Your character is the you that’s becoming. It’s the “Little Engine that Could” that keeps driving you toward what you need to make of yourself. For the ancient Greeks, kharakter is the mark that the gods put on your soul at birth. Character is the self that we are self-actualizing, our inner author, the source of our authority, our calling. Character development is not a part of education, but education itself.
Success in this enterprise includes welcoming conflict, for contact with other characters is where character growth takes place. Each conflict is an opportunity to define ourselves moment by moment, decision by decision, as we face challenges that other characters present.
Getting good at making conflict creative is a matter of learning your lines, or rather a matter of learning how to keep coming up with good lines, in moments of tension and personal challenge. Margaret gives us a nice example of a challenge that one of her second graders, Ruben, presented her with in her third year of teaching.
Notice how Margaret employed her genius to connect with Ruben’s genius so they could move forward together in the project of making sure everyone got a good education. Conflict and collaboration are not two different things. Conflict is collaboration in disguise.
Skill at turning these conflicts into creative growth is not only the secret to good education, it is the secret to leading your life. Yet, our culture doesn’t guide us toward learning the disciplines of making conflict creative, but away from it. For instance, we learn that being “positive” is important in building relationships, and miss creative ways of confronting people with hard truths.
Third-grade teacher, Cathy, for instance, was in my office distraught about a recent conference with Melanie, a parent who had been on her case for several months about the quality of the academic program and how her son Phillip was not progressing fast enough.
“Melanie keeps telling me that she went to Harvard and that she has Harvard standards,” Cathy told me. “I keep telling her that Phillip is doing just fine. So today she said, ‘I am concerned about how Phillip will do in seventh grade.’ I told her that she shouldn’t worry and gave her the complete run down: He writes well; he is two years above grade level in reading; his math is terrific; he already knows his multiplication tables… and so on, but she still wasn’t satisfied. She went away saying, ‘This is not good enough.’ I just know she hates that I went to UC Santa Cruz.”
“How many times have you had this kind of conversation with her?” I asked.
“So many I can’t count,” she said, tears beginning to well up in her eyes.
“As for Phillip being successful in seventh grade,” I said pushing the Kleenex in her direction,” is there anything you are concerned about?”
“Yes,” she said. “His dependence. Every time there is a question, he always looks to an adult before he tries it himself. He is always looking to me for the answer or for approval. He’s trying to guess what’s in my head.”
“But you didn’t say that, right?”
“Know I wanted to build the relationship, so I didn’t want to say anything negative.”
“Ah, ha. Lesson for the day: We don’t build relationships on being positive. We build them on truth: openness, honesty and trust. When Melanie said she was worried about seventh grade, you could have said: ‘I know. I am worried, too,’”
“Huh. Interesting,” Cathy replied.
“That would have changed the game, right? You could have told her how his academic skills are fine after pointing out that he is at risk, because he is not an independent learner. You would have changed the relationship, and you certainly would have had her attention. …for the first time.”
Cathy smiled. “I can do this, I’ll report on how it goes.”
Cathy gave me several reports in the course of the year. She had successfully turned conflict into partnership. At the end of the year, summarizing her victory she said, “You taught me to be direct, and not to avoid the truth. It got her on board as a partner right away. It was amazing. We established a common interest, and shared stories from time time time, stories of what was working and what was not. And it was essential that I knew you were on my side, and that you wouldn’t side with Melanie. That was important.
These were my versions of Roger Fisher’s five disciplines for Getting to Yes:
- Be a friend.
- Define a common purpose.
- Show; don’t tell.
- Listen for genius.
- Define your Unilateral Safety.
All educators (including parents) are in the conflict business. We must welcome it and get good at it. Trying to make it go away is a big mistake. The secret of being a great educator is to take charge of this incipient conflict and turn it into learning, collaboration, and creativity–creative action that builds brains—learning experiences for all. Conflict is where we grow. For school to be a learning community it must be a factory of creative conflict. “Conflict aversion” is a learning disability.