Successful parent /teacher/school staff encounters

Term 4 in schools is “crazy-busy” with end of year concerts, exams, graduations, and Christmas carols not to mention, student learning still going on.

When I managed complaints for a medium sized school system, I noticed that in Term 4 parent complaints increased dramatically.  Maybe it is the heat at this time of year, but it seems that tempers flare and issues that have been percolating all year long finally blow out.  With Christmas swiftly approaching, everyone is looking forward to the festivities, but teachers and schools staff are generally not feeling the “HO HO HO."

From a parent perspective, we can often be blindsided by issues that present themselves at this time of year which we may not have been aware of all year long.  When this happens, it can throw us into a “tizz”, creating an urgency to contact the school and resolve the issue quickly. Often, how we approach the school and handle the matter will have a big impact the outcome for our child.

There are various ways to approach the school which will suit different types of problems:  

  • school-yard or classroom approach

  • the walk-in

  • the telephone call

  • an appointment with teacher or principal

  • mediation between the affected parties

The way these ‘encounters’ with the school are handled or mishandled can make or break the outcome.   Getting off to a bad start can sometimes negatively affect the end result so the idea is to work with the school to benefit your child and all children at that school.

Approaching teachers or principals in the playground or classroom is the least advisable way of attempting to deal with an issue.  Such an approach undermines the importance of the matter and can send the other party straight into defence mode since they may feel attacked or ambushed.  In addition, it risks the privacy of all the parties involved and may upset students who are nearby who witness the exchange. Good advice is to only approach teachers or principals in the playground or classroom for a positive and friendly interaction.

Also undesirable is the ‘walk-in’.  Schools are busy places and the office personnel or school staff may not have the time to give your issue the attention it requires.  Even so, if you find yourself in the school office with your concern there are 3 things to remember:

  1. treat the frontline staff with the utmost respect and courtesy, they are far more likely to help you if they feel valued: remember they are the gateway to the rest of the school staff

  2. if you are not clear about who to speak to or what the school processes are, be patient with the staff while they explain; they are only trying to help you

  3. be mindful of others in the office or environs around breach of confidentiality for your child, the teacher or other children and parents.

Far more effective is the ‘telephone call’.  To get the most out of this interaction, you need to:

  1. Find out who is the right person to speak to before launching into the entire ‘whodunit’ story so as not to waste the time of the person answering the phone

  2. Try to keep your emotions in check at this stage so that the person on the other end is not offended making them less likely to want to hear you out

  3. Understand and agree if they ask you to call back at a better time or direct you to another party.

If you have obtained an appointment with the teacher or principal, here are a few steps to remember:

  1. Arrive a few minutes early so you can take time to calm yourself in the school foyer

  2. If you feel nervous, say so and you are likely to be treated with more compassion and understanding

  3. Don’t forget to show them compassion too, as they may be feeling nervous

  4. If you feel angry, try to explain this in a way that will get the best effect, for example: “I need to tell you that I am very upset about ……. because“

  5. Go in to the meeting with the intention of finding a solution, which is NOT sacking the teacher or expelling the other student (except in extreme cases)

  6. In a face to face interview check your body language, be aware if you are using your size, voice or temper to intimidate or bully them as this will not be helpful.

Sometimes the best way to resolve an issue is to hold a mediation between the affected parties.  If you are invited to take part in one of these meetings or ask for one, there are a few things you can do for best effect:

  1. Find out who else will be at the meeting and ask if you can bring a support person too

  2. Try not to let your anger or disappointment dominate the meeting even though it is natural for parents to be emotional when it comes to their children,

  3. Don’t make it personal, don’t attack their professionalism, age or knowledge of children, whether they have children or not

  4. Don’t get overly stuck in ‘the facts’ as told by one person (I.e. your child) there may be another set of facts equally deserving of consideration which when combined with the child’s set of facts actually come close to what really happened

  5. Adopt a collaborative rather than competitive position so that a solution which benefits your child and the school is possible.

To parents, the most precious thing in our lives is our children and so it is completely natural to jump to their defence and support them.  As their strongest advocate, it is imperative that we manage our behaviour in a way that will get the best result for them, while preserving the relationship with the individuals who work at the school.   

But it is a sad reality that principals and deputies experience a higher rate of offensive behaviour at work each year than the general population. Almost 1 in 2 principals receive threats and principals are 8.4 times more likely to experience actual physical violence. (1)

Remember that teachers, principals, parents and children are all ‘only human’.  We can all make mistakes, be misunderstood or lose our cool. If we aim to work ‘with’ the school rather than ‘against’ the school then there is a far greater chance of a good outcome for our child and relationships that are intact for the future, making everyone’s Christmas Merry!

Linda McNeil

(1) The Australian Principal Occupational Health, Safety and Wellbeing Survey 2017 Data

Jacqui Van de Velde