Teachers: Getting the most out of Criticism and Complaints


It’s natural to go on the defensive when someone levels a criticism at you. That might be a parent, a teacher, an administrator or even a student.

Often criticisms are made when emotions are high or when fuses are short.

So although we shouldn’t stand for aggressive or abusive behaviour, it’s important to look beyond the actual delivery of the complaints and see what’s behind them.

This in itself can be difficult, as we are inclined to be less objective than normal when analysing these situations, and fall back on feelings and emotions.

However after some time has elapsed we are more likely to take a more balanced view at criticism.

Take your time…

So the more time you have to respond to criticism the better, hence why in a previous post: 5 Tips for Dealing with Complaints as a Teacher, I recommended that you politely ask the person to give you some time to consider a response, and if necessary seek advice and support in providing a response.

Sometimes there is just no case to answer and the complaint that you receive is as a result of a misunderstanding, a frustration or an ignorance of at some level, which is easily cleared up through clear communication.

On rare occasions complaints will be vexatious or designed to undermine. It is unfortunately the reality of organisations that despite your best intentions, there will be some within it that have other agendas: Record keeping and professional assistance are your best friend here.

But for now, we will assume that all or part of the criticism is sound.

Take a deep breath or two…

The worst thing a teacher can do at these times is to throw their hands in the air and put up the defences. It is not a constructive response and is akin to procrastination: eventually you will have to deal with the issue, so delaying a solution, merely extends the pain.

So having made a mental decision to fix whatever needs to be fixed, it is important to nail down what exactly that is.

Is it a training or knowledge issue?

Often assumptions are made by people that you are fully equipped either in knowledge or resources to provide an expected standard of service.

I’m reminded of a great line from Don Quixote

…”For no one is ready taught, and the bishops are made of of men, and not out of stones.”

Recognising that you may need some training in a certain area of your teaching practice is an important step in dealing with performance issues.

No one should expect you to be competent without getting the proper training and support to do your job, so make sure this isn’t the issue.

It is far better for you to identify and request support and training than for someone else to do this. So make sure your school is aware if you need training or development in a particular field.

Do you have the time resources?

In terms of proper resourcing, all teachers will tell you that the job can be time intensive and stressful.

Unfortunately some people don’t recognise the workload issues teachers face and parents and even line managers can expect miracles from limited resources.

Parents can ask for more teacher help for their child, and quite right so, but are not aware that it can just be unfeasible for the teacher to provide this without neglecting other students or having a complete meltdown through other work.

School administrators, heads of department and other school leaders likewise have good intentions in providing a first class education, but occasionally forget or are unaware that teachers don’t have time for endless meetings, especially around marking/grading times.

A regular bugbear with teachers is when someone misunderstands that their curriculum and planning time is a time for meetings.

If a teacher uses their planning time for meetings, then they will have to use their family time for planning. And if they use their family time for planning then it is a foregone conclusion that they will end up using their teaching time for doctor appointments. But I digress.

So it’s important that teachers put their hands up and make those around them aware that there are only 24 hours in the day and that there are competing demands on their time: family, home, society.

One final point on this topic is to be sure that you are making the most of the time resources you have. If you are disorganised, forgetful or lack a system for working then here are some previous posts that might help you think about this.

Reflection really works…

An underutilised tool is self reflection otherwise known as reflective practice.

I have written about this here and here.

It is often the case when we take the time to sit down and thoughtfully think about how things have gone, especially concerning a recent complaint, we can appreciate the strengths and weaknesses of our practice.

It is the mark of a professional teacher, one who takes their practice seriously, when they make a conscious effort to reflect on ways that they can improve the way they go about their business.

Taking it on the chin…

Unless you are perfect, which none of us are, there will be times when we recognise that we have let ourselves down and perhaps someone else.

Recognising this and responding in a Catholic manner is appropriate at these times.

Too often people nurse grudges and harbour resentments, planning moments of payback and revenge, resorting to backbiting and sowing of discord amongst staff.

It is shameful conduct and we should make a point not to get involved with it. The very best way to deal with this is to show displeasure when it comes to your door and not to engage in it.

God bless.

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