Mentor Hears Parent Complaints About a New Teacher

Original Member Request:

I have a parent of one of my students come to me for a conference about her son and then stayed on to talk about her first grade daughter (who is not in my class) but is having a bad time with her teacher. She was asking my advice. The teacher is one of the new ones that we are mentoring in our new teacher induction program. The mom claims that all the mothers in the room have "talked" and none of them like her. She went on with a dozen complaints.

This is not a Mom who usually says anything! Her daughter is now giving her a hard time about coming to school.

What in the world do I do with that information??? In light of my responsibilities as the person in charge of our mentorship program, what is next???? Help!

Bill in Lincoln, Nebraska

Member Responses:

Supervision is the responsibility of the principal. What would you do with this info if it came to you about any other teacher? This should probably be handled by the principal and I would direct the parents to the principal. The principal probably has the info anyway, don't you think? Tricky....good luck!


What would you do with this information if you were not mentoring the teacher? Tell the parent to set up an appointment with the teacher.

But, since you ARE mentoring the teacher, the teacher is luckier than in most situations. You might sit down with the teacher and discuss/ role play parent-teacher informal conferences, the goal being that the teacher find out what is bothering the parent and discussing solutions, without >anyone telling on anyone.

Show the teacher how she can begin a conference with positive remarks about the class and then open it up to the parnet for her to express any concerns she might have. The teacher needs to learn how to listen to the concerns in a constructive, accepting way, and if she has not immediate solutions for the parent, the teacher can tell the parent how she is pleased that the parent came to her with the concerns, and the teacher will think about it and get back to the parent very soon. (Nothing needs to be decided at that point.) Then this lucky teacher can meet with you to share and discuss strategies, before the teacher gets back to the parent as soon as possible (to avoid this festering too much longer.)

I have taught school for many years and have had many parent conferences. The most upset parents usually need to be heard and informed. Shared strategies always work.

Jackie Epstein

I would recommend that the parent talk with the teacher about the concerns. If that is not effective, the parent should talk with the principal. If they are legitimate concerns, you as the mentor may help support the teacher in making needed changes.

Dear Bill,

There are so many unknowns in the description of your case that it is difficult to know how to respond.

In general, though, I don't think "widespread" concern should be left unaddressed if it is based on any real evidence. (It's hard to know just how "widespread" the parents' concerns really are and if there is any evidence to support them.) I guess my first response would be to find out if the parents' concerns have any basis in the actual practices of the teacher. It is possible that the parents (how many is unclear) don't like the new teacher for reasons that really have nothing to do with her effectiveness with the students. I think you need to establish the evidence first. Once you do that, then you can share the evidence with the new teacher and work together to improve the situation.

If you discover that the teacher is doing good things but the parents are reacting to something else (and that "something else" could be real or perceived), then maybe you and the teacher can discuss some ways in which the teacher can involve parents in productive ways and communicate with them more effectively. Even if there aren't any major problems in the teacher's practices, there are clearly some problems in the lines of communication.

Do you know why the parent came to you rather than the teacher? That would be interesting to know as well.

Since I am working with mentors now, I find situations like this interesting. I may share your case (without names, of course) with my mentors and ask them to consider how they would respond. Such cases can lead to intriguing conversations and help us all sort through some of the critical issues in our relationships with new colleagues.

Hope this helps.
Joy A. Seybold
Indiana Professional Standards Board

I am a little confused - is it the teachers who are talking or the mothers? If it is the teachers, some thoughts I have are:

I would not talk to anyone without the mother of the child knowing that I would take it forward. She may have talked to you about this situation as a venting or frustration, not for you to do something about it. So - first step would be to call the mother and tell her you have been thinking about what she said and ask if she had expressed her concerns to the teacher. If she has and nothing happened, or if she is afraid to say anything for fear of making things worse, ask if she would mind if you would explore some possible avenues for correcting the issue.

If she says fine, I would, as the lead mentor, approach the teacher directly (better to be direct than to go around the barn and perhaps miss the issue of the child). How you approach the teacher is critical - I would probably not express that the mother vented with me as much as she expressed a concern that her daughter did not feel liked and was beginning to not want to come to school. I would assume that this teacher is not aware of the daughter's feelings and that she will want to address it . My guess is that something is going on that is making the child uncomfortable...and it may or may not be the attitude of the teacher. Either you or the mentor of that teacher could do this. Approach it with the theme..."I know that you want all of your students to enjoy coming to school, and I knew that you would want this information, so you could work to make it better for this child"....focus always on the child.

All kinds of things may come of this conversation, all of which will provide for some interesting and valuable professional dialogue. The key is not to approach with blame or to make it a teacher issue, but with a common concern that the teacher would most likely share.

Hope this makes sense!!!!

Hey, Bill -- Here are some ideas for you . . .

1. As a matter of policy, and in the future, it isn't professional for a teacher to listen to negative comments about a colleague. In my district that's grounds for a lawsuit -- being a party to slander.

2. I would tell the mom, gently, that I appreciate her comments, but that the Moms' Association doesn't get to decide who goes and who stays! She may have some legitimate complaints, but the accused teacher has the right to face her accuser and present her side of things! Maybe little daughter Bertha is a spoiled brat!

3. I would give the principal a heads-up, to maybe chat with the new teacher and see if the new teacher (NT) herself perceives any problems. If not, the Principal (or you) can step up observations and suggestion-giving, to help the NT work on legitimate weaknesses.

4. Assure mom that legitimate concerns will be addressed -- then do it!

5. Remember that giving in to parental pressure groups legitimizes them, and makes them feel that they have power to remove teachers. Also, they rarely have the full set of information necessary for such power to be appropriate. Parents can be wonderful sources of support and information, but it needs to be followed up by going through appropriate channels.

6. I would thank mom for her concern, and encourage her to keep contacting her teacher when she has concerns.

Hope this helps! Jeanie Riddell

Bill, off hand I can think of several options available to you.

1. No teacher should ever let a parent (or anyone else) badmouth a colleague. Your answer should have been:
(a) have you discussed this with the teacher?
(b) have you discussed this with the principal?

Assuming that you, as an experienced teacher would have asked that, we can move on.

2. As I am sure you are aware, there is often an underlying agenda amongst parents who are complaining about a teacher. Perhaps you need to so some "detective work" to see if you can ferret this out.

3. If this parent has taken on the role of "chair of the complaint department" and you head up the mentorship program, then I think you should make that fact known to her and get an exact litany of her concerns (for want of a better word) making sure that you tell her that you will be sharing this with the teacher in question and with the principal. You might ask her/tell her that you would like to audio-tape her concerns (just to be sure that you are all on the same page). In all probability, this will make her think again.

4. Having done this, the person who is mentoring that teacher should make it his/her business to do a lot of observing in that classroom ASAP with the obvious goal in mind of seeing if what is being said has any validity. It is possible that there is a big problem and it needs to be discovered immediately. Unfortunately, too often teachers get tenure who should NEVER have gotten it.

5. Are you familiar with the work of Linda Darling-Hammond and Sharon Feiman-Nemser? Both of these people do an excellent job of addressing similar concerns.

6. My final question is: Where is the administration in all of this? Has this teacher been observed for evaluation? How many times? With what result?

I hope this helps. My suggestions may be stronger than you had in mind but negative parental involvement is a problem in many areas.

B. Lapetina

This is a difficult situation . . . but many of us have had our own variations of it. Choices include the following:

1. Talking directly to the new teacher about what "you've heard"

2. Talking to the new teacher's mentor (assuming s/he has one) and having this person address the concern

3. Talking to the new teacher's building administrator (since this is an issue s/he probably should be addressing)

4. Talking to your immediate supervisor (mine is our district's Associate Superintendent of Human Resources) for advice on how to handle this information

What would I do?
Probably I'd spend extra time in that new teacher's classroom and/or working with him/her directly to find out
a.) if the concerns are warranted, and
b.) how to help this new teacher improve classroom instruction/management/etc.

Keep us posted on what you do - and what works!

Mary Brooks, Site Coordinator Beginning Teacher Mentor Program, West Des Moines Community School District

This one is not easy but let's take a couple of views of the situation.

Who is the mentor most closely related to this teacher?

Approach #1 - You could say, "One of your parents, who shall remain anonymous, has come to me with a concern that her child, who is in your class, no longer enjoys school. Do you know why a parent might say this about a student in your class? Why do you believe any parent would say this about a child in your class? What changes in student's attitude and/or work have you witnessed?"
Continue this line of dialogue to see where the teacher stands in regards to clearly assessing the climate and atmosphere of the classroom. Then proceed to ask if there is anything you can do to help. Provide the help.)

Approach #2 - Ask a lot of questions:

Question Set #1

"What are the greatest successes you have had with this class?" Discuss those.

"Why do you think they are successes?"

"What are you doing that makes them so? "

"How are the students responding that verifies this?"

"What do you think you need to do to continue these successes? Be specific!"

Question Set #2:
"What is one of your greatest challenges or problems with this class?

"Why do you think this is a challenge? "

"How have you tried to solve it?"

"Who have you involved in the solution?"

"What do you think you need to do differently in order to affect a change and bring about a successful solution?"

Approach #3

If they have developed a very good relationship where there is open dialogue and many informal visitations, the mentor should be able to get to the heart of this concern through a post observation conference. See what can be achieved by utilizing some of these stems:

"What happened today?" (recount factually)
"Why did it happen?" Site as many different possibilities as possible.
"What might this mean?" Based upon answers given.
"What are the implications for your practice?"

Sheila Thorpe, Plainfield, NJ

Do you have a parent concern protocol at your school?

We do. Parents are asked to deal with the teacher before speaking with others. I wonder if this new teacher even knows what ibeing said behind her back.
We had a group of parents this fall who got together to discuss the problems that they perceived in an elementary classroom at my school. The teacher was new to the school, although she had been teaching elsewhere for a few years. The parents wrote a letter to the teacher and cc'd it to the principal. They claimed their children were terrified to come to school because of the yelling in the room. Not one parent addressed the teacher before sending the letter.
As vice-principal, I responded to each of the parents, asking them to speak to the teacher one-on-one. The teacher had a very difficult week as she met with each of them. Some were reluctant to come in, but all eventually met with her.
You may wonder how this story ends. Every parent without exception claimed to be satisfied after the interview. Many apologised for signing the letter. The teacher has since received several letters of support from parents in the class, some of whom had signed the original letter. If the protocol had been followed to begin with, it is very likely that none of the rest would have happened.
As professionals, we need to be aware of our role in supporting children as well as our colleagues. If there truly is a problem, the protocol will not keep a parent from contacting another level, such as principal or supervisor, but it does help maintain the dignity of all concerned and allows the teacher to be aware of a concern.

Sandra MacDonald, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada

This is a sticky situation for everyone involved. You need to support the new teacher but also understand the parent's concerns. And you are currently stuck in the middle.

I hope these ideas help. I know how difficult it is. I just went through a similar situation with a new teacher.

In my case, the teacher was not challenging the child according to the parents. The parents skipped the teacher conference step, which should have been the first step, and went straight to the principal. The new teacher met with our literacy coordinator, several teachers, and the principal to develop appropriately challenging reading lessons and selecting reading material for the high group this student was in.

The principal observed the lesson and found the child fully engaged and enjoying the lesson. Low and behold later that day the principal received a call and a letter stating that the child was still not happy and wanted her removed from this teachers class immediately. The principal is NOT in the habit of doing this but did so along with a strongly worded letter. The new teacher was very upset and crying that he had done everything he could.

I explained that sometimes no matter what you do a parent is not happy and it's best that she was moved. He can now focus on the other students in his room and their needs.

I think the first step is for the parent to meet with the teacher and discuss the situation. It might be best to not discuss the complaints from other mothers and that they dislike the new teacher but focus on the complaint of the child and what can to be done to help the child enjoy school.

It would be best also for the mentor teacher to sit in on the conference just for guidance and support for the new teacher. He or she can interject if needed with suggestions and help guide the meeting so the new teacher is not attacked verbally by the mother.

You could meet with the new teacher and talk to her about how she perceives student attitudes in the classroom. Ask about several students in a general way including the one in question. Observe in the classroom (if possible) to see how she interacts with the students.

Another option that could happen is for the parent to go to the principal to discuss the situation. Not my favorite, but it might also depend on whether there are other issues with this new teacher and if it might lead to a plan of assistance.

Vickie, Charlottesville, Virginia

Dear Bill,

I would sit down with the new teacher and ask how things are going. Ask lots of questions to the beginning teacher and maybe something will surface. I am a mentor of new teachers in California. I love the format that we use with new teachers:
What's working?
What are your concerns?
What are the teacher's next steps?
What are the advisors next steps?
Once the BT surfaces some concerns--offer suggestions on how things can get turned around. If things look disastrous--get more directive. This is happening with me right now-but the beginning teacher is willing to listen and use my advice so it should work out well.

Good luck--Janet Wright