A principal’s job tests skills that seldom show up in a training program.
Among them: balancing on the tightrope stretched between the needs of teachers and of parents, particularly when the two parties are at odds.
Lean too far to one side, and you win over parents at the risk of alienating teachers and endangering staff morale. Tip too far to the other, and parents are left unsatisfied—and perhaps ready to call the central office for relief.
In an Education Week survey of principals and teachers, both groups of educators agreed that most principals handle parent complaints well.
But principals have more confidence about their performance in this potentially fraught area than teachers do. Ninety-seven percent of principals said they “somewhat” or “completely” agree that principals can be trusted to handle parent complaints “in a fair and even-handed way.” In contrast, 64 percent of teachers agreed somewhat or completely with that statement.
While in the minority, a notable percentage of teachers—27 percent—said that they disagreed somewhat or completely that principals handle parent complaints fairly. Meanwhile, only a tiny percentage of principals— 3 percent—said they disagreed with that statement.
In the Middle
So just what are principals doing when it comes to mediating parent and teacher conflicts?
School leaders around the country, in large schools and small, repeated some common themes. One of the first things they do is try to make sure that parents hash out any problems with the teacher first. Often, an aggrieved parent’s first stop is at the principal’s office, possibly because they want immediate solutions or they fear teacher retaliation against their child, principals say.
“I’ve always felt that my first responsibility is to my teachers. That means, when a parent comes to me, I say, ‘Have you raised this concern with the teachers?’ And a lot of times, the answer is no,” said Tim Holland, the head of the upper school at Grace Christian Academy, a 750-student K-12 private school in Knoxville, Tenn. Holland said he reminds parents that if the situation were reversed, “I would think you would want the courtesy in having a direct conversation.”
Parents “think it’s magic, to go directly to my boss and to me,” said Dinnah Escanilla, the principal of Ellen Ochoa STEM Academy at Ben Milam Elementary, a public school of about 750 students in Grand Prairie, Texas.
“My first reaction is to listen first, because sometimes that’s all they need, someone to listen to them,” Escanilla said. Then she asks if the parent has shared the problem with the teachers. “Ninety percent of the time, it’s ‘No, ma’am.’ ” Once parents and teachers talk, though, most issues are addressed right away, Escanilla said.
Listening Without Judgment
Principals also stressed the value of hearing parents out, without interruption or defensiveness.
Lori DeFields, the principal of the 650-student Arts Academy at Benjamin Rush in Philadelphia, a high school arts magnet, says she doesn’t even like to frame parent concerns as “complaints.”
“I look at it as advocating for their child, and they’re doing it the best way they know how. I look at it differently, and I ask my staff to look at it differently,” she said.
Patricia Zissios, the principal of the 500-student Lyles-Crouch Traditional Academy in Alexandria, Va., says she has to be adept at handling parents from a variety of backgrounds.
The public school, which once served only black students in the days of legal segregation, now has a vibrant racial and economic mix: children whose parents live in subsidized housing or homeless shelters attend school with the children of white-collar professionals, she said. That leads to a mix of “helicopter” parents who expect instant solutions, she said, as well as families who have not traditionally felt respected by school officials and come in “ready for battle.”
For both groups, Zissios said, “I give them that audience; I give them the time; I let them go through the entire scenario,” she said. And she lets parents know that she understand their concerns.
“It’s usually very disarming—especially when parents are yelling,” Zissios said.
But principals have to be clear in communicating what their intentions are when they step into a parent-teacher conflict, so that there’s not a misunderstanding by any of the involved parties. A principal’s efforts to hear a parent out may leave the parent thinking the principal is firmly on their side.
“Your teachers have to feel that the principal has their back. Teaching is stressful enough without having to worry about that as well,” said Kathy Martin, a middle-school math teacher at Wainwright Middle School in Lafayette, Ind.
Timothy Fausnaught, who leads the 600-student Lycoming Valley Intermediate School in Williamsport, Pa., said, “I try to give everybody the benefit of the doubt. When you have a parent who is upset with their teacher, eight times out of 10 they’re upset just because of what the kid said. There hasn’t been that communication back with the teachers.” So he tells parents “we love your kids, we care, and we want to help.”
But, he added, “I try to never make promises I can’t keep.”
If there’s still conflict, principals say that they try to keep parent-teacher conversations tightly focused on solutions, not aimless griping. And principals also say they aim to keep teachers in the loop, and back them up when warranted.
Doug Enders, the principal of the 380-student Wrightsville Elementary in Wrightsville, Pa., said his district has invested in professional development for school leaders, which has helped him create a structure for potentially contentious meetings. The first goal is to “really come together with a common understanding of what occurred. It just brings down the anxiety level,” he said. Enders added he often asks parents and teachers to repeat back their understanding of what is being discussed—just to make sure that everyone is on the same page.
“In all of those meetings, I take the lead. I meet with the teachers to let them know I’m going to do most of the talking on behalf of the school,” said Chris Wolski, who leads McIntosh County Academy, a public high school of nearly 400 students in Darien, Ga. “And I make sure the teacher understands we’re not going to interrupt that parent until they’re done.”
And principals also say they try to return to their teachers after meetings, just to make sure the classroom issue is truly resolved. “I ask them, ‘How do you feel, do you feel supported, do you not?’ ” Wolski said.
Sometimes that resolution can mean changing some school policy or practices.
DeDe Lacy, the principal of McLaughlin Strickland Elementary, a 620-student school in Farmers Branch, Texas, said she tells teachers that “I’m always going to stand up for you, unless we’re in the wrong. Then I’ll take part of the blame.”
She mentioned a recent playground incident “that was totally on us. We have to be a little bit better with monitoring.” The team didn’t like that, she acknowledged, but “we’re always looking at how to get better ourselves.”
One important piece of advice from principals is to work on creating a positive impression of one’s schools, before complaints or concerns even arise. Enders, the elementary principal in Wrightsville, Pa., said he absorbed the advice given in the book Hacking Leadership, written by district superintendents Joe Sanfelippo and Tony Sinanis.
“If you’re not creating the narrative for your school, others are going to fill that narrative for you, and you’re not going to like it,” Enders said. So he makes it his business to show the community the positive elements of his school using all the tools at his disposal, including social media.
“When there is a disagreement or problems, we’ve earned a little bit of a bank of trust or leniency,” Enders said.
But there can be times when you just have to grow a thick skin, said Brian Perry, the principal of Stalker Elementary, a school of about 200 students in Bedford, Ind.
“Unfortunately, when it comes to disagreements between parents and teachers, sometimes there is no middle ground. If you’re really trying to do what’s best for the kid and for the school, sometimes you’re going to make a decision where others are going to be unhappy,” he said.
Helping Principals Communicate
Jennifer White, a 2nd-grade teacher at Stephens Elementary in Little Rock, Ark., said she appreciates principals who forcefully stand up for her. And it’s also important to be physically present in the school, defusing conflicts before they build, she said.
Principals “set the tone for the school,” White said. “If you’re slacking as a principal, the teachers will say, ‘Why should I care?’ ”
Principals acknowledge that they get little formal training on handling these situations; they’ve picked up their skills from watching other school leaders in action, or by tapping the expertise of trusted mentors.
But some organizations help principals develop these crucial skills. The New York City Leadership Academy, which trains aspiring principals, records videos of would-be leaders responding to an angry parent. The “parent” is portrayed by an educational professional associated with the program, but the complaints—concerns about bullying or a child’s grade, for example—are all too realistic.
The principals-in-training then review the video, to see if their interactions match up with their intent.
Corinne Vinal, a graduate of the academy’s first cohort and now a leadership facilitator, said that her video showed her communication was good, but her body language, like constantly nodding her head, made her words come across like they were fake.
“A principal has to navigate that conversation in a way that’s respectful to the parent, listening and at the same time knowing they will have to speak to the teacher alone first, before bringing these people together,” Vinal said.
It’s not easy work, but it’s essential, said Sonia Bu, a coach-facilitator at the New York training academy.
“During your first days of school you articulate your vision and how you’re going to deal with breakdowns and conflicts,” Bu said. “One particular principal used to say, ‘If we are here for students first, I may do things that—at the moment—you may feel that you would not like me to do as an adult. But at the end of the day,’ Bu recounted, ‘we’re both here for the student.’”
A version of this article appeared in the October 16, 2019 edition of Education Week as Mediator in Chief: Solving Parent-Teacher Conflict