Directors Who Suppress Criticism

“Any teacher in our school who is not happy is welcome to move on with our blessing.” 
The closing remarks to a letter we received from a school director unhappy with his ISR reviews

It goes unsaid that many outstanding directors are leading fine international schools around the world. This article is not about these men and women who comprise the majority of educational leaders. Instead, this article focuses on international school heads who attempt to suppress teachers’ comments and criticisms, considering themselves in a league of their own, above and beyond their staffs’ credibility and qualification to interpret their performance.

As you might guess, ISR does, from time to time, receive email from “disgruntled” directors and principals in regards to specific reviews. Most of these emails have one thing in common–they often assume a “tone” and “posture” reflective of the way in which these individuals have been described in the very reviews to which they object. It’s odd they don’t recognize this fact.

Face-to-face communication with an administrator would certainly be the best way for teachers to resolve problems and concerns. But, when this type of communication may be career threatening, ISR offers teachers a safe venue through which to communicate their concerns to both their administrator and teachers who may be considering the particular school for a future career move.

Recently, a group of reviews asserted an administrator bullied the teaching staff. The author concluded by advising teachers to avoid the school. When the director wrote requesting ISR remove the reviews, the “tone” of his letter reflected the identical behavior to which he resented being accused. The review came to life, so to speak.

“…you have allowed disgruntled, unprofessional cowards to trash the reputation of a fine international school and myself. At a minimum, I expect you to remove any references to my name or me from your reviews immediately. If you choose to be professional, you will remove the two reviews posted in October, and early December and refuse to allow the individuals who posted those reviews to have access to your forum…”

Note that ISR was not asked to remove the school completely from the web site, just the specific reviews found objectionable. Suggestions for rewriting sections of other reviews were also included in the email. Not surprising, no mention was made of what to do with the complimentary reviews. We responded by sending a link to an ISR article that describes constructive ways to put criticism to positive use. The reviews were not removed from the ISR web site. Letters of threat followed. Considering himself above criticism from his professional teaching staff, this individual chose denial and suppression as his response to teachers’ comments.

Another director recently demanded the names of the people posting reviews so legal action could be taken. He treated us just as the reviews claimed he treated his teaching staff.

Can you provide us with the names of the reviewers? … 2 bitter people should not be allowed to vent personal views on a public forum. We are very keen to take the legal route and have the resources to do so. I’m writing to the times educational supplement about your practice…Please let me know by return email if you intend to give me the name of the person who has slandered my name and if you intend to withdraw the comment.

ISR informed the director that ISR reviews come from an anonymous-source form on the web site and we have no names or email addresses of people posting reviews. ISR did not remove the reviews in question and more threatening letters followed. We certainly understood how the staff felt. It is disheartening that some educational leaders hold themselves above professional opinion. We do not consider blaming and threatening staff an acceptable response to comment and criticism.

ISR believes education is about examining ideas contrary to our own, expanding our perceptions and growing as individuals based on those ideas. If you were a school director and the very people you hired, “the good fits”, later became dissatisfied with your performance, wouldn’t you endeavor to comprehend the situation instead of pointing an accusatory finger?

A prime example of an educational leader who considers staff members to be at fault for their dissatisfaction wrote to us in response to reviews saying the staff felt intimidated.

You suggest that “it would be a good idea to work to find out what is upsetting some teachers and causing them to feel intimidated: and then strive to solve the problem”. Do you know anything about schools? Do you really think that we do not have such procedures? And what are your qualifications to participate in such a debate on how to run a school? Personally, I have 24 years of teaching, an advanced degree and other certificates. I have worked hard to reach this point. Surely you understand that in any institution there will be someone who is unhappy. The answer for that person is NOT to hide behind that screen and abuse everyone, to his or her general loss. It is, simply, to move to a place where they are happy. Any teacher in our school who is not happy is welcome to move on with our blessing.

Would you feel comfortable sitting across the desk from this director and honestly expressing how you felt?

A recent survey among school directors attracted over 50 responses. The survey has since been removed from the web or we would supply you with the link. Obviously the organization is not proud of the results. The majority of the school directors responding were in favor of sacking a teacher accused of posting a negative review of his school. A group of these directors was calling for contract termination and an end to ISR. Many agreed! Suppression may be considered a legitimate response to criticism by more than just a few. 

Most alarmingly, of those calling for contract termination, some recommended the director first check local laws to be sure the teacher would have no legal recourse. Their attitude suggests they knew they would be breaking the laws of their home countries but would feel no moral objection in doing so if they could get away with it. How many other aspects of their “leadership” is permeated by this attitude? Some survey participants recommended schools take this incident as a warning to tighten their teaching contracts and make speaking poorly about one’s school grounds for immediate dismissal. One director even suggested they flood ISR with contrived reviews that paint a great picture of each school. 

Wouldn’t it be far more constructive for directors to evaluate teachers’ comments and work to create a better school environment than to expend their energy figuring out how to put an end to comments and criticism? We’ll leave you to draw your own conclusions on that one.

Thankfully, not all directors responding to the survey followed in lock step with their colleagues. One mockingly said we all know all international schools are good, all directors are responsible and everything negative on the ISR site is a lie written by troublemakers. This director said he would make the review in question available to his staff and encourage them to write their own reviews, offering a more balanced view of the school. Another director responded by saying we don’t know what prompted the teacher to post the review and maybe there really is a problem at this school.

Years ago, when a small handful of directors cried that, “a few disgruntled teachers are trashing our reputation”, they may have been seen as credible by some of their colleagues. Today, with over 2000 reviews on the site, many mirroring the same sentiment about particular school leaders, it is obvious that belittling the voice of the previously disenfranchised is no longer a valid stance.

Is there an answer to this dilemma? There are certainly some schools to be avoided and it goes without question that no amount of editing or comment suppression will ever change the reality that exists at these schools. The responsibility thus appears to be squarely on the shoulders of teachers to keep each other informed. It’s one thing to stand around the parking lot after school and confide in a parent, filling them in on information best kept between the staff and administration. It is an entirely different situation when careers and futures are at stake and teachers use web venues to save themselves and others from losing money, time and even their careers.

There are many great schools headed by fine directors. Unfortunately, there are also some real “land mines” to your career out there. As always, do your homework and learn all you can about a school before accepting a contract. An informed decision will help you to land in one of the many fine schools.