Guest Column

Complaints Can Improve Your Schools

by Jan Borelli

For some reason, in the school business we don’t much like to hear the negatives of our practice. It might be we have this problem with criticism because our output is such an indefinable, ambiguous product.

Much of what we do is built upon the good (or shabby) product of those before us and goes forward to be bested (or worsened) by those beyond us.

We like to point fingers at those who come before us. But if we took blame out of the equation, then maybe we would look at the problems we face in education with a perspective of resolution instead of helpless blaming.

Inviting complaints, acknowledging the problem and then seeking answers in an expeditious manner not only improves practice but also builds loyalty and appreciation from those we serve. And when parents are loyal and appreciative, the things we can accomplish are simply awe-inspiring.

Resolution Advice
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.

Jan Borelli, a former superintendent, is principal of Westwood Elementary School in Oklahoma City, Okla. E-mail: