Search form

Handling Parent Complaints -- The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Voice of ExperienceSeasoned teachers will recognize all three types of parents -- the good, the bad, and the ugly -- described by educator Max Fischer in this week's Voice of Experience essay. Less seasoned teachers will learn from Max's experiences and from his tips for handling all types of parent complaints.

Max W. Fischer

After chastising the student for deliberate disobedience and insubordination, somehow I knew a different story would work its way home.

Sure enough! That very same afternoon the boy's father, a reputed bounty hunter, called me at school to demand an immediate conference.

The next day, I shook inwardly as the 6-foot-4-inch, 250-pound "paralegal" strode purposefully down the hall. After sitting, I attempted to share my side of the story, but the father raised his right hand like a crossing guard and stopped my speech. "No!" he said curtly, his moustache arched like a bullwhip. "You listen to me now; then I'll listen to you!"

The man had my full attention. I let him talk. I listened as he spouted a litany of perceived injustices perpetrated against his son.

Meanwhile, colleagues -- clearly concerned for my physical well-being -- periodically peered in the window of my closed door to be assured of my safety.

More Voices!

Have you seen these Voice of Experience essays from previous weeks?

Searching for Voices

Care to reflect on a classroom experience that opened your eyes? Click here to learn more.


When the father was finished, true to his word, he listened to me as I explained what had actually happened. His boy had been deliberately disobedient. He had refused to turn in his test at the prescribed time. When I challenged him after a casual warning, the boy became insolent. Forcefully, he thrust his test into my face. I stood up from my desk in a millisecond and issued a tongue-lashing that would have made any drill sergeant proud.

By the end of our meeting, the parent was able to manage a smile as he shook my hand. He guaranteed me that his son would not get out of line in the future.

The fact of the matter is that, after that meeting, the boy was a model student for the balance of the school year.


That parent complaint and others I have handled through the years have taught me some valuable lessons -- lessons that have helped me in all my dealings with critical, rationally minded parents. These are some of the lessons I have learned:

  1. Don't procrastinate. In most cases, when a parent raises a concern via a note or phone message, the simplest, most direct method of coming to a successful resolution is to meet with or call that parent as soon as possible. If the situation involves inappropriate action by a student, I have learned that doing nothing gives the student a distinct advantage; the student has every opportunity to lobby his or her position with the parent, increasing the chances that a small event will become a festering wound that colors all my future contact with that parent.
  2. Genuinely acknowledge a parent's concern. Parents fear that their concerns will not be acknowledged, let alone handled fairly. I always allow parents the opportunity to vent, to express their protest first. I try never to be in a hurry to speak; I have learned to listen carefully. Some complaints are obvious and direct. Others actually mask underlying circumstances or conditions I am not even aware of. I also try to put myself in the parents' shoes and approach the problem from their perspective. And I always try to confirm -- and even affirm -- their perception of the problem before offering my own explanation of the situation.
  3. Be assertive but not abrasive. If the situation involves a clear-cut breach of classroom or school conduct by the student, I carefully explain the rationale behind my action. I state clearly that classroom rules apply to each and every student, no exceptions. At that point, my adrenaline might be rushing, but I make a conscious effort to speak without losing my cool. An overtly defensive posture, punctuated by obvious non-verbal signals -- crossed arms, rolling eyes, a furrowed brow, a frown -- just end up pouring gas on the fire. So does a negative tone or statements such as "Your child is out of control!" or "Tough luck, that's the way it is."
  4. Document all efforts. Just to be on the safe side, I make a note of any communication I've had with parents about any kind of complaint. In the vast majority of cases, the notes end up being thrown away. However, on rare occasions, the documentation has proven useful in establishing a timeline of events.

If I have met with the parent in a timely fashion, validated their concern with an authentic ear, and presented logical reasoning in a professional manner, in most cases the parent will desist, or at least grudgingly understand. Often parents don't get both sides of the story from their offspring; they relent with mitigating evidence. If a parent is still dissatisfied despite my efforts, it might be advisable to offer to set up a meeting with a building administrator. In those cases, I take great care to supply my principal with all details of the situation in advance of the meeting.


What about parents who are not so rationally inclined? Even usually well-mannered parents can come into school like enraged protectors, on the hunt for a pound of flesh. Surely their presence demands an immediate meeting. In those cases, all I can do is listen and try to keep them from bolting for the administrator's office to seek redress from the unknown, illogical way I've added insult to the initial grievance -- whatever that might have been.

In those cases, I usually allow a day to pass before contacting the parent again. Then I might use a neutralizing statement -- such as "I don't think we really had an opportunity to communicate yesterday; perhaps we could try again" -- in an attempt to break the ice. The parent, having had time to reflect upon the previous day's scene, might also be in a more temperate frame of mind; a state more conducive to reason.


Finally, there is the parent who is irrational 24/7; the parent who will not be satisfied -- in any way, shape, or form -- no matter what you do. Every teacher knows that parent. Barely a week into the school year, you wince at the sound of that parent's voice or the whisper of that parent's name. Fortunately, those parents are rare, but what they lack in numbers they make up for in their total lack of reason.

I have experienced a few of those parents during my years as a classroom teacher. The best I can hope for in a meeting with them is to work in at least a couple elements of my four-point approach. [See above].

Most often, though, those parents end up in the principal's office. I think some unknown paranoia convinces them that behind every teacher's door lurks a vicious plot against their child. The experiences (or psychoses) that have created that condition are as varied as the stars in the heavens. And all heaven knows when such a parent arrives at your classroom door!

My best success with a few -- very few -- of those parents has been to make learning such an enjoyable experience for their children that I never give them access to ammunition that might be used against me.


Handling parental complaints is a delicate challenge for any teacher. It's not as if we are discount stores handing out money-back guarantees. Teachers are the fulcrums that must balance the personal concerns of individual parents with the educational welfare of the entire class.

A teacher for nearly three decades, Max Fischer currently teaches seventh graders the marvels of ancient history. A National Board certified teacher in the area of early adolescence social studies/history, Max has authored nine resource books for teachers in the fields of social studies, health, and math. You can read a previously published article about Fischer: Simulations Engage Students in Active Learning.

Article by Max W. Fischer
Education World®
Copyright © 2003, 2005Education World