How to Handle Teacher Complaints #LikeABuilder 


Note: ​School Leadership Reimagined is produced ​as a podcast and designed to be ​listened to, not read. We strongly encourage you to listen to the audio, which includes emotion and emphasis that's not on the page. Transcripts are generated using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers, and may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting in print.

You're listening to the School Leadership Reimagined Podcast, episode number twentynine.

Welcome to the School Leadership Reimagined podcast...

where we rethink what's possible to transform your school. If you're tired of settling for small wins and incremental improvement, then stay tuned to discover powerful and practical strategies for getting every teacher in your school moving towards excellence. Now, here's your host, Robyn Jackson.

Hey Builders!

Welcome to another episode of School Leadership Reimagined.I’m your host Robyn Jackson and welcome to season 3 of the show.

This season’s theme is How To… so each episode, I’m going to help you learn how to do some aspect of your job better.

Today, we’re going to start off the season by talking about how to handle teacher complaints #likeabuilder.

But before we dive in,

I have some amazing news.

You see several people told me that they really wanted to attend Builder’s Lab 2019 but they couldn’t get away from their schools for 3 days.

Well, I heard you. So I talked to my team and we decided that we are going to offer 2 Builder’s Lab over the summer.

The first one is happening June 24-26, 2019 in California. This is a great event if you are a principal, assistant principal, or a district leader who supports school-based administrators. We’ll spend 3 days together developing the four disciplines of Buildership. You’ll upgrade your feedback to teachers so that they not only welcome your feedback, but immediately act on it and use it to significantly improve your practice. You’ll differentiate your support for teachers so that you are meeting teachers where they are and get this, you’ll do it without creating a bunch of extra work for yourself. You’ll help teachers be more accountable to your core values, vision, and mission and take more ownership over their own practice. And, you’ll overcome toxicity in your culture and create a school culture where every adult in your building is working together for student success.

At the end of our 3 days together, you’ll know exactly how to overcome pushback, get all your teachers committed to your school vision, and create a school culture where everyone takes ownership over their practice and works together to live out your school mission.

Now we’re also doing something else really cool. We’ve heard from a LOT of instructional coaches who have said, “Can you create something that’s just for us?” There just isn’t a lot of training out there that is focused on the unique challenges that instructional coaches face.

So, we’ve created Builder’s Lab, the Coach’s Edition. This workshop has all the things that people LOVE about Builder’s Lab but with a specific focus on instructional coaches. As a coach, you are kinda out there on your own. You don’t have the positional authority that an administrator has so you can’t compel teachers to act on your feedback, and you are often not really seen as a part of the team with the administrators in your building. You’re under pressure to produce results but without the support you need to be able to do it.

So that’s why we’ve created the Coach’s Edition of Builder’s Lab so we can directly address the unique challenges that coaches face. You’ll not only learn how to provide teachers with feedback, support, accountability, and culture, you’ll learn how to get teachers to invite you into their classrooms and trust you with their practice, how to provide the right kind of follow up support, how to manage your principal so that he or she sees you not just as the last resort to work with struggling teachers, but as a real member of their team, and how you can tap into the unique power that you have to really influence the culture.

By the time we’ve completed our 3 days together, you’ll be ready to go back to your school and be a Change Agent in your school that has a significant impact on the teaching and learning at your school.

So right now, go to and get your tickets today for either Builder’s Lab or Builder’s Lab the Coach’s Edition and get ready to discover how to get everyone who works in your school or district on board and working together towards your school goals. That’s and I’ll also put a link in the show notes. 

Ok, so today kicks off season 3 of School Leadership Reimagined and this season is all about:

The difference between a leader and a builder

The reason why I wanted to do a whole season on this topic is because most of us were trained to be leaders.

And yet, our training fails us all the time when we are facing any situation that is at all outside the normal.

For instance, our training on how to give feedback works great with a teacher who welcomes feedback and wants to improve. But what about that teacher who doesn’t believe they need to improve? Or, what about that teacher who takes our feedback too personally and breaks into tears during a post-observation conference? Or what about that teacher who calls the union on us every time we give them feedback we don’t like?

Our training doesn’t really show us how to deal with that.

We’ve all been trained that we put together professional development opportunitites for our teachers. But what happens when we have some teachers who really need support in one area and we have other teachers who really need support in a different area? Or what about the teachers who are already really good and are bored at the trainings we provide? Our training really doesn’t teach us how to differentiate our support. Or what happens when teachers sit through PD but don’t actually implement what they learn in the classroom? Again, our training really doesn’t show us what to do about that.

We’ve all been trained on accountability and looking at data and improvement. But what happens when teachers get overwhelmed with all our new initiatives and start to shut down? Or what happens after we look at data and determine that we are behind? Our training as leaders really doesn’t address any of this. It’s almost as if our training expects everything to always work perfectly.

But it doesn’t always work perfectly. Sometimes, teachers push back. Sometimes students’ needs change. Sometimes cultures shift.

And that’s when our training as leaders fails us.

And then what? What are we supposed to do?

That’s the biggest difference between what we were taught to do as leaders and what we learn to do as builders. You see our leadership training operate in a very narrow realm and under ideal circumstances.

But outside of that very narrow realm, it fails us.

Buildership on the other hand anticipates challenges. It’s not reactive, it’s proactive. It helps you prepare for what’s coming and handle it like a, well, like a Builder.

Leaders react. Builders anticipate. When things don’t go as planned, leaders just work harder. Builders adjust. Leaders muscle through challenges. Builders transform their challenges into new opportunities.

So this season, we’re going to look at the some of the specific situations you may be facing right now and we’re going to compare how you were probably trained to handle them as a leader and how you should handle them as a builder.

This week, we’re going to tackle a situation that comes from a question someone sent me on LinkedIn. This listener writes, “What do you do about a staff that is never satisfied. They complain about something and I fix it but it’s still not enough. I’ve done everything for my staff and they STILL aren’t satisfied..”

It’s a pretty common issue unfortunately.

You want to move your staff forward but they complain about some obstacle that’s in their way. 

Maybe you want them to create more rigorous lesson plans but they complain that they don’t have time to plan. Or maybe you want them to collaborate more or do more cross-curricular lessons but they complain that they don’t have enough common planning time. Or maybe you want them to differentiate more but they complain that they don’t know how.

So you give them the extra time, or you revise the scheduel to create a common planning period, or you get them really top-notch training and then…

Nothing. Nada. Nothing changes. It’s business as usual.

Have you ever done that? Have you ever bent over backwards to try to support teachers and they still aren’t satisfied?

Well, it may not be your fault. You see, the way that we’ve been trained as leaders is to identify the challenge people are facing and remove it. As leaders, we are problem solvers.

The problem is, a lot of times when we go out of our way to make things easier for teachers, things still don’t change.

So we blame ourselves and work harder and harder trying to win them over. Or we blame them and accuse them of being lazy.

But neither one of those explanations is actually true.

There’s something else going on underneath the surface...

that, if we understood it, would help us meet teachers’ needs in a way that keeps them motivated and empowered to do the work we ask of them.

That’s what Builders understand from the very beginning and that’s why Builders don’t waste time bending over backwards trying to meet the demands of teachers and students and parents only to be met with an immediate lack of appreciation and more complaints down the line.

So today, we’re going to talk about how Builder’s handle complaints versus how Leaders handle complaints.

Much of the information I am going to share with you today comes from Frederick Herzberg’s Motivation Hygiene Theory. I’ll try to link to his HBR article in the show notes.

Herzberg introduced something called the 2 factor theory which is the idea that the factors that produce job satisfaction are separate and distinct from the factors that produce job dissatisfaction. That means that just because you remove the factors that are producing job dissatisfaction, doesn’t mean that suddenly employees are satisfied. In fact, if you eliminate those things that produce job dissatisfaction, you may stop hearing the complaints but you won’t necessarily change someone’s job performance.

So let’s go back to the way that leaders typically deal with complaints. Has someone ever come into your office and complained about something and your stomach immediately gets caught up in a bunch of knots? That used to happen to me. I used to HATE it when someone came into my office to complain.

So what leaders do is that they allow that complaint to upset them and create stress and that’s because when someone complains, leaders immediately feel the pressure to do something about it.

So they get to work on trying to solve the problem. Sometimes that means changing a policy or slowing down on an initiative or backing off something they were pushing to get done.

Then, after they make the change, they expect teachers to now do the work they are asking them to do.

But a lot of times, even though they gave teachers exactly what they said they wanted, the teachers are STILL not happy which leads the leader to conclude that the teachers are lazy and whiny and the leader gets frustrated because it seems that there is nothing that they can do to make teachers happy.

But here’s the mistake with that way of thinking. Just because you “solve” someone’s dissatisfaction with their job does not mean that your work is done. Hardly.

What Builder’s know is that there is another step if you want to make sure that teachers are experience real job satisfaction. Not only must you REMOVE those issues that create job dissatisfaction, you must also BUILD those elements that create job satisfaction.

Removing the things that cause job dissatisfaction are not enough. 

So here’s what Builders do. Builders know that typically the things that cause job dissatisfaction are things like district policies, the feeling that they are being micromanaged, somethings adrift in their relationship with you or with their peers, their work conditions are conducive to success, or they feel that their status or security is being threatened.

So when they are presented with a problem, they ask themselves -- does the teacher need me to adjust an unfair policy, or do I need to allow the teachers more ownership and responsibility, or do I need to repair our relationship, or are their conditions at work that are keeping them from being effective, or can I remove a threat to their status or security.

Builders don’t just jump and address the problem. They look for the root cause of a teacher’s dissatisfaction. For instance, sometimes teachers complain that they need more time for grading and planning.

Leaders start moving heaven and earth to give teachers 30 minutes per week of extra planning time and then wonder why teachers aren’t grateful.

Builders on the other hand dig a little deeper. Do teachers want more planning time because they are grappling with a policy that is taking their time and energy away from what they really want to be working on? Do they need more planning time because they feel that their time is being too micro-managed and they are looking for more freedom? Do they want more planning time because they crave more interaction with each other and opportunities to collaborate? Do they want more planning time because they are being bogged down by their working conditions and they just need a break? Do they want more planning time because some policy or initiative feels as if it is threatening their status or independence and so they are pushing back to retain some control over their practice?

There are all kinds of reasons why teachers may want more planning time. But if you just jump to a solution without delving into the root cause first, you run the risk of giving teachers exactly what they ask for without really meeting their needs.

But Builders don’t just stop there because removing a cause of dissatisfaction is not the same as doing something that builds job satisfaction and true motivation. So yes, while you do need to understand where teachers are dissatisfied and get to the root cause of their dissatisfaction and address it, Builders know that that is only half the battle.

The other half of the battle, and I would argue the most important half of the battle is that you must also do things to foster people’s job satisfaction and motivation. 

And it is here that Builders really shine.

You see leaders try to motivate teachers too. But usually leaders try to motivate teachers by making them FEEL better about their work without actually making teachers’ work more satisfying.

The way to make teachers’ work more satisfying is to give them opportunities to feel successful in their work, recognize their hard work, give them more interesting work, increase their responsibility and ownership, and give them opportunities to advance and grow.

Builders are not sitting in their offices all day swatting complaint after complaint after complaint. They are proactively and intentionally designing a school environment where teachers can find real meaning in their work and see real results for their students.

Let me give you an example. Suppose we start a new grading policy that requires that all teachers give students opportunities for reassessment. Well, that new policy is going to require MORE work from teachers who now have to design a good assessment, design a different reassessment and then find time to remediate students, reteach, and then reassess not to mention grade that new assessment in addition to the original one.

A boss will deny that it’s any more work for teachers or they will dismiss teachers’ concerns that it is more work.

A leader will try to convince teachers that although it is more work, that additional work is worth it and then offer teachers a rousing pep talk about how this is the right work to be doing because after all, it’s for the kids.

If that guilt trip doesn’t work, leaders will employ what Hertzberg calls a KITA which stands for Kick in the (you fill in the blank). Leaders will make it a school-wide or district-wide policy. They will check and chase and punish those who don’t comply.

And the problem with either the guilt trip or the KITA is that both require constant reinforcement and both strategies focus on short-term results.

But Builders? Builders go about things differently. Builders understand that you never motivate people by giving them MORE work or even ways to manage their work differently.

You motivate people by freeing them up to do the right work, work that is intrinsically rewarding. 

So Builders first look at ways they can free teachers up to focus on the right work. Are there current policies that need to be re-examined? Are teachers still working on old initiatives that the district or school as long-since abandoned. Is there busy work that doesn’t make a measurable difference in the lives of students but teachers are expected to do it anyway.

The Builder gets rid of all these things so that teachers not only have time to do the more important work, but so that teachers spend more time engaged in work that matters.

But that’s not all. Instead of spending a lot of time trying to “sell” the new grading policy, Builders engage teachers in understand why there is a need for the policy and in developing ways to integrate the policy into their work. They focus on the design of the work itself and get teachers really involved in designing how that new policy will be implemented in the work they are already doing on behalf of students. They highlight where teachers have successfully implemented the policy and give teachers feedback and support that help them get better at both designing good assessments that help more students be successful the first time, and designing a re-teaching and re-assessment loop that quickly gets students on track. Their goal isn’t just to implement the new policy; their goal is to leverage the new policy so that they practically eleminate student failure and every student is meeting or exceeding rigorous learning goals.

In other words, Builders find ways to not only decrease dissatisfaction with the new policy, they also find ways to make the new grading policy more satisfying to implement for teachers.

So teachers implement the policy not because they are afraid of punishment, or fear of failure. They implement the new grading policy because they see the value in it and they actually WANT to.

That’s the difference between Leaders and Builders.

Leaders hear complaints and try to address job conditions, quickly solve the problem and get the complainer off their backs.

Builders hear complaints and listen for the root cause. 

Then they address the real reason behind the complaint AND they also work to make the job more rewarding and satisfying to teachers so that teachers are internally motivated to do their work on behalf of students. 

So if you feel like you are constantly on the hamster wheel trying to please teachers who seem to never be satisfied with anything that you do. Get off.

You don’t have to fix everything and you really shouldn’t even try because a lot of times what people are complaining about isn’t even the real problem. Instead, recognize that if you want your teachers to feel motivated and satisfied with their jobs, there are actually two things you need to do.

One, you need to uncover the source of their dissatisfaction and address it.

And two, you need to look for ways to make their jobs more satisfying so that you build on teachers internal motivation to do what’s best for all children.

That’s how to deal with complaints #LikeABuilder

Now, before we go, 

Don’t forget to get your ticket to Builder’s Lab 2019. If you want to find out how to get your people on board and moving so that you can still reach your goals THIS year, even the resistant nay-sayers or the people who are just plain stuck, then you need to come to Builder’s Lab 2019. Just go to and get your ticket now.

And, let’s make sure that we’re connected on LinkedIn okay? Find me at Robyn Jackson and let’s connect!

Also, I would love to know what you think about the podcast. Would you please go to itunes and leave me an honest review? Not only would it give me incredible feedback, it will help others find this podcast as well.

And speaking of finding this podcast, if you’ve been served by this podcast, would you please share this podcast with someone else? I would count it as a personal favor if you would.

Next week...

Okay, next week is kinda juicy because we’re going to look at the difference between the way that leaders and builders hold teachers accountable. In particular, we’re going to look at what happens when a teacher violates a boundary or doesn’t follow through on something that they were supposed to do? How do you handle it when a teacher crosses the line?

So I hope you’ll tune in next time to find out how to hold teachers accountable for crossing a boundary #LikeABuilder.

Bye for now. See you next time. 

Thank you for listening to the School Leadership Reimagined podcast for show notes and free downloads visit

School Leadership Reimagined is brought to you by Mindsteps Inc, where we build a master teachers.