a positive attitude. Unless those involved in a conflict are willing to work together toward a mutually agreeable solution, no management is possible.

Establish ground rules. Conflict often produces feelings of chaos. A quick lesson in active listening and giving and receiving feedback will help make students feel that their concerns are being heard.

Identify the interest of the parties. Parties must under­ stand their priorities and the outcomes they desire. Often the threat of externally imposed solutions is enough to get parties to agree to work together.

Develop alternatives. At this point, the issues of the conflict should be understood. Brainstorming is the best process to develop alternatives.

Conclusions

In order to deal with conflict effectively, it is helpful to be aware of the structural guidelines outlined here. TA's should have knowledge of, at minimum, the Academic Grievance Procedures and the Student Disciplinary Procedures. The earlier a conflict is identified, the easier it is to manage and the less expensive it is in terms of personnel and resources. A conflict left unmanaged will only grow and bring increasing hardship to the students, faculty, departments, and the institution.

Conflict can be either destructive or constructive. The likelihood that it will be constructive is increased when it is openly acknowledged, analyzed, and dealt with.

The Office of the Ombudsperson is available for consultation on problem solving or for advice related to university policies and procedures.

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