Does Complaining About A Teacher Work?
January 26, 2011 10:21 AM   Subscribe

Will complaints about public school teachers generally fall on deaf ears? For those of you in public education... Does it really change anything if parents complain about a teacher? OR, does this just make the teacher angry and then they're likely to take it out on the kids? Does a teacher consider making changes if parents complain? Is there anything a principal can really do to a tenured, union member that will make a difference? Can such a teacher be effectively disciplined since there's really no threat of ever being fired.

I have in mind here smaller complaints about more day-to-day things, not big things like abuse or something really serious. e.g. This teacher is doing something wrong in the way they teach or handle my kid or something like that.
posted by Blake to Education (20 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Have you tried addressing it with the teacher first? If a parents immediately went over my head, I wouldn't take it out on the kids, but I'd be pissed.
posted by youcancallmeal at 10:23 AM on January 26, 2011 [8 favorites]

Is this theoretical? If not, have you spoken directly to the teacher about your concerns? Are they doing something 'wrong' or just doing something in a way that displeases you? If they are doing something 'wrong' you could likely open a discussion with administrators and see some change. If they are just doing something you don't like, then consider discussing it with the teacher him/herself.
posted by greta simone at 10:25 AM on January 26, 2011

I am not in "public education" but I am a teacher, and if parents (or kids) have complained, I have tried to make changes to my approach (or whatever the substance of the complaint is). Luckily this has been a rare occurrance. :)
posted by purlgurly at 10:33 AM on January 26, 2011

It really depends on the nature of the "complaint". If you go to a teacher and say "you're teaching my kind wrong!" yes, that will probably fall on deaf ears, because it's an unreasonable way to handle the situation. If you go in with a problem you're trying to mutually find a solution to, that will, most of the time that will work. It has been my experience though that kids who are having trouble often have lied to their parents about what the teacher is doing or what the kid is doing, and if the parent believes the kid 100% over the teacher, then that won't help either.
posted by brainmouse at 10:35 AM on January 26, 2011 [4 favorites]

As said above, the best first step is to talk to the teacher directly, in a non confrontational way. One of the hardest things about teaching (at any level) is every (excuse me) yahoo thinks they can do it, but so often the advice given from non-teachers to teachers is wrong.


I have heard from my student that X, Y, and Z thing happens in the classroom, and I'm concerned. Is my child's report accurate?

[if it is]
Can you explain this to me more? Why are you doing X, Y, and Z thing?


Thank you for the information. Have you considered Q? I have concerns about X, Y, and Z for these reasons: It is possible that X, Y, and Z thing can change?

It has to be a conversation, not a confrontation.
posted by anastasiav at 10:42 AM on January 26, 2011 [12 favorites]

School board member here. The state you are in will make a difference. The specific district will also make a difference -- administrative and school board attitudes, union strength, etc.

I don't really know many teachers who are likely to "take it out on" the kids. Teachers get complaints from parents ALL THE TIME. 99% of them either deal with it or ignore it, but don't punish the kids. Yes, there's an occasional bad apple, but that is pretty rare.

Is there anything a principal can do? Absolutely. My district has made a big push to get ineffective teachers out of the classroom. In my state and district, it takes 1-2 school years to fire a tenured teacher who's not doing something flagrant, but the central administration has made clear they support the principals, who document document document the problems with the ineffective teacher. Teacher goes on remediation, fails to remediate, and is fired. It's a tedious process and it takes a long time, but it can be done. (Very often once they're on remediation, if they know the district is serious about firings, they start looking for another job BEFORE being released.) Principals can also move teachers into classrooms that the teacher hates in the hopes the teacher will quit on their own; although this is a time-honored way to get rid of a tenured teacher, my district has been discouraging that since it's a real disservice to the children.

Short of that, principals spend a great deal of time dealing with complaints about teachers. Principals and administrators have many, many tools, and it depends on what kind of thing we're talking about. Sometimes a student and teacher are a bad fit, or the student is a bad fit for the mix of kids in that classroom; students are moved for those reasons all the time, no hard feelings. Sometimes the teacher has "pockets" of ineffectiveness -- we had a teacher a couple years ago who got called out by a science-nerd first-grader for teaching something about the solar system wrong. He kept complaining to his parents about all the things she was teaching wrong about science. His parents spoke with the principal about it, and the principal asked the teacher to do some continuing ed in science over the summer. She felt a bit at sea teaching science anyway and was relatively relieved to do so and to have the institutional support. They also put her in a mentoring relationship with one of the high school science teachers (who had a masters in science, whereas this teacher just had a BA in education, no science background) who helped her go over her science lesson plans. Problem solved. The goal wasn't to embarrass the teacher but to help her become a better teacher. Sometimes a teacher may be ineffective at discipline and classroom management; that's a more difficult situation, but guidance from peers and superiors can help.

It'd help a lot to know what specific kinds of things are going on that you object to. Sometimes parents objections are just crazy and totally unmoored from reality. And sometimes a parent calls me with a "minor complaint, not a big deal" and I almost hit the roof because the teacher is doing something flatly illegal (ignoring IEPs, abridging First Amendment free exercise rights, shaming students for grades in front of the whole class). So given the wide range of parent complaints that could fall under "smaller complaints about more day-to-day things," it's hard to be specific without you being specific. :)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 10:45 AM on January 26, 2011 [10 favorites]

Best answer: Teachers, and other highly trained communicators, know that "complaints", things you "do to" people, "disciplining", and "threats" are not the way to get better results from people. Just as you wouldn't be likely to improve at your job with these kinds of motivations, if you end up communicating with a teacher or even with the good boss of a teacher, you'll get better results if you approach it with a more supportive mindset. Which is nearly impossible to do if your child is somehow being terrorized, discouraged, or depressed, but that's the challenge of being an effective human in modern culture.

At least start that way.

It may be that there's not a good way to "fix" the situation, but maybe you and your child can cope with it.

As to your real question about whether the teacher can be fired, that would depend on your school system's procedures. However, from question, it sounds like you're not quite there yet -- even if you are, you don't _sound_ that way, so rethink your phrasing before approaching the administration or board.

Good luck. It's great that you're sticking up for your kid -- please don't give up!
posted by amtho at 10:48 AM on January 26, 2011

If you have a valid complaint take it to the teacher if it is something they could theoretically improve. Otherwise take it to the Principal. It depends on the complaint which can range from serious things like sexual abuse to something banal like too much homework. Some things the teacher does may be instituted by management or the school board so may not be something the teacher can control.
posted by JJ86 at 10:59 AM on January 26, 2011

It is my experience that this depends so much more on the district culture, expectations and the individual administrator (principal) and teacher than on the union or the strength of its contracts. Most teachers are motivated by helping children learn. If the message can be delivered in a non-threatening, helping way rather than in an accusatory way, then I think you have a very high probability of working it out with the teacher to both of your satisfactions. Too often the message gets blurred by the tone and hostility of the messenger. Remember too that good teaching is an art not a science and there are many ways to approach it that are considered acceptable and correct. With the little things, just because you would not do it that way, does not mean the way it is being done is wrong. Also consider that the teacher is working with at least 20 children with very different learning styles and capabilities.
posted by AugustWest at 11:02 AM on January 26, 2011

Veteran teacher. Been subbing awhile (actively, not just punching the clock), so I see lots of variety.

You've got a lot of good advice here already. Again, try to talk to the teacher first, and do it through asking neutral questions. Let the teacher know you are trying to help, both for your child's sake and because teaching is a rough job.

That said: some teachers, like ordinary people, are douchebags. So are some administrators. So are some parents, and so are some students.

Consider that your child may either be leaving out context, misunderstanding, or rushing to judgment. None of those involve malice or dishonesty. (And, I have to warn you: students lie. A LOT. Honesty is often a learned trait, and kids will be kids.) Also consider that the natural instinct of a parent to protect the child often conflicts with the need for the kid to fall down and learn from it.

It's entirely possible that, whatever it is, the teacher is doing the right thing. Conversely, it's entirely possible that he/she is a douchebag. We've all seen them.

Whether you can get anywhere with addressing the problem or getting a correction forced on said teacher is possible depends on the individual school. If you feel it's necessary, do what you can. I have never met an administrator who blows off a parent's phone call or visit. I have never seen a student suffer repercussions because of a parent's interest/actions (though it's certainly not beyond the realm of imagination). If there really is a problem on the part of the teacher, you owe it to your kid to try to do something about it.

I flunked algebra in high school because the teacher continually proselytized in class and it freaked me out, so I tuned him out. I should've taken action. I didn't, because I was fifteen and nervous. Live and learn, eh?

One thing I always tell students who tell me they have a problem with a teacher: document, document, document. If the teacher is "losing" the student's work, make that teacher SIGN FOR IT. If the teacher is continually harping about something unfairly, the student needs to write it down and put down the date. Keeping a record can in and of itself scare a teacher into correcting inappropriate behavior.
posted by scaryblackdeath at 11:06 AM on January 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

My husband is currently a non-tenured public school teacher.

When he gets a complaint from a parent, he takes it very seriously. He was on the phone last night for nearly a 45 minutes with a parent of one of his students at a time he could have been grading or playing with our son.

But how teachers respond is also dependent upon the complaint. If the complaint is teacher isn't teaching to your student the way that student learns best, but the other students aren't having the same troubles, then that's probably not an issue with the teacher --- though there are things that teacher can do to address the student's difficulties (extra help after school, etc.).

Then there are the teachers who keep no records of grades or attendance ever and that's a completely different problem to be addressed in a completely different way.

But whatever you do, go to the teacher first and don't underestimate the misreport of classroom management on the part of the student, either.
posted by zizzle at 11:30 AM on January 26, 2011

Your tone gives you away as someone who wants to punish the teacher. You want them to understand that you did this to them. Because of this, I would say that even if there is some kind of moral higher-ground that you might have had, you have lost that higher ground because of your purpose.

In fact, it is interesting that the only thing stopping you from bringing in an all-out surprise offensive is that you feel it may come back to haunt your child. Honestly, this sounds...mean.

Excuse me for basing this on your tone, but it is all you really gave us to work with.

Real teaching tough enough. So why not be nice. Who knows, a little kindness in your handling of this might leave you with better results in the end.
posted by boots77 at 11:55 AM on January 26, 2011

My son is in special ed, and I have to work constantly to get him the services he's entitled to. Because he's taught by a "team" it's made it possible for me to make the complaints indirect, which I think helps. I try to approach as "this process isn't working, can we do some problem solving together?" so nobody feels defensive. I usually start the conversation by e-mail, so they can respond to it when they have time. This has sometimes worked, and sometimes not.

I've had to take some problems up to the district level, and even to the state level. Again, this has sometimes worked and sometimes not.

I don't think anything too bad has happened to my son because of my complaining, and many good things have happened. I'm sure I have a reputation at his school, but that's fine with me -- and it may have made our most recent round of "golly, is there a better way to do this?" go much better than it has in the past.
posted by The corpse in the library at 12:08 PM on January 26, 2011

Whether or not a complaint "works" depends on what outcome you have in mind. If you have already addressed the issue with the teacher and haven't gotten any help, you should bring it to the administration or the guidance counselor, if you have a relationship with him or her. When I was teaching, I was always receptive to feedback from parents; they, however, weren't always receptive to hearing a different version of what was happening in the classroom, especially if my version involved their children misbehaving in any way.

I had one parent in particular that I seriously thought was going to punch my teaching partner during a conference (please don't be that parent), but it never changed how I treated the kid. It helped me understand why the kid was so difficult, but I treated him the same.

If you're looking to have a teacher change the fundamental way they run their classroom, I don't think there's much that the administration can do if the teacher isn't actually doing anything wrong. If you can prove misconduct, then even a tenured teacher can be disciplined or removed.
posted by SeedStitch at 12:45 PM on January 26, 2011

Is there anything a principal can really do to a tenured, union member that will make a difference? Can such a teacher be effectively disciplined since there's really no threat of ever being fired.

Obviously it depends a lot on the district and the union contract (as well as the culture on both sides), but I am pretty sure there are no districts and no union contracts out there where it is impossible to fire teachers. Difficult and slow, sure, but it is a myth that tenure means "can't be fired." Tenure means you're not an at-will employee, that to be fired it has to be for a good reason after going through a fair process (which likely means other forms of discipline prior to the firing.)

(According to this WaPo column, in 2007-2008, "the standardized percentage of teachers in the United States who lost their jobs due to poor performance via the non-renewal of nontenured teachers (.7%) was half of that for the termination of tenured teachers (1.4%).")
posted by EmilyClimbs at 1:49 PM on January 26, 2011

Will complaints about public school teachers generally fall on deaf ears?

No. It varies greatly by district and school and teacher, but in my experience over ten years of public school teaching:

1) Most teachers are willing to listen to and respond to the concerns of parents. You are far more likely to get a helpful response if your complaint is thoughtful and potentially valid, and if you are not one of those frustrating crazy helicopter parents who completely fails to understand that there are other children in the room besides your own. You are more likely to get a chilly response from a teacher if you wait until you are so angry you cannot contain yourself, or if you wait until a laundry list of concerns has built up, or if you bring an issue to a teacher's supervisor/principal before you ever address it with the teacher.

anastasiav provided some really, really good language for bringing up an issue in a way that is likely to elicit a positive and thoughtful response from a teacher. I know it would come across well with me.

2) Most principals are willing to work with teachers on behalf of parents, especially if that parent has politely and reasonably raised an issue with a teacher and that teacher has not responded appropriately or at all. A decent principal, when you bring a complaint to him/her, will request that you bring the issue up with the teacher first and, if you are unwilling to do that, will offer to facilitate a meeting between you and the teacher. If you are unwilling to bring an issue to a teacher directly, unless the issue is something grave or totally bizarre, you are not going to be seen in a positive light by the other parties involved.

Does it really change anything if parents complain about a teacher?

Sure. If the complaint is specific and you have some good suggestions for alternative strategies, most decent teachers (or those who want to be decent, or who are scared of parents) will attempt to work with you. There are jerks and people who don't care about their jobs as there are in any profession, but I am willing to bet that the vast majority of teachers would welcome feedback and would be willing to consider changes to their policies if someone has better ideas.

Does this just make the teacher angry and then they're likely to take it out on the kids?

In my experience, again, no. I would be surprised if this happened in the classroom of most teachers.

One of my hats as a public school music teacher has been to coordinate a youth honor orchestra. In that capacity over the last 5 years, I have met some of the most insane, hyper-involved and unpleasant violin/whatever parents you could possibly imagine. I have never thought less of the kids of those parents or taken it out on them, although I am sometimes secretly glad when a kid (or- god- family) ages out of the group so that I never have to deal with the crazy-making parent again.

Does a teacher consider making changes if parents complain?

Most teachers want to do a good job for their students. If you have a valid and specific concern, most teachers will be willing to consider a change.

Is there anything a principal can really do to a tenured, union member that will make a difference? Can such a teacher be effectively disciplined since there's really no threat of ever being fired.

Yes. It's no fun to have someone on top of you all the time while you're trying to do a job, and a principal can really hound teachers about things and make their lives totally unpleasant until they decide to shape up or leave. This can take the form of stopping by the classroom unexpectedly until the teacher feels like they have to up their organizational/planning game, or giving the teacher a less-desirable assignment, or a number of other things.

It is also absolutely possible to fire a teacher, but principals have to do the legwork to document the many steps that are required and it is a slow process that in my district takes at least a year. In my district, it is rare that a teacher gets as far as getting fired. What is much more common is that a teacher is put on a plan of improvement (this is an official disciplinary action), fails to improve over time, realizes that their job is in jeopardy and resigns (or retires) before they are fired.

I have in mind here smaller complaints about more day-to-day things, not big things like abuse or something really serious. e.g. This teacher is doing something wrong in the way they teach or handle my kid or something like that.

If you have a zillion of these complaints and are failing to get them resolved after working hard with the teacher to do so, it is possible that your family is not a good fit for that teacher. It is also possible that the teacher sucks; those teachers do exist and I certainly know a few of them. If you have tried to work it out but have been unable to do, so many principals would be willing to consider a classroom transfer (if there are multiple teachers of that grade/subject in the school).

However, it can never hurt to try meeting with and speaking to the teacher in a non-confrontational way and see what happens. There are lots of great suggestions and language for doing this upthread. If you are dealing with a specific problem with a specific teacher and would like to know if you are going to be seen as a crazy unhinged person with unrealistic expectations or as a concerned parent with a legitimate issue, I am sure that the people in this thread would give you a pretty good idea if you chose to update with that information.
posted by charmedimsure at 5:00 PM on January 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

something wrong in the way they teach

Elementary Administrator here. You need to be much more specific about that. I've had parents complain that the teacher gives too many worksheets, not enough worksheets, let the kids write with sidewalk chalk, makes them stay seated, doesn't make them stay seated. The petty list goes on and on.

If you mean the teacher isn't meeting the needs of your child, then that's another story and you will need to be able to explain exactly what you mean. A big push in education these days is differentiation of instruction to meet the needs of each child. Is your special needs child not getting required services? Is your gifted child not receiving appropriate instruction?

handle my child

If a teacher is physically handling your child in any way but a kind and caring manner, you certainly should address that with the principal.

I've never ignored a parent's concerns and I do investigate and address serious concerns. What you don't want to become is that parent who's always calling to complain about petty stuff. Ask yourself if this issue could affect your child's well-being, safety, or education in the long term.
posted by tamitang at 6:56 PM on January 26, 2011

been teaching for two decades. just talk to the teacher. be nice. remember they're human; like all of us: prone to error, eager to please, suckers for praise.

for the good of the order:

tenure is just a due-process guarantee. it does not mean one cannot be fired. just that due process procedures must be followed prior to dismissal. these processes can take time, but they are not now, nor have they ever been the much-touted, oft-disdained guarantee of lifetime employment. not for public school teachers. tenured university profs are a different story.

in this case, "union" membership just means if a member ends up in court the union will provide them with legal representation.

likewise worthy of note: in states that are right-to-work, teachers unions are really just associations. they therefore have no legal standing or bargaining power except that which local districts give them at their pleasure.
posted by RockyChrysler at 7:04 PM on January 26, 2011

Kids LIE about their teachers all the time. For that reason, I document EVERYTHING I say in the classroom that could be misconstrued. Furthermore, I have banned sarcasm, insults and doing anything in class without a reason. If you do these things, you're violating my rules and we're going to talk.
I have had some parents send me a note or call me offering advice about the best way to teach their kid: 'Jimmy prefers doing rather than writing' or 'Jane really hates tests, she always fails even though she knows the material. Could she take an oral exam, kind of casual?' OF COURSE, I did whatever I could to incorporate (if it was fair to the others) the parent's suggestion. I mean, who knows the kid better, her or me? If the suggestion seems like it came from the kid, we can tell. I've had kids tell me they have ADD. That does affect my approach to teaching them, but it's not a get out of jail free card. I just had a girl come to me and say, well, you're going to give me a special grade like my other teachers do, because of my issues, right?
Main point: TALK TO THE TEACHER FIRST. If the teacher has a sound/research-based reason for her policy, transfer. If she's doing something that hurts your kid, that's different, but if it's just that she's not like the last teacher he had, well, neither am I. good luck.
posted by flowerofhighrank at 9:18 AM on January 27, 2011

One other point: if the teacher is young/new/inexperienced, they may be doing something (or failing to do somehting!) out of inexperience or unfamiliarity with the curiculum or a million other things that come down to being FNG. And what they're teaching may itself be new: my town is rolling out new math and reading curricula at the same time, and the teachers hate it as much as the kids do.

We have had some veteran teachers for our kids and some in their first year out of college. The news ones to things like hand out *really* inappropriate books because she just bought them but didn't read them, or had never taught a given lesson before. If you keep your cool, the teacher learns something, your kids gets what they need, and you get a repuation for being Good People.
posted by wenestvedt at 8:27 AM on January 28, 2011

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