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29 December 2017

Responding to parent complaints about grades

Dear Mr. Jacobs,

Hope you are having a happy holiday. We just got Johnny's grades. While we are pleased that he tries so hard and cares so much about your class, Bunny and I are disappointed that his exam didn't push his grade up from a B+ to an A-. Junior year is especially important for college, and Johnny's goal is a 3.6.  We are hoping you will reevaluate some of the more subjective portions of the course grade, or perhaps allow him to do some extra credit to bring him up to an A-.  We know you want the best for those you teach, and you wouldn't want to see a diligent student denied his future because of just a few points here and there.  When is a good time for you to meet with us to discuss his grade?  Sincerely, Mr. Smith.

No, reader, I didn't hack your email account - this is just an amalgam of all the similar notes and conversations I and my colleagues have dealt with over the years.

How to respond?

Not with aggressive complaints, not with scathing wit and sick burns.  Yes, Mr. Smith's note is full of passive-aggressive assumptions of bad faith.  So what.  Bring it down, bring it down.*  You are in charge here.

* Han Solo, in The Force Awakens, as Finn delights too much in his dominance over Captain Phasma.

Part of what gets your dander up as a teacher in this situation is fear.  Fear that you'll be trapped in repeated unproductive meetings defending your grading procedures to ever higher-level and physics-clueless administrators. Fear that Johnny will begin spreading discontent and despondence throughout his class.  Fear that if you don't emphatically shut down Mr. and Mrs. Smith then Mr. and Mrs. Jones will start canoodling to change Brittany's grade, too.

Yes, all these things could happen.  But the fact remains - you are in charge. You assigned the grade; a nasty email from a parent puts you under no obligation to reevaluate the grade.  A batter may give the umpire a Look and the manager may scream "where the $&*# was that pitch?"... yet the umpire should not timidly change the call from "strike" to "ball."

However, neither should the umpire get sucked into a heated discussion of his or her strike-calling philosophy.

Let's calmly consider the most politically practical and appropriate response to the Smiths - the response that's least likely to cause all the teacher's fears to be realized.

Dear Mr. Smith (copy to science chairperson, principal, and college counseling director),

Thank you for your note.  Johnny has indeed been a diligent, positive contributor to our class this semester. I'm pleased with how hard he's worked at developing his physics skills. The semester grades are final.  I'm confident that Johnny can continue to perform well in the second semester. 


Have a wonderful break.

Now, I just wrote this response off the top of my head.  I'm sure readers can improve upon it - please post in the comments.  And I'm sure others have different approaches to dealing with disappointed parents, so please read comments to hear from them, too.  I'm not the only teacher with good answers for the Smiths.  Above is merely my personal approach to such a conflict.

The important components of my reply:

1. I've said nothing negative about Johnny - instead I've acknowledged and validated the Smiths' view of their son as diligent and positive.  Even if Johnny were evidently not a diligent student, I wouldn't point that out, I'd just find something else to compliment.

2. I've said nothing about the grade.  The point here is that no grade is a reflection on the character of a student; no grade, even if "bad" in the parents' minds, should be nitpicked.  My refusal to engage in discussion of grades means the parents have no room to advance a counterargument - the next email can only regurgitate the same points already made, which will look even more whine-y and arrogant the second time 'round.

3. I have responded directly to Mr. Smith's inquiry, with a polite, neutral, but unambiguous "The semester grades are final."  Mr. Smith can't complain that I ignored or talked around his request to reevaluate his son's grade.  I would not hedge here - sure, there are exceedingly rare circumstances under which grades may be revisited, like... like who cares.  None of those circumstances applies right now.  So I won't bring up their existence, or the Smiths will spend an enormous amount of energy convincing themselves and others that they do apply.

4. The final sentence is positive in tone, subtly reminding Mr. and Mrs. Smith that in fact I do care about Johnny, I root for his success, I'm proud of him so far and will continue to be... and that we still have another semester in which Johnny and I have to work together.  No need for an umpire to threaten the batter with "You argue with me again and the strike zone will reach to the moon."  Better to just remind him or her, "Here we go, batter, we've got seven innings to go.  Let's play ball."  The actual effect of each of these two sentences is about the same; so use the gentler words that will obtain the desired result.

What about the Smiths' next move?

You as a teacher worry perpetually that parents will complain to an administrator, which in the best case sucks your time away from teaching, and in the worst case leads to hostile conversations and actions involving Your Boss.  We all know that the Smiths will likely carry their fight for a revised grade past you to your administration.

By visibly, intentionally, and unambiguously copying your response (which, of course, includes the text of the original email) to those bosses, you've preempted the potential appeal.  You've put your administrators in the best possible position to support you.

See, even a good, supportive administrator has an obligation to reply to polite inquiries from parents.  If that administrator is unaware of your initial conversation before hearing Mr. Smith's further complaint, (s)he will reasonably come to you to hear your view.  While that's 100% responsible behavior on the administrator's part, it sets up an unfortunate false equivalence between your position and Mr. Smith's - the administrator seems to be adjudicating a dispute between two litigants, each of whom has equal standing.

By copying the administrator on your reply, you've indicated to everyone (including Mr. Smith) that Mr. Smith's concern has been resolved to your satisfaction.  When Mr. Smith tries to go over your head, the administrator would have to directly and publicly contradict your decision in order to take Mr. Smith's side.  Good administrators won't do that; even bad administrators don't like to be seen publicly undermining their teachers.

So if you don't trust the competence or goodwill of your bosses... still copy them on the response, but openly include a copy to an administrator you do trust.

How do you respond to the follow-up note from Mr. Smith, which is copied to all, making further arguments about how much you have hurt Johnny, pleading with even more emotionally charged language?


You don't.  See, you're in charge.  You don't need to win an argument with Mr. Smith.  You don't need to convince him that he shouldn't challenge your authority as teacher, or that Johnnie will do just fine at college whether he gets an A- or a B+ this semester.  Your job isn't to bring forth righteous justice, it's to bring forth peace.  Let Mr. Smith have the last word.  Let him look petty.  Carry on in the next semester as if nothing has happened.


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