In the last weeks of summer, families anxiously await their children's classroom assignments. Kids may be hoping for a certain teacher. Sometimes parents are, too.
Occasionally parents request a specific teacher or a special kind of teacher. Those who speak up usually feel that it is not only their right, but also their responsibility, citing swelling class sizes, declining budgets and growing evidence that teachers make the difference.
A 2010 analysis of teacher effectiveness by the Los Angeles Times suggests that parents should care about who teaches their children. The newspaper obtained seven years of test scores from the Los Angeles district and used the information to estimate the effectiveness of the city's educators. Teachers with consistently high student test scores usually brought kids from below grade level to above in one school year. By the end of the school year, however, there was a wide gap in learning progress between the classrooms of top teachers and those who were less effective.
But parents don't have this kind of data about teachers and often base their opinions on hearsay. It's easy to stereotype teachers as "the strict one" or "the fun one." Some parents, lacking the information to judge teacher quality, request teachers who they think are "better," based on popularity. Others make their requests, prompted by a previous positive experience with a teacher, in hopes of repeating that with another child.
Meanwhile, some parents go with a more relaxed approach to school decisions, believing that fosters more independence and confidence for their child. They feel a level of trust for their child's teachers and the school's leadership, and do not question class placement decisions.
"We get a sheet at the end of the year asking about our child's learning style and what type of environment works well for them," said Claire Helmer, a parent in Maple Grove. She is one of the majority of parents who do not make teacher requests.
"I think it is important to learn to work in different types of environments, and that includes teachers with different styles," she said. "When you are out of school, you can't necessarily pick and choose who you work with. However, I will say I do not feel that my child has special concerns for his education. If he did, my ideas may change."
Some schools have policies regarding class placement, and most will not promise a specific teacher. Nearly always, the principal makes the final decision, attempting to balance social and academic differences, plus gender, ethnicity and other demographic variables in the classroom.
"I always said to the parents of my students, 'Your job is to focus on what is best for your child. My job is to focus on what is best for all of the children. As a result, we don't always see things the same and may not always agree. But keep doing your job and I will keep doing mine,'" said Beth Westerhouse, a former elementary principal and now a teacher at Hidden Valley Elementary in Burnsville.
At Pullman Elementary in St. Paul Park, principal Ed Ross said that parent requests are a valuable part of the educational process. "I want parents to have input and be able to work with their child's current teacher. But in the end, the decision on where children are placed into classrooms is mine. I let them know that there are a variety of factors that go into class placements — academic achievement, motivation, personalities, etcetera — and we spend a lot of time making sure the lists are in the best interest of the students academically."
Principals take classroom placement seriously. Speaking of the time and thoughtful consideration that go into the process, Westerhouse said, "I remember the hours I spent creating and re-creating class lists, based on teachers' firsthand knowledge of the students and their needs. It is one of the most important tasks in getting ready for a new school year, because whatever is created is what you, the students and the staff live with all year."
Be an advocate
So what's a parent to do? Whether or not the school solicits parent requests, here are some tips for those who want to have a say:
• Ask about the school's teaching practices and culture. With a strong, cohesive philosophy and teachers working collaboratively, there will be fewer discrepancies among teaching styles.
• Ask about the school's policy on student placement and if it allows for parental input.
• Talk to parents whose kids are like yours in terms of interests, learning style and/or special needs to learn more about the teachers at your child's school.
• If your school doesn't have a formal policy, advocate in writing and explain what would work best for your child and why.
• Be flexible. For those at the secondary level, where students are only with teachers for one period a day, landing a teacher with a different style lets kids figure out how to work with others.
G.J. Olson is a retired teacher and freelance writer from Faribault, Minn.