When a parent complains to a teacher about another teacher 

Q: I’m a homeroom teacher in an elementary school. It seems like whenever I leave the school building, a parent is lying in wait, wanting to talk to me about a school issue. They don’t pick up on any hints that it’s neither the time nor the place. I can be literally sitting in my driver’s seat, and they will hang onto the car door trying to continue the conversation. Some topics are less problematic than others. It’s not a huge deal if they want to tell me they think the school should have more field trips or hire another reading specialist. Fine. The bigger issue for me is when they want to discuss my colleagues. Leaving aside the fact that I just want to go home, I really can’t stand it when they want to pick apart other teachers. At times, I share their viewpoint and know they’re making a valid point. Other times, I know the parent is crazy pants and will gripe to anyone who will listen. How can I remove myself from these situations, and what should I do with the information they share with me?  
A: First, the person accosting you is inappropriate. Have a line rehearsed and ready so you can politely extricate yourself. You don’t need to offer specifics — it can be as simple as, “I’m sorry, I’m in a rush. Could we arrange a time to talk when I have more time?” You can do this politely and keep walking (or, in this case, driving).   

This is easier said than done, and some people have a complete inability to honor boundaries. It sounds like you’re trying to set limits and getting nowhere, so let’s talk about what you can do when you’re trapped. As soon as you get the gist of the problem, it’s time to redirect them. Obviously, if they’re letting you know that a teacher is touching kids inappropriately, you need to act. If they think the teacher doesn’t hand back papers in a timely fashion, or can’t manage his classroom, end the conversation immediately. Explain their options. In an ideal world, they’d approach the person they’re maligning. Ask, “Have you had a chance to discuss this with Ms. or Mr. Smith?” If they say that they have but are not satisfied, suggest they talk to that person’s supervisor. You can share that you feel uncomfortable and unprofessional discussing your colleague. Besides, you’re not in a position to help. You don’t have to engage for long, but be firm when you end the discussion.  

As someone who doesn’t supervise teachers, there’s no point putting you in this position. As you clearly understand, no good will come from having you weigh in on the issue or share your personal observations. If anything, you’ll damage your relationship with this particular colleague. If word gets out, no one else will trust you either. On a bigger level, this type of behavior damages staff climate. If the situation were reversed, you’d be upset that someone gossiped about your performance. It might be tempting to engage, especially if you’re equally frustrated with the teacher, there’s an ounce of truth to what they’re saying, or you have a strong relationship with the parent. If you fall down that rabbit hole, however, let the parent’s comments die with you. Don’t repeat them to the teacher in question. That will just spread meanness. Also, she can’t defend herself, and that’s not fair.  

As I mentioned earlier, there are exceptions. Cases of abuse are the most obvious examples, but there are other times when you might want to give the school a heads-up. If someone tells you, for instance, that they plan to sue the school, you should probably alert an administrator. Any time you know something is about to land on an administrator’s plate, consider giving advance notice. Explain that you told the parent it was inappropriate for you to get involved and directed them to administration. Also, talk to the administrator about what’s happening in your parking lot. They may be able to communicate clearer boundaries to parents so they don’t put you in this position in the first place. 

Have a question that you’d like Career Confidential to answer? Email to careerconfidential@pdkintl.org. All names and schools will remain confidential. No identifying information will be included in the published questions and answers. 

PHYLLIS L. FAGELL (@Pfagell; phyllisfagell.com) is the school counselor at Sheridan School in Washington, D.C., a therapist at the Chrysalis Group in Bethesda, Md., and the author of the Career Confidential blog. She is also the author of Middle School Matters, available at https://bit.ly/2RNXVu3.

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