“In the old days” of teaching, almost everyone understood that there was an appropriate chain of command to follow if a parent had a complaint about a teacher. Parents knew that the appropriate 1st step was to call the teacher, arrange for a conference, and deal with any issue at the source. I am directing this article to math teachers because we so often are dealing with parents who have very negative feelings about math from their own school days; but in reality, everything here is appropriate for teachers of all ages and subjects.
In the old days, if a parent tried to shortcut this process by starting higher up the chain of command, say with the department chair, the chairperson–who had no knowledge of the situation–would correctly respond to the parent by saying, “Have you discussed this with the teacher yet?” The parent was forced to start at the teacher level. Only if the issue couldn’t be resolved at the teacher level, would the issue go higher; and both parent and teacher would meet with the department chairperson go math grade 4. Most difficulties were solved at that level. But if not, then things moved up the chain of command. This is how the system should work.
Unfortunately, over the years, things have changed in a negative direction. Some parents seem to have lost sight of what the goal should be. One would assume that the parent’s goal would be to work out the issue in a way that leads to the student’s success. That can only happen by resolving whatever the issue is with the classroom teacher. Hopefully, the parent/teacher conference will be about solutions, and not about accusations only.
Many parents do, indeed, still follow the proper course of action; but a few parents have started side-stepping the chain of command and going straight to the top–either the principal or the superintendent. Neither of these individuals have any idea what the problem is, so they are hearing only one side of the issue–usually with embellishments. Why is this happening and what are teachers to do about it?
When parents bypass the teacher, we can only assume that they know they won’t get the satisfaction they want from the teacher. Whether they really know their child is being less than truthful, or they have some other issue is really a moot point. Their actions say that they are more interested in punishment of the teacher than in resolving anything in a way to benefit their child. In addition, it seems that fewer and fewer administrators are willing to respond with “Have you discussed this with the teacher?”
During my last year of teaching I had the new experience of having a parent call my principal because I gave her son’s homework assignment 3 points while one of his friends got 4 points (out of 5 points). I ended up having to spend over an hour justifying this one point (that would have had no effect on his grade) to this parent. As I learned later, her son was a serious under achiever; but rather than dealing with her son’s issues, she tried every semester to place blame on at least one of his teachers. Rather than having her son explain why he turned in an incomplete assignment, she chose to argue with me over a single point. (Can you tell that I’m still angry about it? Such a waste of everyone’s time!)
What did I learn from this experience (other than that I was thankful to be retiring)? First and foremost, no matter how hard you work at being the perfect teacher, you are not going to please everyone; so it is important that you protect yourself from unfair treatment. But how do you do that?
First, if something happens in class that you anticipate is going to cause a problem in some way, contact your department chair immediately. It might also be a good idea to call the parents immediately–before the child has a chance to make up a story. Discuss this with your department chair.