Conflict in Schools ... Where Does It Occur? Synopsis
©1999 Kelly Chan

edited 1/22/10

See Related article:
School as Theatrical Production


When looking at the arena in which our public schools operate and the vast numbers of people who have an impact, either directly or indirectly, on the education of our children, it is easy to see why conflicts may and often do develop.

On one hand, people with an interest in the schools, the stakeholders- - teachers, parents, school boards, community members, tax payers and others - all have varying expectations of the role that the schools should play. Some feel they should function as temples with the focus on authority, others as factories with its emphasis on efficiency and still others in a town meeting style with a goal of equity. Schools then, face the difficult, if not impossible task, of catering to these vastly different and often competing expectations.

To further complicate the issues, schools also operate in an arena where they are influenced and acted upon in ways often beyond their control - an arena that can be likened to that of a play - with on-stage, back-stage and off-stage players, roles and responsibilities. Each of these areas has an important impact on the success of the on-stage performance - what happens in the classroom. Conflicts can also occur in each of these areas as their goals, responsibilities and tasks are met.

As described above, the expectations of the stakeholders and organizational structure of schools creates the potential for conflict on many different levels and for many different reasons. Summarized below, are just a few examples of the various places where conflict may occur within schools.

Off-Stage v. On-Stage

What happens within a classroom, the on-stage performance, is often affected by decisions and circumstances that occur off-stage. Take for instance the adoption of mandates, standards and laws handed down from the Federal and/or State governments. These directives have a direct impact on what happens within the classroom as schools adopt new approaches and/or methods to meet the requirements. These new approaches may be in conflict with the tried and true methods currently employed by the teachers or may not be appropriate for a particular school, classroom or individual student.

Another area of on-stage versus off-stage conflict can occur is with the passage of Federal, State and/or Local budgets. Because of limited resources, the monies available for school spending are often times competing with funds earmarked for defense, Medicare, social security, transportation, the environment, crime prevention and others. This makes it difficult for schools to secure the funds necessary to do all they would like to do within the classrooms. This creates a potential area for conflict as schools now have to make decisions about where to spend their limited budget - computers or textbooks, music class or a new cafeteria. This conflict over limited resources begins at the classroom level where classes compete with each other for needed items and works its way all the way up through local and state levels to the Federal level where education competes with other interests for finite resources.

Back-Stage v. On-Stage

In addition to conflicts occurring between off-stage decisions and on-stage performances, conflict can also happen with back-stage players and the on-stage classroom. Take for example the bus drivers or cafeteria workers within a school district. These individuals are not directly relating to the students. However, their work contract has the ability to impact the successful performance of a classroom. Possible strikes by these employees, their contract stipulations for length of a workday and school year and starting and ending times, all indirectly affect the ability of a school to educate its students and may lead to conflict.

Also, the opinions and actions of a school board may also conflict with what is actually going on within the classroom. What an "outsider" perceives to be important may not be what is best or even needed by the children within that school.

Temple v. Factory v. Town Meeting

While off-stage and back-stage conflicts tend to indirectly affect the classroom, expectations about the function of a school - temple, factory or town meeting - seem to have a direct impact. Answers to questions like "what do we teach?" and, "how do we teach it?" (ie: a school's missions and functions) differ depending on how the school is operating. Teaching within a factory environment is very different than one that focuses on a town meeting approach or a temple approach. These different functions also have a direct impact on the expectations and characteristics of hired school personnel. Like curriculum choices and school functions and missions, they too are selected based on the ultimate goal of the school. These decisions of a school, be it for personnel, curriculum, teaching styles or missions to strive for, may be in direct conflict with how parents, the community, taxpayers and others believe that the school should be operating.


As illustrated in the above examples, the conflicts and controversies facing schools can occur in many different areas and for many different reasons. This paper has attempted to identify some of those areas. It is not meant to be an exhaustive analysis of school controversy, just an indication of the numerous areas of potential conflict, and the impact that competing areas, directives and expectations have on our teachers and classrooms.