Conflicts and communication

The law on communicating with supervisors, colleagues and parents

An educator is always communicating in some way to someone. Sometimes this communication is not entirely pleasant or voluntary. Volumes have been written on how to communicate effectively, but you should also know what legal requirements and prohibitions apply to your communication with others. Following is a brief and general overview of some of these legal guidelines and how they apply in situations common to educators. 

Under Texas law, a supervisor, as an “authorized agent” of an employer, can generally require an employee to do anything that is not illegal. This rule holds true for communications. There are a few common communication situations between an educator and supervisor:
  • Meetings: If your administrator requests a meeting, you must generally attend. No law specifically states that you must meet on demand, but many cases have upheld disciplinary consequences for refusal. An educator has no legal right to be accompanied at any meeting outside of the formal grievance process, and the supervisor is not required to give prior notice of the meeting or the subject matter unless these requirements are written into local policy. You must generally cooperate in the meeting, including answering questions. However, if your answer would incriminate you in illegal activity, or if questions involve your personal life rather than work-related subjects, you might have a right to refuse to answer. In either of these cases, you should get legal advice as soon as possible.
  • Requests for a written statement: A supervisor can generally require an educator to draft a statement regarding a work-related matter. The general rules just described for meetings would also apply to these statements.
  • You are asked or directed to apologize to a parent: When a parent has lodged a complaint, it is not uncommon for a supervisor to ask an educator to apologize to the parent, in hopes of resolving the matter quickly. Although this may be a legitimate strategy in some cases, doing so can have serious consequences for the educator in others. In some cases an apology can be interpreted as an admission of wrongdoing that can have serious implications for an educator’s job and career. If you are asked to apologize to a parent, you should obtain legal advice before doing so—especially when a student has been injured.
  • Reporting criminal offenses: Most local board policies incorporate a requirement that district employees report certain arrests or convictions to designated administrators within a specified, and usually very short, period of time. It is important to know your district’s policy as failure to make a required report in a timely way can result in serious consequences to both your job and career. Again, because what you say might affect the criminal matter, and because you might face consequences due to the criminal offense itself, you should try to obtain legal advice.
  • Supervisor’s communications: A supervisor typically is not legally obligated to respond to inquiries, explain decisions or justify actions. There are specific exceptions where a response is required, such as in the formal grievance process or where a lack of response has its own consequences—such as when policy states that a leave request is considered approved if it is not denied by a certain date.
The importance of good communication is just as important in your professional relationships as it is in your personal. Some supervisors will tell their staff directly how they prefer to be communicated with. It is often useful to follow their preference as that can increase your chances for a positive response, but of course that is not always possible.
A common concern of educators is how to address their concerns without harming their relationship with their supervisor.  Again, it’s an important part of any supervisor’s job to listen and address the concerns of his subordinates. Typically, if an educator communicates with his supervisor in a professional tone and has reasonable expectations, the expression of the concern itself will not damage his relationship with the supervisor. Of course, what is reasonable is not always what is real. Educators can be confronted by an unreasonable supervisor, just as any worker can. Unfortunately, there are no “magic solutions” to this situation for educators, just as there are none for workers in any profession.  
The following are a few approaches in order of increasing formality for communicating concerns to your supervisor. Which approach is right for you will depend entirely on you, your supervisor and your specific situation. 
  • When you have a concern to express, it is often a good first step to ask for an informal meeting with your supervisor. In an informal meeting, you can simply tell your supervisor about your concern. It is generally most effective to keep a professional tone and limit any accusatory comments, simply to limit the chance of running into defensiveness. If you have proposed solutions for your issue, let your supervisor know what they are. 
  • If a meeting is not possible or preferable, another option for communicating a concern is an informal email. This has the added benefit of documenting the communication, which can be a significant benefit is some cases.  An email can be short and simply state your concern. An informal email can also be helpful as a follow up to an informal meeting where you can document what has been discussed and what next steps if any were agreed upon. 
  • If this informal approach yields unsatisfactory results you may consider drafting a memorandum of concern. A memorandum of concern is basically a detailed memorandum describing what your concerns are and why it is important for the concern to be addressed. The memorandum can include steps you’ve taken to address the concern, what additional support you need to address the concern and/or ask for additional guidance from your supervisor to address your concern. 
  • If informal attempts to resolve a problem have been unsuccessful, another option for addressing your concerns is to file a formal grievance. A grievance is a formal complaint that allows you to bring your concerns up through the district administration and request remedies for your concern. A grievance can be filed about any condition of work even if your supervisor is acting within the law, but that’s not to say that a grievance is always the best alternative for addressing a concern even if your informal efforts haven’t produced the result you would like. While you are protected from being retaliated against for filing a grievance, it is not uncommon for a grievance filing to have a chilling effect on an educator’s relationship with her administration. There is no guarantee the district will grant your grievance, but it is the avenue for your concern to be heard. Educators should be aware that most districts have short timelines to initiate a grievance, so this can be an issue with ongoing concerns.  
Finally, educators should remain aware that it is almost always best not to react out of emotion whether it is in anger, frustration or disappointment. Communication can be most effective after a cooling-off period, which gives an educator the chance to think about how she might best approach a supervisor with a concern. It is also generally a good idea to follow “the chain of command” of your campus/district whenever possible. For instance, your principal will likely become defensive if you meet with an upper administrator regarding a concern without first giving her the opportunity to resolve the issue.  
Your non-supervisory, peer co-workers cannot generally require any kind of communication from you other than that ultimately required by a supervisor, such as sharing lesson plans or cooperating in department meetings. Your relationship with your peers is, by definition, one of equals. However, there are laws that even regulate communication among equals. You may not harass a coworker based on race, nationality, age, gender, religion or disability. “It was a joke” is not considered a defense. You also should be very careful in comments that could be taken as sexually suggestive as they might be considered sexual harassment.  Finally, you should be cautious in talking about a co-worker’s personal life and business.
Of course, your peers have the same responsibilities to communicate to you professionally. If they fail to, the matter can be addressed to a supervisor as described above. It is common advice that it is best to try talking to the peer who has created a concern first, and this is, as a general rule, good advice. This is not always possible of course, and in some situations, such as illegal harassment, cannot be required.   
Chapter 26 of the Texas Education Code guarantees parents’ rights to access education records, teaching materials and state assessments regarding their child and also a right to information about their child’s academic progress. Therefore, an educator has a general obligation to share that information. There are exceptions as to what teaching material, such as tests, must be shared, so check with your supervisor if you have questions. An educator is conversely prohibited from sharing information about a student who is not the parents’ child.
Separate from these specific parents’ legal rights, in most cases a supervisor can require that an educator communicate with parents about an issue, such as disciplinary matters, if supervisor believes it to be appropriate—even if the parents themselves might not be able to require it.  

The legal information provided on this website is for general purposes only. It is not intended as a substitute for individual legal advice or the provision of legal services. Accessing this information does not create an attorney-client relationship. Individual legal situations vary greatly and readers should consult directly with an attorney. Eligible ATPE members should contact the ATPE Member Legal Services Department using our online contact form