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.
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