kitchen table math, the sequel: "complaints can improve your school"

Monday, June 8, 2009

"complaints can improve your school"

I'm pretty sure I would kill to have this person running my district:
Here are a few tips on do-it-yourself complaint resolution. Or consider this advice that will help to avoid hiring an expensive consultant to tell you what is wrong in your school or district.

• Seek complaints. Ask for the compliments and the bad stuff. Don’t become defensive when you hear bad news. Instead, probe for the exact nature of the problem, the resolution sought and ideas for how to accomplish this. A well-stated problem in operational terms can really help get a resolution under way.

• Let the person closest to the problem attempt to resolve the problem prior to your intervention. I always tell the educators with whom I work that I support them. However, I also let them know if they have made a mistake they need to get on top of fixing it or apprise me of the situation so I can attempt to resolve it (or at least get into damage-control mode).

I advise educators that if a school constituent calls me with a complaint, the first thing I will do is ask if he or she has contacted the educator in question. If not, then I probe for further information and ask the constituent if I can have the educator call him or her. If a resolution is not reached, the constituent is to call me back. In 99 percent of the issues, I never hear from the constituent again.

At the same time, the educator feels supported because I have allowed him or her to resolve the problem. The educator understands if he or she doesn’t resolve the problem, then I will do so because if I don’t, the problem will go over my head and someone on the school board or in the local news media will resolve it — and probably not to our satisfaction.

• Do something. It’s not good enough to hear a complaint and then agree with the complaint. If you can’t do anything, chances are the complainant will find someone who will.

The most effective job you can do is to listen dispassionately and objectively. Is the complaint reasonable? Is it coming from a reasonable person who has not gone off the deep end because his or her child has ADHD or SAB (simply annoying behavior)? You must be the professional who provides advice on dealing with a difficult child or educator instead of throwing up your hands and blaming someone else.

Find resources, find help, find solutions. You won’t have just one ADHD or SAB student in your schools nor will you have just one difficult employee so find help for the parents, and you will find help for your employees and yourself at the same time.

When you don’t know how to solve the complainer’s problem, simply ask, “How can we make this right?” Not only will you get a solution that the constituent will agree with since he or she is suggesting it, but there’s a good chance this idea of how to make things right will require less work or worry on your part than what you would have come up with minus the input.

Systemic Answers
• If there’s a pattern to the complaints, then address the pattern. A systemic problem needs a systemic approach to resolution. You are the one to be able to see a recurring complaint that your team and you can address. Adopt the attitude of fixing the problem rather than living with it.

• Find ways to have your employees adopt a schoolwide culture of using complaints as a way to improve practice. State it in your mission or school district goals, but constantly press for this way of seeing school operations from everyone in the system (from central office to principals, teachers, custodians, etc.). Constantly model an appreciation for complaints and resolving them by using this same approach with your employees, and point out what you are doing. Do not make problems your problems but our problems, and remember to get the complainers to help resolve the problem.

When you start to look at complaints as an opportunity to improve your organization rather than an attack on your organization, then you will (after a brief moment of regret and irritation) take your organization to a new level of performance. Wouldn’t it be nice if when community members left your schools they remembered their experience with schools as one of the best of their lives?

Embracing complaints will help you to make a positive difference in the lives of our students. And that is, after all, why we are all here.

Complaints Can Improve Your Schools
by Jan Borelli
The School Administrator May 2009

My district requires parents to "work up the chain of command." That's the way the superintendent always puts it: work up the chain of command.

Our school board has actually adopted a Code of Conduct for parents requiring that we work up the chain of command:
A cooperative relationship between home and school is essential to each student’s successful development and achievement. To achieve this relationship with school, parents have a responsibility to insist on prompt and regular attendance by their children and to ensure that they are prepared to participate and learn. Parents are expected to show an enthusiastic and supportive attitude toward school and education and recognize that they and the school are jointly responsible for their children’s education. In addition, parents are expected to teach their children self-respect, respect for the law, respect for others as well as respect for public property. It is their responsibility to ensure that their children are aware of and abide by all district policies, rules and regulations. Parents are expected to follow a process for effective communication with school, which includes first addressing any concerns with the individual teacher involved and then his/her immediate supervisor before involving any other parties. Parents should also be aware that they are responsible for any financial obligations incurred by their children in school. This includes lost books, damage to property, etc.

School personnel play an important role in the education of students. In view of this, it is incumbent upon all school personnel to promote a climate of mutual respect, treat students in an ethical and responsible manner, and demonstrate desirable standards of behavior through personal example. All school personnel are expected to report violations of the Code of Conduct to a building administrator. Violent behavior shall be reported immediately.

Irvington Code of Conduct
Policy 7310
Adopted by the Board of Education July 2, 2001
Revised and Adopted by the Board of Education July 1, 2008

Notice that the Code for parents is twice as long as the code for school personnel.

That's because parents don't have a union.

p.s.: The board's Code of Conduct for parents is legally unenforceable. I asked a lawyer. A lawyer for a school board, in fact.


Independent George said...

You know what that complaint policy looks like? It looks like the standard customer relations protocol for any client-serving industry.

Teachers want to be treated like professionals. Parents want to be treated like clients. It seems like it should be win-win.

SwitchedOnMom said...

"Parents are expected to show an enthusiastic and supportive attitude toward school and education and recognize that they and the school are jointly responsible for their children’s education."

You're kidding, right?

Cranberry said...

"It is their responsibility to ensure that their children are aware of and abide by all district policies, rules and regulations. "

How many policies, rules and regulations are there? See, this, in my book, is lazy. There are policies, rules and regulations which students should know, because they govern their school experience. The school board should specify those rules, if they really want parental cooperation. The parent of a first grader, for example, shouldn't be required to attempt to explain the board's policy on non-discrimination in hiring practices to that first grader.

It is appropriate to discuss expectations for behavior with one's children. "Work hard. Be nice." Is much more appropriate for elementary children, to explain the expectations for their behavior.

Dr. Jan said...

Thank you for your kind words regarding my article on using complaints to improve your organization. Dr. Jan

SteveH said...

"...are jointly responsible for their children’s education."

I'm tired of this. The statement is obvious, but what, exactly, does it really mean? Does it mean that I make sure the TV and computers are turned off and my child has a quiet place to work, or does it mean that I have to learn all about Everyday Math to make sure I can help my child with math at home? When I get questionnaires from the school, they ask whether I feel comfortable with helping my kids with their homework.

It seems that schools now expect parents to be adjunct teachers, but they never come out and say it. The lists I've seen talk about things like making sure your kids do their homework and about showing an interest in education.

In reality, schools really want parents to help with their job. Instead of going to the museum or helping little Suzie calculate a 15% tip, parents are expected to review basic math facts.

We're supposed to help out with projects, but not too much. It doesn't look good if your child comes in with a really nice diorama. Schools love to come up with rules and handbooks, so I want them to get specific and be honest about what they expect from parents. We need to know exactly how much help we can or should give on a diorama or with a math homework set.

While they are at it, schools can ask parents to tell them exactly what they do at home. If schools think that parent involvement is good, then they should be interested in what the parents of the best students do.

I won't hold my breath. Schools want everyone to think that parents just have to help out a little bit - just what every good parent should do. Schools want to take credit for the extra work and teaching done at home. Parents only get credit for "modeling" an interest in education.

Catherine Johnson said...

Hi Jan -- It's fantastic. I've circulated it through my district.

Catherine Johnson said...

The "enthusiastic support" requirement is a problem given that parents have no say whatsoever in anything the school elects to do or not do.

I, for one, plan not to enthusiastically support next year's adoption of Fountas & Pinnell. As a matter of fact, I plan to enthusiastically oppose the adoption of Fountas & Pinnell.

So there.

Catherine Johnson said...

My favorite line might be this one:

School personnel play an important role in the education of students.

concernedCTparent said...

School personnel play an important role in the education of students.

Oh,'ya think?

Catherine Johnson said...

There are many days I look at the situation here and think: how?

A town filled with highly educated, often highly successful professionals, and .... we've got stuff like this going on.

btw, I've been 'off email' for about 3 days now, and am STILL off email.

Mostly because there's a whole lotta stuff waiting for me....