So you want to meet with the school principal regarding a question you have about your child’s academic progress in a particular course. But when scheduling the appointment, the principal’s secretary asked if you first touched base with your child’s course teacher as a part of the school’s communication process. The secretary may have even used the phrase, “Chain of Command,” during the conversation. Your initial reaction may have been, “But I want to meet with the principal; isn’t that the first step?”
As a retired school principal, I can tell you that the scenario above was a pretty common occurrence. And I can also tell you that one of the best ways that our school personnel helped to ensure productive and collaborative school relationships was to guide parents, guardians, and students through the school’s (and the school district’s) process to resolve concerns.
Yes, there really is a process.
Here are the steps:
First, if you are a parent or guardian with a concern, find out what kind of structure your school has in place to have them addressed. Refer to your school’s student-parent handbook, or contact your child’s teacher or the main office.
Next, identify your goal. What is your question or concern? Maybe you want to know how your son earned a grade in a specific course, or perhaps you’re concerned about your daughter and the school’s basketball team tryouts? Or maybe you are trying to figure out how best to navigate the college application procedures?
It may sound surprising, but the principal is not the person who should receive these questions. But the tricky part can sometimes be trying to figure out which employee you should first contact.
The “Chain of Command”
As an assistant high school principal and then as an elementary school principal, I found virtually all school districts with whom I was in contact (and there were quite a lot both in-state and out-of-state) utilized a communication process that involved some kind of “ladder,” steps, or hierarchy. Often called, “The Chain of Command,” the process asks you, as the parent/guardian, to start by having your questions or concerns addressed at the first level of responsibility; that means first contacting the teacher, coach, guidance counselor or other school employee (whoever was involved in the interaction) in order to discuss the issue.
If you don’t find resolution with that employee, then you work your way “up the Chain.”
Let me explain:
Let’s say you’ve been mulling over a question about your child’s mid-year grade in Social Studies. As the first step in the Chain of Command process, would that mean you first meet with the school principal?
No. It is simply not practical for the principal to meet with every parent about every single question or issue. Why? Because the principal does not have the specific, detailed information about every student’s daily progress, behavior, and potential outcomes; those who teach, coach, or had the interaction with the student will have that information.
In the example above and for schools that use the Chain of Command or similar process, you (as the parent/guardian) would start with your child’s Social Studies teacher to find out more about the grade. The teacher should be able to demonstrate to you exactly how the grade was determined. Keep in mind, however, that in order for the teacher (or other school employee) to put together your child’s information, it’s always best to make an appointment instead of just “showing up” unannounced.
While it sounds fairly military (and that’s where the concept originally derived), the Chain of Command has some definite benefits.
John Pascale, Principal of Mahwah High School in Mahwah, New Jersey, has used the Chain of Command style of communication throughout his 15-year tenure as a school administrator and during his 12 years of teaching high school science. He shared some benefits of the Chain of Command:
“In my experience, it empowers the person who has the complaint to be an advocate, and it helps in preparing teachers for any future issues or concerns that may need to be addressed.”
Mr. Pascale goes on to say, “Something for parents to keep in mind is that if a teacher doesn’t get the feedback regarding a concern, then the teacher may think everything’s OK – when it fact, it may not be.The important thing to remember is that changes occur when the involved parties are made aware of a need or concern.”
Additional benefits of the Chain of Command style of communication can also include:
- Saving you time (once you become familiarized with the steps);
- Getting your answer(s) more quickly (because you know where to start and won’t get referred back to a previous “step”); and
- Greater efficiency for the principal (and other school personnel) once parents/guardians are familiar with the process
For Students, Too
A key component to note is that the Chain of Command process is not just for parents and guardians. Students who engage in this process not only develop self-advocacy skills, but they also acquire valuable experience in how to problem-solve with adults; an important concept for students to master as they continue their education and/or employment.
What Are the Next Steps?
If, however, after meeting with the teacher (or supervisor, or other school employee) you still have some questions or concerns that were not resolved, would you then meet with the principal? Possibly, but it depends on who’s next up “the Chain.”
In an elementary school it may indeed be the principal or it may be the assistant principal. It could also be a supervisor for the grade level or content area — whoever is on the next “rung.” In a middle school or high school you’ll be more likely to find supervisors for the content areas, but again, check with the student-parent handbook or the main office staff regarding the communication structure in your child’s school.
If you’ve met with the teacher, the supervisor, assistant principal, and then the principal and you still feel your question or issue was not resolved, what are the next steps?
Typically, the next steps can include (but can depend on the size of the school district): the assistant superintendent, the superintendent, the local Board of Education, the county Board of Education, and then the State Board of Education.
The Chain of Command in a School Setting
(again, check with your child’s school about how the communication structure, including a Chain of Command, works with the faculty and staff in addressing parent/guardian questions and concerns):
- Teacher/Coach/Other Employee
- Supervisor of Content Area or Grade Level
- Assistant Principal or Principal
- Assistant Superintendent of Schools or Superintendent of Schools
- Local Board of Education
- County Board of Education
- State Board of Education
Interview with Pascale, John. Principal, Mahwah High School, Mahwah, NJ. 2 Oct 2013.