Principal Helpline: How Do I Be There for Parents AND Have My Teachers’ Backs?

Sometimes it’s a walk on a tightrope.

principal-parent communication

 From time to time we’ll be posting questions from principals and sharing advice for real experts in school leadership. If you have a question you’d like to see answered, please add it to the comments! Today’s question is about principal-parent communication. 

Q.

Communicating with parents whose child has had an issue at school always leaves me feeling like I’m either with my teachers or against them. How can I communicate with parents in a way that doesn’t stab my teachers in the back?

A.

How a principal handles complaints is crucial to his/her reputation with both parents and teachers. Teachers want to know that you support your staff. Parents want to know that you can be counted on to deal with issues involving their kids. It’s not always easy, or even possible, to please both sides. But you can handle a problem so that both respect your decision. Here’s a simple example:

Stacy’s mother calls you to complain that Stacy’s teacher, Ms. B, accused her daughter of cheating on a test. Ms. B picked up Stacy’s paper and gave her a zero. Stacy’s mom says her daughter was just asking a friend for a tissue, and Ms. B embarrassed her daughter in front of the whole class. She wants her child to have a second chance at the test. What do you do?

  • Start at the lowest level. Just listen to the parent and offer no opinion about who is at fault or how the issue should be resolved. Encourage the parent to talk directly to the teacher before you get involved. If the parent really doesn’t want to do that, tell her you will talk to Ms. B and one of you will get back to her.
  • Talk to the teacher. Visit her in her classroom during a free period or after school (but don’t call her down to the office). Say, “Tell me about Stacy and her test, ” not, “Did you take Stacy’s test paper away from her?” And by the way, never say to a teacher, “I want to hear your side of the story” because it sounds like you’re the grown-up mediating a playground dispute between two kids.
  • Listen. Maybe Ms. B warned the student several times before she took her test. Maybe it’s the third time she’s been caught cheating. Maybe she told Stacy she could take the test after school. But maybe …  the parent’s account is correct.
  • Decide. Weigh the facts, use your best judgment, and let the teacher and the mom know your decision in a timely manner. If this is not the first time Stacy has had a problem with cheating, perhaps a conference with the teacher is in order. If this has never happened before, give the teacher credit for allowing Stacy to retest. In any event, focus on the next steps, not on the problem.

Often parent complaints are more complex than this one, but the process is essentially the same. It’s important to be noncommittal when parents complain about a teacher’s actions until you’ve talked to the teacher. Listening carefully to your staff doesn’t mean they will necessarily agree with your final decision, but it does mean that they won’t feel they were thrown under the bus without any chance to defend themselves.

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Posted by Suzanne Tingley

Suzanne Tingley has been a middle/high school teacher, department chair, principal, and superintendent. She taught graduate classes in education administration for the State University of New York. She developed a series of education videos and has been a Scholastic Administrator blogger.

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