Parents are Complaining about You. Now What?
“The complaint department is closed.”
This phrase was often repeated (and occasionally mocked) during the annual summer missions program our youth department sponsored as I was growing up. It even showed up as a comic each year in the training book.
You see, the week of our missions program was always crazy busy & we had tons of work to do. So our youth workers didn’t want us wasting everyone’s time or energy by complaining.
Don’t you ever wish your school could just post a sign on the door and simply say “the complaint department is closed” – not just to students but to parents too?
It would save so much of our time and energy. It would free us up to focus on teaching. It would eliminate so much stress.
It would be glorious!
Or would it?
Here’s the thing – if all of the parent’s complaints were just that – complaining – then we should just close up the complaint department and call it a day.
But more often than not they’re actually not complaints. They’re concerns. Real concerns about real problems their child is facing in your classroom.
Now I know it hurts. I truly do. You’ve poured your heart into your students, into your classroom. You’ve worked so hard, are doing everything you can.
And parents are going behind your back, undermining you to your administrators. You’re frustrated. You feel discouraged, a little betrayed, and maybe even worried about the future of your job.
But now you have a choice to make. You can get all upset, blame the parents, stress about what our administrator thinks about you, and allow the complaints to stink up your whole life like a three-month old lunch stuffed in the bottom of a locker.
Or you can choose to look at the complaint as an opportunity to grow as a teacher, to address the parents’ core concerns, and improve your communication and relationship with the family.
Yes, it’s way easier said than done. But isn’t it pretty obvious which one is better for you & your students?
What to Do When a Parent Complains About You
First, you have to understand that when a parent complains about you, there’s three things that could be happening:
- There’s a misunderstanding between you and the parent.
- There’s something that you as the teacher could have handled better or could fix going forward.
- The parent has unreasonable expectations.
Now we teachers love to jump right to conclusion #3 and declare that the parent is being unreasonable, they simply don’t like us, and that they’re out to get us fired. But more often than not there are other factors in play.
Maybe the parent is acting unreasonable because they don’t understand something. Or maybe, even though the parent is being difficult, there’s still something we can change that will make the situation better for everyone.
I tell the story of how a parent complained and I had to change one of my policies in this post here. At first I was frustrated and felt the expectation was unreasonable, but in the end, the new solution I came up with was better than my original policy.
The point is that just because you feel a parent is being difficult doesn’t mean you shouldn’t also try to clear up misunderstandings & look for opportunities to improve. Which brings us to step #1…
1. Choose to look at the complaint as an opportunity for growth
When you first hear about the complaint you’re going to feel betrayed, hurt, frustrated, and probably more than a little defensive. But take a deep breath, pray, and realize that you have the power to change how you view this situation.
You can choose to be upset and defensive, or you can choose to use this as an opportunity to learn and grow. If you let them, most parent complaints can push you to become even better. Or they may provide deeper insight into your student’s home lives or how they learn.
The key is to take what at first appears to be the beginning of a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day and reframe it as an opportunity for growth, recognizing that God is working even in circumstances like this, to teach us something and to make us more like Him.
And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose. For whom He foreknew, He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the firstborn among many brethren. – Romans 8:28-29
2. Seek to genuinely understand not just the complaint but the underlying concerns beneath it.
When the complaint is first brought up you’re going to want to get defensive & explain all the reasons why you did what you did or have the policy that you have. But if you can at all stop yourself, please do. You’ll have time to explain, but that shouldn’t be your immediate goal.
First, you need to understand what the parent is thinking. And I don’t just mean a surface understanding of “they think I give too much homework.” No, you have to genuinely seek to understand not only their point of view but also what’s really causing their complaint.
The complaint itself is often superficial, but there is almost always some kind of underlying fear or concern underneath it. They may be concerned that their son is perpetually exhausted because he can’t get to his homework until after basketball practice and is thus getting to bed way too late. Or they may not truly be concerned about the amount of homework at all but are actually frustrated because their son is failing math and they don’t know how to help him with his homework & they spend two hours a night agonizing over it to no avail.
These concerns are what you REALLY want to address & it will take some good listening & maybe some well-placed questions to get to them.
But once you understand exactly how they see the situation & what their core concerns actually are, THEN you can much more easily clear up any misunderstandings and address the real issues.
3. Reflect honestly on the situation & get outside feedback if needed
If you can’t immediately clear up the problem by explaining an obvious misunderstanding, then you need to take an honest look at your practices & policies. Ask yourself what you could do to address this complaint and its underlying concerns. This doesn’t even necessarily mean you’ve done anything wrong in the past. But there might be a better way of doing things in the future.
And don’t let yourself off the hook if you think the parent is being unreasonable. They very well might be, but there still might be something you could change that would improve the learning experience for everyone. Spend time thinking about their underlying concern & ask yourself how you can address that.
If you’re coming up blank (or just can’t get past your frustration with the parent), then get feedback from someone you trust to tell you the truth. This is NOT the time to go to the person who always tells you what you want to hear. Instead, seek counsel from a trusted friend, fellow teacher, or administrator and ask them if they can think of anything you could do differently. Honestly consider any suggestions they give you.
4. Discuss your conclusions with your administrator
If the parents have complained to administration, then you’ll want to keep them in the loop with any realizations you come to. Your administrator will be happy to hear about any new policies you’re implementing, as they’re likely concerned about both your reaction to the complaint and the parents’ concerns in the matter.
If after careful consideration and discussion it’s clear the parent truly is being unreasonable and there’s really nothing you can or should change, then you need to discuss this with your administrator too. Stay teachable & ask them if they have any suggestions – both of a change that you hadn’t thought of or advice for interacting with the parent going forward.
5. Meet again with the parent to discuss next steps
If the parent has gone over your head to complain, the relationship is somewhat broken. And as frustrated as you are, you must do what you can to repair it.
So meet with them and have an open, honest conversation about what you’re doing differently and also what you’re not. Be ready to explain why there are some changes you didn’t make, but don’t get defensive. Instead, take the approach that you both want what is best for their student, and have the hard conversations about what that looks like.
Remember back to the beginning when you were listening for the underlying concerns beneath the parent’s initial complaint? Make sure that is what you’re addressing. Even if the parent is not thrilled with your answer to their complaint, they should be able to see that you care about their underlying concerns and are looking for ways to address them.
6. Let it go
Sometimes you make all the changes you can, do your best to say all the right things, and the parent still walks away upset. At this point, you’ve got to let it go.
Commit to continue improving, commit to keep loving the student, commit to not hold this conflict against the parents next time you see them.
And simply choose to move on.
You have to, or it will eat you alive.
And if you just can’t, then take your burden to Jesus and give it to Him. Bring your hurt, your frustration, your confusion, and leave it at His feet. And don’t you dare stand up from praying and pick that burden back up again. Give it to Him, leave it there, and every time you start to worry about it again, take it right back to His feet.
Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God; and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus. – Philippians 4:6-7
If you take this approach when parents complain, staying humble and addressing parents’ core concerns, you just might be amazed at the strong relationships that emerge. Not to mention the wealth of insights you come away with and the new, creative solutions you discover.
And who knows. You may even find it in your heart to be thankful that the complaint department wasn’t closed.
Spread the encouragement by sharing this post with your fellow teachers:
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