Stephen Louw

A parent has complained

Sometimes teachers feel like although they try, they simply can't please everyone

There are some schools where a complaint from a parent has the power of Mjölnir. In these schools, teachers live in abject terror of parents. A call from administration to say that ‘One of the parents in your class has called…’ represents a death knell. Bong!

A no-win situation

I’m in one of those schools while I write this. The teachers here tell me the parents have complained to the school that they give too much homework, that students use phones in class, that there are pages from the book that haven’t been completed, that the teacher is pushing students too hard, that there isn’t enough homework, that students aren’t learning enough, and so on and on. 

Each complaint brings with it a fresh set of sanctions and red marks against a teacher (or all the teachers). In the latest instalment, a parents complained that teachers were ‘playing’ with their phones – the school’s response: ban teachers from using phones – yes even as Covid ends, and teachers are teaching hybrid lessons. Who knows. Keeping the parents happy is a big job.

To start this discussion, let’s be reminded of one of Aesop’s fantastic fables – the tale of the man, the boy, and the donkey. For those who don’t know it, I’ll paraphrase it briefly.

"A man and his son were leading a donkey to the market. They passed an old woman who berated the old man for making the boy walk, especially since it’s a donkey’s job to be ridden. Chastised, he boy got on the donkey and they walked on. They passed a group of men who castigated the boy for riding the donkey while his father walked. Obligingly, then, the boy got off and let his father get on. Later they passed an old woman who chided the man for sitting on the donkey and making the boy walk. The boy got on with his father and they both rode the donkey. As they neared town, another passerby rebuked the man and boy for being so lazy and making the poor donkey carry all their weight. They got off the donkey and strapped it to a pole and carried it"

The moral of the story is something like ‘try to please all, you please nobody’. It’s not impossible for teachers to feel a little like this. You give the class homework, and get told it’s too much, so you give less homework only to find out there needs to be more. 

Educating parents

Since we can’t please everyone, we may wish to rather base our classroom decisions on a set of well-grounded pedagogical principles. If we are doing things in the classroom that have a basis in something other than whims and fancies, the parents simply need to know what these principles are. 

For instance, if parents complain about games, they need to be informed that these are not actually games, but activities that follow a communicative student-centered learning approach, and they can read more about it in an excellent paper by Zoltan Dornyei (Dörnyei, Z. 2009. The 2010s Communicative language teaching in the 21st century: The ‘principled communicative approach’. Perspectives, 36(2), 33-43). I’ve found that parents actually love it when there is a clear and pedagogically sound reason for what they have found out about the classroom. 

Let’s explore why all this complaining comes about. Firstly, we need to bear in mind the position parents take in their children’s schooling. They pay a load of money, drop their kids off, and then hope. What they get back is some homework (to supervise?) and a bunch of scores. This may be sufficient for some parents, but for others this gives little sense of empowerment or agency in their child’s education.

Secondly, we need to bear in mind that the classroom is a closed system which resists easy scrutiny from outside. When a child says, ‘We played a lot in class today’, how exactly is that to be interpreted by a parent? “What does ‘play’ mean? Like, playground stuff? Where was the teacher? Is that what I’m paying for?” 

Research and findings

Now because parents are (generally) not teachers and don’t have degrees in pedagogy, these minute insights into the school day must necessarily be interpreted according to a remote understanding of how classrooms work. If a parent then brings this up with the school to clarify what is going on, unfortunately it’s usually not the teacher they speak to, but some sort of administration officer who has no context for offering a pedagogically appropriate response. 

Involvement of parents in children’s education was the focus of a study by researchers from Brown and Harvard universities. They compared three groups of teacher-parent communication: in one group, parents received no communication from the teacher; in the second group, the parents got a one-sentence message with feedback for improvement (something like “Jini missed two homework assignments this week and can do better next week”); and in the third group, parents received a one sentence message with positive information (something like “Jini was active in class all week”).

Findings indicated that children of families who got positive messages were 41% less likely to fail. The researchers argue that the finding is likely a result of parent-child conversations at home that centered around the messages the parents received: positive messages led to added parental support and motivation. 

When parents get nothing from teachers, their involvement in their children’s learning is reduced. If they want to get involved, they are forced to search for a chink in the educational armor the school puts up and elbow their way in. In my dealing with parents, these ‘complaints’ are more often some sort of attempt by parents to engage in dialogue with teachers (or an informant who can speak for the teacher). When a principled pedagogic explanation is given to a parent about what’s happening in the classroom, most parents are satisfied, or at least mollified.

Back to this school with its ban on teachers’ phones, just as a coda. The staffroom version goes like this: Betty was on her phone during the break. She was on her phone, it’s true, but nobody asked her when, or why. There’s no moral to this story, I’m afraid. Let’s stick to Aesop for that.

Steve has been a teacher and teacher trainer for over 30 years, and is currently a lecturer on the Master’s in TESOL program at King Mongkut’s University of Technology Thonburi in Bangkok.


"I wasted a whole lot of time trying to work out one complaint in the past" Absolutely agree John.

Its been my experience that often schools or agencies enjoy complaining or forwarding complaints to foreign teachers. If they can't be bothered to explain what the complaint means then it can't be that serious. So just ignore. Foreign teachers can be whiney bastards too. One teacher complained that because he didn't care about Christmas and Thailand is a buddhist country, foreign teachers shouldn't have any time off. Let me tell you, if your employer offers you paid time off, you take it. I don't care what the occasion is. It could me Mecca for all I care. This teacher said they would be taking the time off but wouldn't be doing anything to do with christmas. Just a sad little wanker who thought he was earning brownie points from the school. They just thought he was weird and angry. And they were right.

By Neil, Korat (3rd March 2022)

I worked for an agency who loved to complain about me. The parents and school weren't complaining; in fact, they seemingly liked me. I was a homeroom teacher at the time so I foolishly thought my job was to stay in my classroom and be a homeroom teacher. One of the complaints was that I wasn't social enough with the other teachers. I slowly worked out that the thing they took umbrage with was me avoiding them. I avoided them as they were idiots who wanted to play silly little games.

I'm the kind of teacher who keeps themself to themself. I'm always friendly with nice people, but for the most part I try to ignore unfriendly or insincere people. So as soon as I worked out what the agency were up to, I started looking for a new job. I really don't have the time or energy to try and appease people who have their own issues but won't deal with them. I got offered a new job, but by then I had become attached to my kids and decided I will stay 'til my contract was done (there was no contract as this was a Mickey Mouse agency).

Well, this was probably the best year of teaching I had. I did my job to the best of my ability, but I was in this amazing position where I could basically stick two fingers up at my agency the whole time. What were they gonna do? Fire a perfectly good teacher during term? No chance. So I was in this glorious position of power where I could avoid all their BS and even wind them up at times. Stuff like when they were in the school I'd make eye contact and walk away like I was deliberately avoiding them. See, they knew I knew they were full of shite, and I knew they knew I was full of shite - but I didn't fear any consequences as I knew I'd be leaving on my own terms. So we played this childish game that drove them mad and made me realise just how sad and pathetic their lives must be to behave like this.

In the end they let me go, but boy, was it good to stick it back to these unqualified bosses and simply not give a shiny shite. So liberating.

By Craig, Thailand (24th February 2022)

Great article, Steve.

Will you be opening up a new teacher agency when this horrible pandemic is over or have you called it quits? Whatever you decide to do, I hope to see more of your articles in the future.

By Liam, Thailand (12th February 2022)

I only take complaints seriously if they're easy to understand or the school explains them properly. I wasted a whole lot of time trying to work out one complaint in the past. I got a text message one day from the boss and it said 'parents complained. Do more speaking'. I was thinking which class and how many parents. In my school we teach three different kinds of English class. One for conversation, one for general English, and one for grammar. I asked my boss which class and which lessons she was talking about but she was too feckless to answer.

My school is a private school so students pay more money if they want more English. If you pay the basic fee, you get general and grammar. If you pay more , you get more general English AND conversation. I wasn't annoyed with the complaint because it upset my ego, I was annoyed because I wanted to know what it was about. In general English we do everything. We have a book and we follow it. Same for grammar. With conversation, we have a book, but the kids don't do any writing. It's just a reference. We do lots of acting and role plays. It's the kids favourite subject, and I admit, it is good fun. Something like grammar is pretty boring, but I've been given a book and been asked to teach it. They also remind us every year to finish every unit.

I finally worked out it was one set of parents who complained. They had paid the basic fee and complained about not much conversation practice in grammar class. I explained to the school how grammar classes work, but all they could say is 'do more conversation in grammar class'. I explained that if I do more conversation in 'grammar' class, other parents then might complain we aren't doing enough grammar. Also, we have to finish the books. Something I struggle to do. I explained how putting words like 'grammar class' and 'conversation class' might just be buzzwords for them to sell courses, but to me they mean something. And maybe they should tell the parents that if they want more conversation, put their kid in the 'conversation class'. The school not only wanted me to magically include more conversation in grammar class, but to do so and finish their big grammar book.

In the end I don't think the school could actually give a shit. I think they just took pleasure in forwarding the complaint to me. They made no effort to speak to the parents to ask for clarification, and they certainly didn't come and speak to me and get my side. Just 'parents complain you fix'. Now I've learnt that on the rare occasion I get a complaint, you just smile and nod. Then you never hear about it again. As a colleague said to me, it's probably more of a cultural thing. They tell you a completely vague and unclear complaint and they just expect you to smile, fix it and say more. But still, what's the point in forwarding complaints if you neither understand them nor care about them? And before anyone wants to call me a basher or negative Nancy, no, I'm not. I take pride in my work and make a real effort. Something my students recognize and appreciate.

By John Jones, Bangkok (11th February 2022)

As long as the majority of the parents and students in my class are happy, I don't worry about complaints. There will always be parents or students who have something to complain about, so all you can do is take that complaint on board, and judge it on its merits.

I had a new girl join my class one time. After about a few months I was told the parents had complained. They told me the mother had complained that she comes home and doesn't speak English. That she's been learning English for a few months and nothing has improved. Now, I'm the kind of teacher who likes to manage his class. You can't teach kids if you don't manage them at the beginning and show them how they're supposed to learn. This girl joined late from another school. It took a few weeks to get her adjusted, as she didn't know how to listen, sit still, not talk when I'm talking, etc. I teach kids what I expect of them from the beginning. And once you've mastered that, the kids will know how to conduct themselves well in class. And that means you've laid the foundations for a solid learning environment.

The worst kind of complainers are the ones who do it because they're insecure and need to assert themselves. Hell, I've even had farang bosses do this to me. I can only ascertain that they didn't like the fact that I knew how to teach already when I joined and didn't need them micro managing me or constantly asking for their help.

I had a pair of farang bosses actually call a meeting with me as they were very concerned about my teaching style. One of them had never actually seen me teach and was just taking the word of his partner in crime, who'd only seen me teach once, and even said it was a good lesson. I remember how they had clearly rehearsed the whole thing before. And there was me, pretending that I was taking them seriously, nodding and agreeing while they referred to one of my students as a "ghost student". Apparently that's a quiet student who doesn't participate. Only problem was they named a student who was the complete opposite of that. As soon as they said it, I was so relieved (neither of them had any idea who was who or what they were like). It was just confirmation that these two clowns felt so threatened by a teacher who knew how to do his job, that they made up a load of BS so they could assert themselves to fill those huge insecurities in their lives. It was an utter embarrassment. Oh, and they were so worried about my teaching style that they never came to observe after.

So, lots of complaints will be valid. I think anyone who doesn't take themselves too seriously can decipher what's legit or not. Sometimes, unfortunately, you will get insecure idiots feeling the need to try and control you or tell you what to do just because they can. I think these people have really shown themselves during covid. It's just a shame there are weak and insecure idiots like this in education, too.

By Mike, Thailand (10th February 2022)

It is very easy to simply state what parents can read. I assume that you think that all Thai parents and English 2nd Language students would be able to comprehend Zoltan's papers?

they can read more about it in an excellent paper by Zoltan Dornyei (Dörnyei, Z. 2009. The 2010s Communicative language teaching in the 21st century: The ‘principled communicative approach’. Perspectives, 36(2), 33-43). I’ve found that parents actually love it when there is a clear and pedagogically sound reason for what they have found out about the classroom.

By Steven Middleton, England (8th February 2022)

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