Q: I’m a reasonable person and a responsive principal. I say no to parents when I need to, but I’m always happy to consider their point of view. I try to help when I can. I’m willing to meet in person, and I almost always respond to every email within 24 hours. I know I have a reputation for being approachable. So why is it that every year there are increasing numbers of parents who skip the step of talking to me when they’re upset, and go straight to a secondary school director or community superintendent? My supervisors are starting to wonder why they’re getting contacted with so many complaints that should be handled at the school level. To my knowledge, they bump most of them back to me, but it’s clear they’re irritated. They have their own work to do. This isn’t good for my relationship with my bosses or with my parent community. I want to “retrain” parents to talk to me first. Skipping the step of consulting with me is unproductive, underhanded and unfair. How can I change this dynamic so I have a chance to address problems before they’re escalated up?
A: This is an issue at every level of an organization. Parents may skip talking to teachers and go straight to the head of a teacher’s department or even to you. Some people are retaliatory or agitated, and others simply think it’s more efficient to start at the top. Plenty of parents have no particular agenda; they just don’t know the proper communication channels. So let’s broaden this beyond your role and include all staff. As a bonus, you’ll also be bombarded with fewer misdirected concerns.
Do you have a handbook? Does it include a communication organization chart? If not, add that information. For example, if parents have concerns about their child’s allergies, spell out whether they should talk to the nurse or the cafeteria manager. If their child is struggling to make friends, make it clear that the counselor could be a good resource. If they think there’s too much math homework, point them to the teacher first. Indicate that if they’re unsatisfied with that interaction, then it might be appropriate to contact the head of the department. If they still are dissatisfied, they could talk to the administrator who oversees the math department. As the principal, you should be the last point of contact. There needs to be someone who can jump in when communication breaks down. Spell all of this out. Be a role model and make sure you’re abiding by these rules. If a parent complains to you about a teacher, instruct them to start with that individual. And remind your supervisors to always send school-based complaints back to you.
At the beginning of the school year, you could send home a blurb about communication in a parent newsletter, with a title like, “If you have concerns about…” You could even record a video to send home. Talk about everyone’s role, from the paraeducator to the principal. Clarify what’s in your wheelhouse. For example, you might share that the school calendar, standardized testing and decisions about snow days are beyond your reach, but you’re happy to field concerns about bullying, substitute teachers, or field trip policies. Reiterate the message at back-to-school nights, and plan a specific parent education night to cover this topic. Extend a personal invitation to known troublemakers or people most likely to cause you stress. You could say something like, “Sally, I want to personally invite you to a parent education event that I think you’ll find interesting. I’ll be covering a number of situations I know you’ve been asking about lately, and I hope to see you there.” Whatever training method you use, always refer to the parent handbook and formal school policies. Don’t be afraid to demand direct communication. Be clear that misdirected complaints are inefficient and will end up back in your hands. Also, don’t assume parents have it in for you. They might genuinely think they’re helping you by going above your head. If they know you’re struggling with an underperforming teacher, for example, they might think that there’s power in numbers and they’re getting you extra support. You might even have the same agenda, whether it’s a desire for reduced class sizes or a new air-conditioning system.
In the age of social media, keep in mind that parents are able to exchange information quickly and rile each other up. If one parent urges all her friends to write the superintendent about a particular issue, there could be a sudden uptick in escalated complaints. When this happens, try to circle back to the complainers personally. Ask “How could I have done this differently? Is there a reason you felt a need to start with my supervisor?” Keep your tone neutral and curious. Your bosses may be able to offer some good insights, too. Ask them what they’re hearing and if they think you need to improve your interpersonal skills. You might be less approachable than you think, or have a reputation for being indecisive or unresponsive. Do you follow through on promises? Check yourself and be open to any critical feedback.
There’ll always be people who shoot for the top, especially if you’re not giving them what they want or they’re accustomed to power and authority in their work lives. That’s to be expected. But with good messaging, you can retrain parents and improve communication for everyone.
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