How Can I Avoid Complaints about Books I Teach?

Q: I’m a new teacher. What can I do to avoid complaints about the books I teach?

Because we never know what book might be upsetting to someone, it’s all but impossible to avoid complaints altogether. But what you can do is be proactive about finding the best books that meet your teaching needs and goals, and about maintaining open communication with the parents or guardians of the children you are teaching.

Keep these adults informed about what their children are learning/reading/doing in your classroom. Have all materials out to see during open houses; maybe you have a school or district web site you can also use. If you’re teaching in an elementary school where children are likely to take home a weekly newsletter, create a single sheet newsletter indicating what’s happening in the classroom, including the chapter book you’re reading daily.

If you are working with older children or teens, you might also want to consider mailing home a letter about what you will be studying and how the books you will be reading fit into the teaching/learning goals. (You wll probably have to check with your department chair or administrator to see if funds are available for such a mailing, or if there is an alternative way to get this information out.)

Encourage parents to communicate with you, too, and to ask questions if they have them. Establishing positive communication won’t guarantee you’ll never get a complaint, or a parent might not express concern, but it will increase the chances that you will hear about it as a concern RATHER THAN a complaint, and that it will come to you directly rather than to your administrator. It can make the difference between a constructive conversation and confrontation, too.

In terms of finding books, talk to your colleagues–in your grade level or department–about books. And get to know your school librarian–a terrific resource for everyone in the school.

You may already know about the National Council of Teachers of English and the International Reading Association, two organizations that provide a wealth of information and resources for classroom teachers. Go to local and regional meetings of these fine national professional organizations. Read their journals.

Here on the CCBC web site, click on “Books for Children and Young Adults” for links to many recommended book lists, ranging from our own bibliographies and reviews of new books to many of the annual best-of-the-year lists administered by other professional organizations. You’ll find many books with solid professional backing.

Finally, while you probably can’t avoid complaints, you certainly don’t want to invite them, either.

How would you invite a complaint? By not consistently keeping the parents/guardians of your students generally aware of what you’re teaching. By teaching a book you haven’t read in advance. By teaching a book without being able to say how it fits into your teaching and curriculum goals. By having a classroom collection of books that you aren’t familiar with and therefore cannot stand behind.

So focus on choosing books that you stand behind, and maintaining good communication with families. Your students will be terrifically lucky, and you’ll know that if a concern does arise, you’ve done all you can to make the outcome a positive one for your students and for you.

October, 2005