by Chris Tillen, Staff Writer, February 2021
Your teacher may be singling out female students and giving out grades unfairly. They might have made rude comments when you met with them for extra help. Perhaps your teacher handles controversial content in a problematic manner and has made inappropriate remarks regarding material within a book during a class discussion.
In any institution, there always exists a possibility for students to be uncomfortable in the classroom on account of their experience with a teacher. When such a situation arises, the next step would be to lodge a complaint so that all parties could resolve the issue. But how exactly do you lodge a complaint against a teacher at Nobles?
When asked about student complaints, Dune Streeter (Class I) said, “No one expects to have to lodge one, so no one really knows how to go about reporting someone. It feels like there isn’t a right person to go to.” An additional unnamed Class I student who previously wished to discuss a faculty member’s behavior said, “I had no idea how to raise the point and approach it. Like who should I talk to? I didn’t really know what I was doing.”
But why isn’t information about how to handle situations like these more readily available? Streeter said, “There’s a real fear of upsetting the administration and the parents and advertising the school in a way that makes it look anything other than perfect. And it results in people not understanding what resources are there to help them.”
Although these students illustrated how they initially didn’t know where to go, there is both an informal and formal system for student feedback. Dean of Faculty Maura Sullivan said, “The best system is one: our advisory system and two: the fact that we’re a relatively small school and kids have good relationships with adults here.”
Additionally, Sullivan emphasized the merit of feedback and stated, “We are a school where we hope that kids and adults have good and trusting relationships. That only works if students are willing to give feedback about what’s working and what’s not.” Sullivan continued and said, “There’s nothing we can do about [an issue] if we don’t know about it. We encourage [lodging a complaint] because it’ll make the kid feel better to just talk about it.”
Head of Upper School Michael Denning discussed how he wished more kids came forward and said, “One of the most frustrating parts of this process is that a lot of times we don’t know when a student is upset.” Denning went on to highlight how he hopes students feel comfortable reaching out to adults such as an advisor or himself when they have a complaint.
Sullivan then mentioned the official support structure that Nobles has in place to handle situations where students are searching for a way to lodge a complaint. Nobles has an ‘Ombuds Office’ where Provost Bill Bussey and Nobles Day Camp Director Emily Parker are available as resources. Sullivan said, “An Ombuds Office in most schools is a place where a student who has an issue that they want to keep a little more anonymous can go. The Ombudsperson can help mediate a grievance.”
In reality, the Ombuds system doesn’t see much action. Streeter said, “I have been here since the seventh grade and I’ve never heard of that.”
On the other hand, students have had varied experiences with solely talking to an advisor. Streeter stated, “The only reason I was able to report [a faculty member] was because I have connections with teachers and my advisor whom I feel comfortable enough to share discomfort with.” However, not all students are close with their advisor. In those cases, where do students turn? Streeter said, “It’s really difficult to reach out to people, especially faculty members that you just don’t click with. A lot of people would rather sit quietly and take it instead of reaching out to a new person to deal with an uncomfortable thing.”
Even in situations where students have positive relationships with their advisors, complaints don’t always go swimmingly. A second anonymous student in Class II was met with initial barriers when speaking to an advisor and said, “I feel like in some way they were trying to back up the teacher. I felt like I needed to keep pushing them to talk about it.”
The first aforementioned unnamed Class II student had a similar experience and said, “I have a really great relationship with my advisor but it felt like they thought my experience was anecdotal.”
This Class II student continued and said “I feel like it [issue with teacher] got worse because then I thought that my advisor didn’t think it was a real issue.” Sometimes an advisor’s response can lead to a student feeling like their experience is invalid, or that they need to put in extra work to overcome the initial resistance.
When asked about how the administration approaches student complaints, Sullivan said, “We assume that there must be more to the story than we’ve heard so far[…]There’s always more to the story than one person knows.”
Sullivan also discussed how the administration would do additional digging beyond a single complaint.Were the advisors whom these two students sought out hesitant to accept the initial complaint because they wished to hear both sides of the story?
The first step of helping students is to make it easier to give feedback. When asked how this could happen, Streeter said, “The administration could be more upfront about what avenues you could take if you’re really unhappy or uncomfortable. Make them more obvious to the student body.” Streeter mentioned how an assembly announcement promoting said options would be helpful.
In response to the call for more awareness, Denning said, “I could go to each class meeting and say that if something comes up, tell somebody. Tell your advisor or another adult.”
But how effective is it to simply tell students that they can reach out to an advisor or an adult when there exists a fear of retribution? Before they lodged a complaint, Streeter said, “I was super nervous because I was worried it would either hurt my grade or make me seem annoying.”
Streeter sheds light on how when a student is having a negative experience, it sometimes seems like speaking up will only exacerbate the scenario. The aforementioned unnamed Class II student struck the same chord and said, “I was worried about my in-class experience.”
On the contrary, Gavin Swartz (Class II) said, “I felt comfortable bringing it up. There was a certain amount of time where I was holding it in, but then when I hit my limit I knew I had to talk to someone. That was really the only way things were gonna change: if I told someone.”
Swartz highlights how some students hesitate to reach out for a different reason than fear. In his case, he was hoping things would naturally get better.
Denning spoke on this potential fear and said, “I’m always saddened when I hear that some people are so afraid to come forward. When a teacher has an experience with a student where there is a misunderstanding and some hard feelings, they tend to feel badly about it and are then going to be really careful with the grade[…]our teachers are highly ethical, caring people who take grades very seriously. I have not had to investigate a single case where a student has accused a teacher of marking them down because they came forward about a concern.”
Another aspect of students lodging complaints against faculty is confidentiality. In some cases, the student wishes to remain unknown due to fear of a negative response from the teacher in question. In those cases, Denning said, “That’s hard on the teacher too because our teachers are so caring and usually they want to apologize.” Denning added that teachers also want to help students feel more comfortable in their classrooms after the student speaks up about an issue.
In others, the student is not told about what happens after they speak up. Because the administration cannot disclose how they handle issues such as these, students sometimes complain and then hear nothing after the initial conversation.
Denning has personal experiences with handling confidentiality and how it may affect students. He said, “We investigate everything but we can’t tell the [complainant] every detail of the process and outcome. What I try to do is explain to students how much we care and how much I want to listen. I lean into the fact that it’s hard. I would like to alleviate some of the hard feelings or feelings that the school is being callous because it’s actually the opposite.”
However, this confidentiality leaves students without an answer. After going through the process of meeting with faculty over a teacher’s behavior, one unnamed Class I student said, “I don’t think all of it needed to be confidential, and I would have liked a little bit of reassurance that something was being done on some level.”
This unnamed Class I student spoke on the benefits of anonymous feedback. They stated, “It [anonymity] encourages more people to step forward and be able to feel that they have a voice.”
On the other hand, Sullivan illuminated potential issues with anonymous feedback and said, “It’s hard to validate a complaint if you don’t know where it’s coming from.” Sullivan also shows that the administration has a harder time handling complaints when the student in question isn’t an explicit part of the process.
Many teachers do ask for anonymous feedback, but how frequently or if at all varies largely from class to class. To solve this inconsistency, one unnamed Class II student said, “Maybe it would be good if an advisor collected forms from students asking about their experiences.”
So what’s the future of student complaints? Hopefully, we can push for one where students know about the resources available to them and feel comfortable using them. In doing this, we truly begin to live the Nobles motto “never worry alone.”