Future principals learn to handle conflict

"My son Josh is the only kid who didn’t make the baseball team. Ethan made it and he’s awful. Jake made it and he can’t even throw. That coach just doesn’t like my son. I want Josh on that team and I want him on now!"

Gulp.

Your stomach is in knots. Your mind is racing. Sweat is dripping down your back. This parent wants an answer and he wants it now. What do you do?

More than 40 graduate students learned exactly what to do in a situation like this during "Day in the Office," a role-playing simulation that’s part of the principalship program within UNI’s College of Education.

"The simulation has become a signature of the program and provides our students an opportunity to apply what they’ve learned and demonstrate that they can think on their feet as principals," said Vickie Robinson, interim director and associate professor of educational leadership and postsecondary education. Robinson served as simulation moderator with colleague Nick Pace, associate professor of educational leadership and postsecondary education.

Future principals learn to handle conflictThis is the fifth year UNI has offered the simulation as part of its principalship program, which helps prepare individuals as pre-K through high school principals.

"Four years ago, I had a conversation with a principal about how hard it is to prepare principalship students for the job," said Pace. "Students can write a paper on 'here’s what I’d do in this situation,' but it’s easy to write a paper. It’s different in face-to-face situations. That is when it came to me: Why not create role-play situations for people."

During Day in the Office, principalship students welcomed into their "office" area school administrators and UNI faculty and staff who posed as parents with concerns about their son or daughter. The next five to seven minutes were spent discussing the concern.

"The actors bring an issue to the principal and have the freedom to be as tactful or as difficult as they want to be," said Robinson.

Most of the time, the principals-in-training had no idea what they would encounter until the "parent" began to speak. Not being chosen for the baseball team was one of the scenarios. Bullying, racial discrimination, students being picked on for having same-sex parents, and parents wanting to move their child to a "better" teacher’s class were just some of the scenarios the graduate students had to work through.  

"The actors came up with their own scenarios or we helped them develop a scenario," said Robinson. "What they ended up presenting were situations that we as educational leaders have actually lived through or that our students have gone on to live through.

"Day in the Office is a fun, vivid experience where practicing administrators are working with our future administrators," Robinson continued. "Students can be mice in the corner and think about what they would do in the same situations and learn from their peers."

Prior to the simulation, Black Hawk County Sheriff Tony Thompson helped candidates understand how to deal with situations that may start to escalate emotionally. For example, if a person starts to raise his voice, principalship students learned they should talk slower, softer and act calmer to hopefully defuse the situation by bringing the other person’s emotional state down to theirs. Students also learned they should remain at the same "level" as the other person (sit if he sits, stand if he remains standing) because sitting helps a person relax and take a breath to calm down.

"This is a fun experience for the actors and a stressful experience for the students," said Pace. "However, students have told us this is the most authentic learning experience they’ve ever had."

Robinson and Pace are not aware of any other principalship programs that offer a real-time, hands-on experience such as Day in the Office. In an effort to help future principals become the most effective leaders and administrators possible, Pace wrote a book and created a companion DVD with 15 of the best role-play scenarios from the past four years called "The Principal’s Hot Seat: Observing Real-World Dilemmas." The book and DVD will be published in fall 2011.

"A class can watch a scenario, pause the DVD and talk about what they’ve just seen," said Pace. "The scenarios are fluid, unscripted and authentic, just like Day in the Office." The book and DVD will also help educational leadership professors better prepare their students to show sensitivity, good judgment and think on their feet.

Even if Josh doesn’t end up making the baseball team, Robinson and Pace are confident that the principals-in-training who participated in Day in the Office will handle such situations with grace and professionalism. 

"The first time [the principalship students] experience a situation shouldn’t be the first time they feel the emotion that goes along with it," said Robinson. "Day in the Office is a chance for principal candidates to practice remaining cool under pressure, which is a real benefit of the simulation."