Who owns the problem?

A parent is always criticising the school, gossiping about teachers and other parents. At times she has had arguments with parents in the school grounds and on several occasions has directly approached children and told them off. She disagrees with the ways teachers are teaching her child and makes a formal complaint to the board.

In our faces

A parent came to us from a little school in the country. I assume that Janet must have known the ins and outs of everyone's lives there, judging by the gusto with which she set her mind to becoming involved in the ins and outs of our school. Before long she was interfering, and I do not use that term pejoratively or lightly. She was, what you might call, an “in your face” parent.

She constantly complained about teachers, often criticising them to other parents in the school playground. When teachers saw her coming they went the other way. She wanted to talk to her child's class teacher most days, often just before school was due to start, or at the end of the day. During the talks she complained about the class programme, and also made negative comments about the other children in her son’s class.

I became increasingly concerned about Janet's behaviour. I talked to her about the importance of making appointments to meet with staff. I gave her a copy of the school's concerns procedures and went through them in minute detail with her.

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Taking a firmer stand

Things came to a head towards the end of the year when Janet made a nasty remark to another child in the playground. Unfortunately the child's father was nearby and responded abusively to Janet. Soon there was a very public slanging match.

I felt really annoyed that it had come to this, and wished Janet would take her child somewhere else, instead of making our lives miserable.

It was time to take a firmer stand.

I arranged for Janet to come and see me. I told her that her behaviour was unacceptable, and detailed why. I explained the boundaries between school responsibilities and parental responsibilities. She listened, I talked, and over the next few weeks things seemed to improve.

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The letter of complaint

When it came to organising classes for the following year we thought carefully about where we might place Janet's son. Our dilemma was more about finding a teacher who could cope with Janet, rather than her child who was a delightful and able boy.

Two weeks into the beginning of the new school year the first problem appeared. Janet expressed her concern about the teacher who might be taking her son for interchange. She did this by complaining about the teacher loudly in the school’s car park to anyone who would listen. The teacher in question heard about this and was furious. She came to see me and was extremely upset. She talked about getting legal advice. I talked her out of this and said I would discuss her concerns with the board of trustee's chairperson, and make her aware of the ongoing concerns we had about Janet.

However, Janet had beaten me to it. The board chairperson had received a letter of complaint from her. In it Janet said that she wanted the board to examine our “inadequate” teaching and learning programmes. She provided a long list of issues about the professionalism of particular teachers who taught her son. She accompanied this list with minute annotations and references to actual pieces of work. Janet had gone through every single written activity that her son had done in every learning area, and made detailed notes about the perceived inadequacy of the work and the inadequacy of the written responses her son had received from his teachers.

When the board chairperson called me in to discuss the complaint, I was torn between wanting to defend the staff against this vicious woman and trying not to feel defensive. What if some of her concerns were true? Were we doing the best we could to meet her son’s needs?

Reflective questions 1

  • What is the problem or issue here? Is there more than one?
  • What would you do at this point if you were in this principal's position?
  • What are the principal's options for dealing with this dilemma?

Practitioner comments on dilemma

Principal one

The principal could contact NZEI and ask for an external mediator to work with the parent. This mediator could also look at the situation from all sides and make recommendations.

Principal two

The principal could ignore Janet’s carping. However, this could possibly result in at least one staff member involving a lawyer in the issue. Things could spiral downwards rapidly.

Leadership adviser

The board chair could write a letter to Janet thanking her for her concerns, and hope this might be enough.

Actual courses of action taken by this principal

The board chairperson and I chose to meet with Janet together. We planned the meeting carefully and decided that we would ask her what she wanted from us, but also raise with her the issue that we had with the ways she dealt with her concerns. I also decided to make clear to her what the principal’s role as the manager of the school meant.

Before the meeting, we sought the assistance of NZSTA with this issue and determined from this that we needed to give the staff mentioned in the letter of complaint a copy of the personal allegations she had made about them. I didn't really want to do this because I knew the staff concerned, committed and experienced professionals, would be distraught. This all came at a really busy time of the year and I was concerned for the emotional safety of these teachers. However, I also knew that in terms of natural justice, the teachers needed to know what Janet had said about them. I gave them their individual notes and over the next week they gave feedback which we collected. I also talked with the senior management team about what could we learn from this incident with Janet. Was she raising anything we seriously needed to take account of? We didn’t want to dismiss her concerns out of hand because she had been so difficult. We tried to be objective when in came to her complaints about school-wide issues.

The board chair and I met with Janet. We listened to her concerns again, and set up special procedures for appropriate ways that she could use to keep in touch if she had future concerns. However, we also outlined some of the feedback that we had from staff.

She left feeling listened to, but also knowing that the board was supportive of staff. Presenting this united front was important I think. Without this Janet could have played the board off against members of staff.
For the moment all is calm - for this week anyway.

Reflective question 2

In situations where there is conflict between the demands of different groups in the school - for example, in this case there is a conflict between the needs of the parent and the needs of staff - what values and strategies do you draw on to move towards a resolution that is right, fair, just and good for all involved?

Writer’s reflection

Looking back I could have tried involving Janet more positively in the school. Although we tried this a bit, the reality is that I don't think anything we could have done would have helped. She wanted us to have a more traditional approach to schooling than we were prepared to deliver. This issue won't go away until Janet's son leaves the school. But there will probably be another Janet to take her place.

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