When a Parent Approaches You in the School Parking Lot …

Vol. 14 No. 6

trustees eletter vol14 no6 parkinglot

You, a new Trustee, walk across the school parking lot for a meeting with the School Head. You’re approached by a mother, who immediately launches into a tirade about the fourth-grade teacher. “Tom, my child isn’t being treated fairly, and I expect you to do something about it!”

Sound familiar? In some schools, parents often contact Trustees with their complaints. They see Board members as the top of the power structure and, therefore, the best path to results. In turn, Trustees—out of an understandable desire to be cooperative and helpful, or an inability to say “no” to a concerned and demanding parent, or a basic misunderstanding of their role in the life of the school—often leap into the fray.

From our experience, Trustees often respond to parent complaints in three basic ways.

  • The worst Board-level response: “I’m so sorry to hear of little Sally’s problems in fourth grade. I’ll talk to the teacher tomorrow and get back to you. Then the three of us can sit down and work through it.”
  • The bad (and probably most common) Board-level response: “I don’t want to get involved, but I’ll give the School Head a call tomorrow and relay your message.”
  • The nearly-as-bad Board-level response: “Let me give you the teacher’s home phone number, and our Head’s home phone as well.”

Each of these responses places the Trustee in the role of willing—or perhaps unwitting—participant in the school’s daily operations. A Board that regularly responds in these ways to parental concerns sets itself up for more and more of the same. Eventually, it may become little more than a grievance unit.

Give your Board the ammunition it needs to direct parental complaints where they belong.

The “correct” Board-level response: “I’m so sorry to hear about Sally’s problems in fourth grade. However, this isn’t an area where the Board becomes involved. We’ve determined that it’s most appropriate and productive for parents to work directly with our teachers, the Division Heads, or, as a last resort, with the School Head, to iron things out. The Board’s role is to set policies for the long-term future.”

Does your Board have clear policies on how to respond to these incidents? Are the policies grounded in a thorough understanding of the Board’s role? Trustees are charged with ensuring the long-term viability of the school. They are not to involve themselves in day-to-day operations. That is the Head’s job.

Without well-thought-out and well-publicized policies, both Board and parents will be confused about how to resolve issues. The outcome can be disastrous. Even with the “correct” Board-level response, the complaining parent may well insist that the teacher is likely to be unresponsive, or that the teacher will retaliate against the child because the parent “stirred things up.”

At that point, the Trustee should cite your Board-level policy: “Handle parental issues at the level at which they arise, typically at the classroom level. Individual Trustees have no employees at the school (the Head is employed by the corporate entity, not by individuals), and may not insert themselves in parent-teacher conflicts.

In dealing with parental complaints or concerns, Trustees must be straightforward, as shown in the “correct” response. However, it’s not as simple as just stating policy. Complexity comes with the fact that Board members’ responses should reflect the larger context of Board structure and function in the private school setting.

By putting these recommendations into place, you provide everyone—Board, Head, faculty, and parents—with a framework within which the “correct” Board response to parental complaints and concerns can be issued with confidence.

Additional ISM resources:
The Source for Trustees Vol. 12 No. 6 The Board’s Two Primary Responsibilities
The Source for Trustees Vol. 13 No. 4 Sharing Board Information With Constituents

Additional ISM resources for Gold Consortium members:
I&P Vol. 35 No. 5 The Board Policy Manual

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