Fielding Parent Complaints
Vol. 13 No. 2
It happens to every Division Head at some point. A father flags you down in the parking lot for a “quick chat,” or leaves you a voicemail on your office machine, or shoots you an email with his child’s name in the subject line. Within moments of the interaction, it becomes obvious that the parent needs to vent about his child—and he expects you to do something about it—immediately. How do you handle this?
Know when to intervene and when to deflect.
In their efforts to be heard—and affect results—parents may bypass the normal “chain of command” to reach you, someone they consider to be in a position of authority and thus able to help them as quickly as possible.
In most cases, however, it’s not you who should be handling this particular complaint. If it’s an issue with the classroom or a teaching problem, for example, the teacher should be the one who has the first (and primary) responsibility to handle it. If it’s an issue with a bill or scholarship, the Business Office should take care of it.
Of course, there are situations in which you should take action. If it concerns claims of discrimination, harassment, or other messy legal and safety quagmires, your school’s policy handbook should have a clear protocol outlined of how you immediately respond and who you pull into the conversation to get the problem resolved as quickly as possible. Also, if the faculty member involved is inexperienced with dealing with parent complaints, or the complaint is coming from a chronically troublesome family, you might want to step in and handle it yourself.
But for the most part, most parent queries can and should be “deflected” to the administrator or faculty member designated to handle such things. Empower your faculty to handle and resolve these situations themselves, while reassuring them that you’ve got their back should they need a hand.
Make the parent feel heard.
When voicing complaints, people want to feel as though they’ve been heard and thoroughly understood, then reassured that the appropriate steps will be taken to rectify the situation. Consequently, one of your primary jobs is to make sure the parent feels the problem has been understood and will be acted upon.
If you’re speaking with a parent directly, for example, don’t interrupt. Wait until he/she has finished talking before asking any clarifying questions. Interrupting will only upset the parent more, and he or she will be agitated enough as it is. After he/she has finished, restate the problem and receive confirmation that you understand what the parent's complaint is.
Then, make sure the parent knows what steps you’ll be taking to rectify the situation. Even if you’re going to redirect the issue to an appropriate party, make sure the parent understands who will be handling the issue and what actions to expect. It's also a good idea to have him/her repeat back to you what the next steps are.
Once the conversation is over, make sure you send all pertinent information to the person who will be handling the problem—it’s never polite to blindside a colleague with an issue! Explain your take on the situation, any recommendations you may have, and reiterate your availability as a resource if needed.
Following up on a parent complaint is important, too. It shows to the parent that you heard his/her issue, took it seriously, and want to make things right for him/her and for his/her student. It could be something as simple as checking in with a teacher to see what was done in response, or it could involve putting some pressure on the appropriate party to make sure the problem is fixed . If problems slip through the cracks due to lack of follow up, they’ll probably reappear—and be ten times worse than they were at the start.
Compassion, patience, and professionalism are all key tenets in dealing with problems that arise, and it’s perfectly normal for a few minor “fires” to spring up at any given time. Know which ones you have to extinguish personally and which ones you can reassign to others; then make sure that they all are put out—and you’ll have fewer maelstroms to deal with in the future.
Additional ISM resources:
The Source for Division Heads Vol. 13 No. 1 Advice for New Division Heads
Additional ISM resources for Gold Consortium members:
I&P Vol. 39 No. 4 Conflict Resolution in the Context of Your Parent Retention and Education Plan