Gráinne, What Should I Do?


Leading Your International School today launches our weekly Q & A  for international school leaders and teachers. Questions are answered by Gráinne O’ Reilly – founder of 13 schools around the world. Today we share Akio’s question. 

AkioWhat is the most effective way to deal with parents complaints, especially when there are so many different cultures and levels of cultural awareness?

Gráinne: My Dear Colleague, thank you for such a great question. This is something that affects every single school and is a particular challenge in international schools.

The most important thing to remember when dealing with anything, whatsever, in schools is that the child always comes first. If that is at the forefront of one’s mind at all times then our approach to complaints is less about trying to manage the parent and more about ensuring the best for that child and indeed, all others. To accompany that – always assume good intent. That paradigm shift can truly bring forth the most positive of outcomes in the most difficult of situations.

All international schools are businesses. Parents pay a fortune, often at the cost of great sacrifice to send their children to us. Imagine yourself saving all year to go on a really expensive, luxury trip with your partner or your family. Much of the enjoyment of that holiday will not only be about the location, the views, the history or the activities, but in reality – it will be about how you are treated and how you are made to feel. That is what you are paying for when you purchase something of great worth and value. It is not just that ‘thing’, but the customer service and the feeling of being valued, listened to, looked after, respected and attended to.

Fundamentally, that is what every parent in a private, international school is looking for. If you get that right, the issues of cultural norms or expectations will be greatly diminished.

Really good communication goes both ways. Be sure to let your parents know what the teachers and staff expect of them and most importantly, let them know what they can expect of you. For example: If parents know – through the school’s clear information channels (in person, in writing, on-line, through messaging platforms, in the school handbook, in the teachers’ newsletters etc.) that they will not receive a response after 7.00pm in the evening or before 8.00am in the morning they are much less likely to complain that the staff member is being rude or ignoring them if there is an issue that has arisen after the end of the school day. If you are in a country where parents rarely, perhaps never, read emails, but do all their communication through Apps or on social media platforms, are you really best serving them by putting everything on the school’s portal, by sending home notes or by emailing them? Language is also an issue for many parents. In many schools there will be more than a score of different languages spoken and the subtleties and emotion inherent in challenging situations are so often exacerbated by linguistic misunderstanding. Do parents know that they will have the opportunity to speak with a teacher or staff member with the support of a translator? And also – will that translator be independent, unbiased and cognizant of confidentiality?

Understanding of the locale and the prevailing culture’s norms and expectations must be part of every staff member’s induction and training. That should be a given in every international school – it is a fundament of everyone’s professional training and a tenet of each person’s job. What cannot be expected, however, is an in-depth understanding and fluency regarding each country, each culture, each group or each family’s particular needs and desires. This does develop over time, certainly, but good communication as referenced earlier lays down fertile soil for as few misunderstandings as possible. 

With each positive interaction greater trust grows and a positive and open approach to dealing with issues becomes the norm. Parents become less anxious about raising that which causes concern and all members of the school community become less defensive about being challenged; knowing that fair, assertive communications leads to a win-win situation.

Having mentioned assertiveness – a warning! Whilst parents are customers and we are surely in the high-end customer service business, do NOT pander to parents. Pandering to a parent to shut them up, appease them, or make them go away will never create a harmonious solution. If a parent is asking you to do something that is unfair, unlawful, unkind, inappropriate or not in keeping with your school’s mission or values – you must be assertive and let the parent know that another solution must be found. There are occasions when we have to draw a line in the sand and say no. I have done so myself, on a number of occasions. 

To re-cap:

• The child ALWAYS comes first.

• Assume good intent.

• Provide an atmosphere in which the parent is understood, respected and heard fully.

• Be clear about what the parent wants from the school and what the school wants from the parent.

• Make sure clear, encompassing, detailed and accurate communications policies are in place at every level – and widely shared with parents.

• Train, prepare and support all members of staff in communication techniques, cultural understanding and fundamental cultural expectations. This must be both an annual and on-going process.

• Cultivate and celebrate trust; check in regularly with parents on how they perceive the school’s communication processes to be working.

• Remain professional and open – do not become defensive.

•  Be assertive and do not pander.

Akio, thank you so much for raising this important issue – good luck for the coming academic year!

Thank you for reading, if you have any questions for Gráinne to answer about Leading Your International School, email them to:          or comment below.

3 thoughts on “Gráinne, What Should I Do?

  1. Sound advice from someone with such depth and a wealth of experience. Placing the child first in any conversation is never the wrong approach and both objectifies the process and de-personalises the conversation. Through Gráinne, I have learnt to always assume positive intent and believe in the power of people and their purpose. Few educators or parents don’t want what’s best for a child. Holding everything together with a mutual goal and remaining professional in the process. Any aspiring leader, beware the traps of caving in to the demands of individual parents…one will quickly lead lead to a an avalanche.

  2. Beware the avalanche! André has used a great analogy there- what starts with a few fluffy flakes ends in disaster ❄️ 😩🤭

  3. What a lovely and practical answer this is! Thank you so much Gráinne for sharing this, not only to Akio, I think this will be useful for any educators who are currently working in an international school. 100% agree with you, if we don’t place the children as the first, what else it can be? Training to staff on communication techniques, cultural understanding and fundamental cultural expectations are also crucial! Understand and empathy parents, always ready to find the win-win solution, nip the complaints in the bud.

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