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Handling Student Complaints

29th July 2019

By Paul Bress

Few would doubt that we are now living in a world of ever increasing expectations on the part of the consumer. Everyone wants a bigger, better, TV; faster broadband; and more choice in everything. What’s more, these expectations are not confined to goods and services; they also apply to education. Students learning English as a Foreign Language, particularly those in the private sector, are becoming more aware of their role as consumers and are becoming increasingly strident if their aspirations are not met. They may complain about their grades, that their teacher is boring, that the level of the class is too high or too low, or that there’s too much or too little homework.

Many English Language teaching establishments seem to be of the view that they are running a first-rate service and that, if a student makes a complaint, then he/she is simply a ‘troublemaker’. This complaint may be dealt with summarily, and often no action is taken whatsoever. The result? A disgruntled student who will spread a bad atmosphere throughout the establishment, and who may even discourage other potential students from attending courses there. This is a grave error on the part of the school. The ‘complaints industry’ is becoming increasingly important. Organisations that don’t recognise this are falling further and further behind their competitors.

I think that it’s important that Directors of Studies are fully aware that most complaints are not made lightly and that they can, in fact, be quite legitimate. Delivering a course for a student learning English as a Foreign Language is an enormously complex business, and so the chances of something going awry are very high. And if a complaint is made, it’s of the utmost importance to deal with it properly – for everyone’s benefit.

Here are some guidelines for dealing with student complaints:

Mindset

Treat the student as a valued customer (rather than a ‘student’) and consider the different status that goes with that word. After all, in the private sector at least, these people pay your salary, your teachers’ salaries, and for all your overheads, etc. This is a simple truth that is worth being aware of at all times. Without fully occupied classrooms, classrooms full of contented customers, an organisation can’t hope to compete with other ones that do take complaints seriously.

Hearing the complaint

Give the complaining student the time to fully express his/her grievances. This means sitting, one-to-one, in a closed office, with absolutely no interruptions, and with a consensual seating arrangement. By this, I mean two chairs of the same height and degree of comfort, facing each other, and not separated by a table. Listening is of supreme importance.  It is a precondition for success in the process of resolving a problem. In fact, this very act may well be enough to resolve most student complaints. If a student thinks the teacher (or Director of Studies) isn’t listening carefully, and is eager to stop him/her in mid-flow, he/she will feel less respected. It would not be a good example of conflict resolution.

Taking action

Take action which is both fair and reasonable. Personally, I do not think that “the customer is always right”. But I do think that an appropriate reaction is crucial. 

If the stated grievances are clearly valid, then you should do something about them. For example, if the teacher is often three or four minutes late, tell that teacher clearly and firmly to arrive on time.

Example dialogue

Director of Studies: John, can I have a word?

John (teacher): Yes, sure.

Director of Studies: I just had a complaint. From Angelo in class 1A.

John: Oh?

Director of Studies: Yes, do you know what it’s about?

John: No, I don’t think so.

Director of Studies: It’s about your punctuality.

John: My punctuality?

(pause)

Director of Studies: He says you’re always three or four minutes late.

John: Oh.

Director of Studies: Well?

John: It may have happened once or twice. Sorry. I try to make up for it at the end of the lesson.

Director of Studies: Please arrive on time every lesson, OK?

John: Yes, of course. Sorry.

Director of Studies: Angelo knows I’m speaking to you.

John: OK.

Director of Studies: Thanks, John.

By the same token, if you think that complaints are not valid, or partially valid, then you still need to react appropriately. For example, if the student wants more grammar (while no other students do), ask the teacher to set additional homework for that individual student to do.

Example dialogue

Director of Studies: Boris?

Boris (teacher): Yeah?

Director of Studies: I’ve just had a complaint from Francesca.

Boris: Francesca?

Director of Studies: She says she wants more grammar.

Boris: More grammar? We agreed together on a syllabus and it’s on the wall. I show them every day what we’ve done and why. Am I doing it right?

Director of Studies: Absolutely. Well done. That’s what they should expect. I don’t want to disrupt a good class, but I’m wondering how we can adapt to Francesca’s needs?

Boris: No problem. I can give her some weblinks for the grammar every day? Get her to do some exercises? And check them?

Director of Studies: Could you? I know it’s going the extra mile. I'm sure she’d appreciate that.

Boris: My pleasure.

Director of Studies: Keep me posted, will you?

Boris: Sure.

Whatever you decide to do, you need a period of quiet reflection before you act. You may need to acquire some more data before you make your decision (for example, talking to teachers and checking work records).

Debrief

It’s vital to check that everything is OK (after the changes have been implemented). This will be greatly appreciated by the client. It puts the final seal on the resolution process. It’s highly likely that the student will be more than happy with the changes implemented (and, indeed, may even feel guilty for having put the establishment to so much trouble!). If not, then another meeting needs to be set up – and to be conducted in the same rational way.

Example dialogue (scenario 1)

Director of Studies: Angelo?

Angelo (student): Yes?

Director of Studies: You told me about John not always being on time?

Angelo: Yes, I remember.

Director of Studies: How are things?

Angelo: It’s better now, thank you. He’s in the class before me every day. Thank you, Carol.

Director of Studies: Great. I’m always in my office if you need to speak to me.

Example dialogue (scenario 2)

Director of Studies:

Francesca (student): Yes?

Director of Studies: You told me you wanted more grammar in class, remember?

Francesca: Yes, I remember.

Director of Studies: I spoke to Boris, and he said you all agreed on a syllabus, and it’s on the wall. That’s our school policy.

Francesca: Yes, I know.

Director of Studies: But has he given you extra homework?

Francesca: Yes, that’s right. Every day. It’s very useful. Thank you so much.

Director of Studies: You’re welcome. Come and see me if you need to discuss other things, OK?

Francesca: Thanks, I will.

Handling complaints in multinational corporations is big business. But I don’t wish to be too cynical here. Doing it in the way described above seems to be both humane and in keeping with the modern world. And the concrete benefits are likely to be: a) customer satisfaction, b) a better atmosphere in the class in question, c) an enhanced reputation for the establishment (this is long-term), and d) the possibility of repeat sales.

Paul Bress

Paul Bress is a teacher/teacher trainer/teacher educator in ELT field for 35 years.  He has been involved in General English, English for Academic Purposes, and Business English. He has been employed by universities, publishing houses, and even the BBC. 

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