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Mediating from the Heart

OEA’s Mediation Network provides peer-to-peer support in navigating conflicts through holistic ways

By Peter Bauer | OEA Union School

Conflict is a natural part of human experience and something educators face daily with their colleagues and the students they serve. Conflict will usually escalate when a person's values, needs, interests, or aspects of their identity are perceived as being threatened, challenged, or undermined. In these situations, people often become defensive and want to protect themselves by taking action to maintain a sense of dignity.

In the past, OEA members experiencing conflict in the workplace might have attempted to file a complaint with a supervisor or a Human Resources Manager. This is like taking a case to court and asking someone else to make a judgement. A person might present their best evidence only to receive a ruling that they either didn’t anticipate or that has negative long-term consequences. Others have gone directly to the union and attempted to file a grievance against a fellow union member. Because grievances are filed when an employer is violating the contract, this solution does not resolve in the best interest of the member’s needs.

Over time, it has become apparent that a network for peer-to-peer problem solvers is needed to help resolve issues at the job site. The most common types of complaints that are brought forward fall into three general categories: communication, decision-making, and professionalism. The OEA Mediation Network was developed in the Fall of 2019 to address these issues by providing confidential, non-judgmental mediation and conflict resolution services to OEA members.

Nineteen members from across Oregon were accepted into the first cohort of mediators and represent job classification from early childhood to community college faculty, Education Service Professionals (ESP), ESD Specialists and K-12 classroom teachers. The goal of this network is to match people in conflict with mediators who have similar backgrounds and experiences. These mediators completed a 32-hour certification course and attend monthly meetings to practice their skills.

When people are experiencing conflict in the workplace, it can be hard to know how to begin resolving the issue. Suzie Spencer, a mediator and alternative high school teacher from Salem, suggests that people who are experiencing conflict should start by trying to have a private conversation with the other person first, if they feel safe to do so. “Be vulnerable with your feelings and be open to hearing the other person’s perspective. If that doesn’t solve the problem, seeking help from peer mediation is a much better option than having stress and animosity in the workplace and passing those negative feelings on to our students.”

McCornack Elementary School counselor Brinda Narayan-Wold is a trained member of OEA’s Mediation program.

Benefits of Mediation

The goal of the OEA Mediation Network is to help union members resolve conflicts at the lowest level, improve and increase communication between colleagues, and facilitate dialogue to mend relationships. A mediator facilitates communications, promotes understanding, and helps parties collaboratively problem-solve the issues that matter to them.

There are several benefits to pursuing conflict resolution through OEA. Mediation services are free to OEA members as a benefit of membership. In addition to mediation between co-workers, OEA also offers Conflict Coaching to help people work with a neutral third party to problem solve ways to resolve an issue on their own. This process is less formal than mediation and allows people to address issues they are facing.

One of the most important parts of mediation is that the process is confidential. All parties, including mediators, sign a confidentiality agreement in order to facilitate an open and honest process. The content of meetings and agreements is not shared with anyone other than the parties in mediation. Additionally, mediation is a completely voluntary process for all parties.

Healing and maintaining relationships are at the heart of this work. Mediation seeks to resolve conflict with solutions that work for all parties by inviting people to collaboratively problem solve and co-create a solution that will work for everyone. It allows people to work through difficult experiences and improve relationships with their colleagues.

Mediation Makes a Difference

Brinda Narayan-Wold is an elementary school counselor from Eugene, and member of the OEA Mediation Network who has seen the positive impact of mediation. “The union values its members, and when the union recommends members to approach mediation, it is with care and high regard of each member. If a problem goes to a supervisor, it might feel hierarchical and clinical. Through mediation, there is hope that the issue will be resolved. The truth is, when educators can resolve their conflict collaboratively, it frees them up to give their best work to their students.”

The mediation process itself can be incredibly powerful, even as the process is unfolding. Narayan-Wold says “I witnessed people who had conflict with one another resolve their conflict in such a way that their eyes were lighter, their smiles were more connective, and their whole posture got more relaxed. It was that level of authentic reparation that was made during the mediation process.”

Lee Hamilton is a retired elementary school counselor and professional mediator specializing in divorce mediation who helps co-mediate cases as OEA mediators are gaining field experience.

“The most important thing in mediation is that people get to be heard. When they are truly heard, it takes the fight out of a situation. When they feel heard, they are willing to hear the other person and is a huge key to mediation. Curiosity is also key- not only for mediators, but to help each participant be curious about the other person. There are often a lot of assumptions in conflict, and we try to replace that with curiosity.”

“The mediation process gives people a chance to slow down and hear deeper issues that they may have been unaware of,” says Joyce Rosenau, veteran educator and local leader from Reynolds Education Association. “Assumptions may be brought to light. Then the real conflict can be addressed which can lead to a better working relationship, rather than dealing with one small conflict at a time.”

Combining curiosity with collaboration is what moves a mediation forward. Huck Wilken is a STEM teacher from Portland who has seen this in action. “I’m continually inspired by getting teachers back to collaboration, where their kids are getting better education. That’s what I find really motivating- when teachers are working well together, the results are amazing. And when they’re not, the students feel it. Mediation helps educators get back to working together, not just side by side.”

How to Begin the Mediation Process

To begin the process, call 541.743.4154 or email mediation@oregoned.org. An OEA staff member will take a short description of your issue, explain the mediation process, and confirm that all parties are interested in moving forward with mediation. Because this is a voluntary process, Conflict Coaching is an option in situations where one person decides they are not interested in participating. If the issue presented is not appropriate for mediation, we will refer you to other resources who can best meet your needs.

When everyone has confirmed their interest in participating, we will assign co-mediators to work with you, share an intake form to briefly understand what you have experienced, and have everyone involved sign an agreement to mediate which includes a confidentiality agreement. After these steps have been completed, the co-mediators will schedule a 30–60 minute conversation with each person to better understand their point of view and begin to help each person explore their own curiosity to generate their own resolutions and outcomes.

Once all parties have met with the co-mediators, they will schedule a mediation session at a convenient time for everyone involved, and will host the session via Zoom. Return to in-person mediation will return when it is safe. To the extent possible, these mediations should take place outside of the contract day. We can accommodate special requests on a case-by-case basis.

The co-mediators begin by establishing communication guidelines to provide a safe space for open dialogue. During the session, each person will have an opportunity to share their point of view, describe how they were personally impacted, and begin generating potential solutions.

The co-mediators will encourage all parties to think about possible solutions and design agreements that will meet the needs of everyone moving forward. If a resolution is reached, the co-mediators will help write the specifics of the agreement and will provide each party with a written copy.

The mediation process generally takes 2-5 weeks from start to finish. There are several factors that impact this time frame: the number of people involved, the complexity of the issue, the amount of preparation needed, and the coordination of the schedules of all parties and co-mediators. We try to move forward as quickly as scheduling permits us to help people begin to resolve the conflict before it escalates further.

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