Why schools are full of arguments in October.

Does this sound familiar? Does every year seem to pan out, roughly, as follows? If so there is a very good reason.

September; it’s a new academic year and it started fairly well, the children are generally eager to please, staff are refreshed and ready to go, classrooms are tidy, books are new and the floor’s been polished. 

But now it’s October and things are a little more fractious; the children seem to be pushing the boundaries and the staff seem to be as well.  What is going on?  It wasn’t like this two weeks ago!

It’s half term soon. That will make it all alright. Everyone needs a week off, right?  And then it’ll be the build up to Christmas, classrooms shimmering with glitter, nativity and carols and the Christmas break (by ‘break’ we mean rushing around buying presents, packing to visit family or preparing to receive and feed family) and before you know it it’s the spring term, the engine room of the academic year.  The children are more settled, your class seems to operate far better and the job of learning can really take hold. 

The summer term comes flying in, refreshed after Easter but with a firm eye on the summer holidays, the first half term is SATs and test focused, and with the relief of them being complete the summer term allows for more freedom with your class, sunny days permit lessons outside and a true understanding of the risks you can take with your class. 

It’s a good, if somewhat tiring, term (after all you’ve been on the go for the year and teachers know what this feels like – despite what the outside world thinks; ‘finishing at 3pm and having half the year off!’). It’s also a term when you, your class and your team, are able to take risks together in your teaching and learning.  The summer holidays come, the summer holidays go and we start all over again.

It’s the same in almost every school, almost every year. Why? 

This pattern is one of the best examples of a simple but insightful piece of psychology by Tuckman (1965).  Tuckman came up with his theory of group formation and catchy named the four stages; forming, storming, norming and performing. 

During forming a new team or group is getting to know each other, how many pets they have, where they live, what their favourite food is.  It’s a nice stage which focuses on factual information about each other – like September in a school year.

Then we get into storming (October/November). This doesn’t have to be as bad as it sounds and often it’s not, but this is when the honeymoon is over and boundaries are tested. In the classroom children cross the line and learn the consequences.  Staff will do this as well. In fact, all new relationships, whatever their nature, will have a period of testing where the metaphorical lines are and everyone finds out what happens when they’re crossed.  This is also a time of vying for position, establishing what people’s roles are in the group and where they fit in.

Once everyone is clear about the boundaries the group can norm, usually in December/January, they know their place in the team, what is acceptable and unacceptable and what happens when these norms are broken.  With the group normed, it’s time to perform in the spring term, to get to work and deliver results, as a class, as a school, as a team.

So why is this important?

The importance of storming

The most important part of the Tuckman’s group formation cycle is storming.  A group that storms well, that is they understand where the boundaries are as well as their place and others’ places in the team and is able to establish constructive ways of airing issues as they arise, is a team who has potential to become a high performing team. 

Without effective storming and good management of on-going storming, because issues arise as time goes by, a team will struggle to meet its full potential.  So how can you storm better?

Firstly, storming is not about arguing. The art of storming is to have healthy conflict, conflict which helps move relationships and the team forward by addressing issues.  This can be easier in the classroom because there is an obvious hierarchy; the class teacher is the leader of the group.  However when working with peers and superiors this can be harder and if the leader always ‘sorts out’ the issue, this isn’t necessarily having healthy conflict. 

What is healthy conflict?

The chances are you have experienced healthy conflict.  You might be able to think of a time when you had an issue with someone and at some point you were able to raise this with them.  They listened and discussed the issue and you were both able to share your feelings and resolve the issue without anger, grudges or resentment, but with co-operation and an openness to improving the situation.

The key to creating healthy conflict is quite simple: practise having it.  A lot of people shy away from conflict for very good reasons; they don’t want to be upset or upset others. However in raising and clearing issues you create a space where your relationship can improve and be better than before.

The good news is you can practise this in what I call ‘low-cost’ situations, for example in a shop or restaurant where you’ve not been happy with the service.  This is low-cost because the chances are you will never see these people again and so there should be no consequences. 

Get used to expressing your view, calmly and clearly and working with the other person to resolve the issue, this will help you get used to the feelings of being in a conflict situation and, when you are ready, you can move onto ‘mid-cost’ situations by having healthy conflict around small issues with people in your life and whom you will see again. It could be as simple as asking someone to return your classroom resources in the same condition you leant them.

‘High-cost’ situations are for when you are well practised at ‘mid-cost’ situations and need to tackle meatier issues with people you will see again. Issues such as attitude or work ethic. 

Healthy conflict is key to great relationships, it’s better than arguing and far more constructive, but it is a skill to be learnt and practised if you’re to reap its rewards.

Click here to watch a short video on “Why there are more arguments in school in October”  

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