Addressing Incivility in a Civil Manner

By John R. Gratto/School Administrator, August 2015

In my five years as a principal and 23 years as a superintendent, I experienced plenty of conflict. School board members disagreed with each other or me. Parents got angry at teachers, principals or the whole school board. Teachers sometimes squabbled with each other. Union leaders were combative as they asserted positions in conflict with the interests of the school district. Taxpayer groups pushed for lower taxes and aggressively challenged spending decisions.

Sitting smack dab in the middle of that cauldron of conflict is the superintendent. Is it possible for that individual to navigate in a civil, respectful way that addresses the concerns of constituents while protecting the interests of the school district? I do believe our actions can prevent conflict or deal with it effectively. We can maintain and promote civility.

Acting Principally

I offer the following principles for addressing uncivil behavior based on my experience:

Treat offensive people with dignity and respect, even if you think they don’t deserve it. Remember these two key thoughts: First, by virtue of your role as a superintendent, you are a role model at all times. Second, the only person whose actions you control are your own.

I often documented in writing employees and students for egregious behavior, only to have them thank me at the conclusion of our conversation. As incongruous as that sounds, it came about because I treated them respectfully, even though their actions were inappropriate.

Respond to anger gently. Students or staff (and sometimes board members) who have done something wrong often are angry and frustrated. Rather than responding to their anger with anger, which only will inflame the situation and produce acrimony, it is much wiser to practice the wisdom from Proverbs 15:1 — “a gentle answer turns away wrath but a harsh word stirs up anger.” This axiom has been defusing volatile situations for centuries.

Resist the urge to put the offenders in their place. Instead, actively listen, take notes if appropriate and summarize their thoughts by restating them. Doing so will clearly communicate that you understand their viewpoint on the issue. Only then respond.

In such cases, I focused on their actions that I considered inappropriate, calmly explaining that actions have consequences and that their actions merited discipline.

Use data to support your point of view. Data, when available, depersonalizes the situation. It prevents people from thinking your actions are based on your positional authority or because you don’t like them. In fact, by clearly explaining the empirical reasoning behind your decisions, you can generate support for those decisions.

Use a soft, monotone voice when redirecting the offender. Don’t talk down to people or communicate anger or disrespect. Disagree without being disagreeable. It will be harder for someone to be uncivil toward you if you treat them respectfully.

Maintain a working relationship with the person who committed the inappropriate act. Keep your eye on building the relationship. Your goal is to continuously improve your school district while creating support for the mission and for leadership. Therefore, when addressing angry behavior in a civil manner, you must communicate that you’re not out to win a battle.

Encourage the offenders to put their bad behavior behind them and move forward. Acknowledge the past contributions of your staff or board members to improving your school and express your belief and expectation they can continue to do so despite their recent misstep. In the case of students, express your confidence that, although they erred, they are not the first nor will they be the last to turn themselves around.

An atmosphere of mutual respect does not occur naturally, but it can be created by forward-thinking school administrators who realize the importance of treating people with respect and dignity, despite occasional inappropriate behavior.


John Gratto, a former superintendent, is an assistant professor of educational leadership at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va. E-mail: