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Let me pick my kid's teacher

We all know it is a no-no for parents to choose their child's teacher. Class placement should be done by professionals, not us wild-eyed self-absorbed Moms and Dads. We can't let the Buttinskys, you know the type, get all the best teachers for their kids. If parents got to pick, we know there would be fights over the limited number of spaces in Ms. Wonderful's fourth grade, and only the really clueless parents would ask for Ms. Meanie.

And yet, a few principals have confessed to me in private that they do take parental preferences into consideration. A couple of them have said they let everyone know that their choice, if they have one, will be heard and acted upon if possible. You won't be surprised to learn that mostly these have been principals in rural communities where everybody knew everybody else. In some grades there was only one teacher anyway.

Still, would it be so bad if parents had a chance to tell the principal, without fear of being shunned as pushy jerks, that their child might react better to one brand of teaching than another? Many parents do this anyway, quietly. I don't see the harm in a note on the school Web site, or in the parent bulletin, telling parents that the principal would be happy to hear their teacher preferences, although of course can make no promises.

This is one of those parenting moments when more is often going on than we want to talk about. Public discussion can spark jealousies and hurt feelings and worse. I would love to hear from parents, teachers and principals who have some experience with this. Was expressing a preference really so bad? Was the result in the best interests of the child?

Teachers, at least the experienced ones I know, have grown accustomed to the fact that they are not going to be able to satisfy every parent or student. They do what works best for them, and try to adjust when a favorite method doesn't reach a certain student. But they would be among the first to tell a conscientious parent who has doubts about their teaching style that the child might be better off with another teacher.

How is that going to happen if we consider teacher shopping a crime?

Even great teachers have different styles and appeal to different kinds of students. The best teacher I ever saw, the man who made me an education reporter, was Jaime Escalante, the East Los Angeles math whiz. I wrote a book about him and he became a national celebrity when the film "Stand and Deliver" was made. But there were students in his class, very bright ones, who hated the way he taught.

He was unpredictable--teasing, pushy and full of jokes. Some of his students told me they preferred their math delivered in less aggravating doses. So they would switch to Escalante's protege, Ben Jimenez, the other AP calculus teacher. Jimenez's record of preparing students to pass the AP test was just as good as Escalante's, but he did it in a more straightforward way. His students didn't need to be entertained to stick with the course. What was wrong with students, and their parents, deciding which was best for them, as long as there was some room in the other class?

By Jay Mathews  | February 24, 2010; 5:30 AM ET
Categories:  Jay on the Web  | Tags:  Ben Jimenez, Jaime Escalante, parents picking their child's teacher, principals let parents pick teachers, pushy parents, teacher shopping  
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Comments

I think if you do lobby for a particular teacher you need to keep that fact from your child.

If they don't get your first choice you don't want them deciding they don't like the teacher and blaming all their shortcomings on the teacher.

Posted by: RedBird27 | February 24, 2010 6:36 AM | Report abuse

One of the bigger problems that I have with it is that it just accentuates the problems that we already have.

At the high school level (for example), who is going to ask for the more talented teachers? ANSWER: the parents who are already involved with their kids educations.

If let's say half the parents are involved enough to care about which teacher their child gets, what teacher are the students who need the most help and support (since their parents aren't involved) going to get? ANSWER: The less skilled one.

Jay,

You describe the decision as one of teaching styles, and if that is the case then it could be less harmful, but realistically, it is an issue of what teacher is seen as being more skilled. When that is the case, we are ill-serving the kids who don't have involved parents who most need the talented teachers.

Posted by: Wyrm1 | February 24, 2010 7:02 AM | Report abuse

Parents who are always asking for a particular teacher, year after year, get tuned out. Principals know that this is just, as you say, an attempt to get the best teachers. On the other hand, parents who haven't asked before, when their second or third child gets up into the 4th grade range, and who have a specific reason to need to avoid a particular teaching or personality style (as in the Escalane vs. Jimenez example) may be listened to. And should be, if at all possible.

Posted by: jane100000 | February 24, 2010 9:04 AM | Report abuse

Related question - if we (dis)allow parents and families to select teachers should we also (dis)allow parents and families to select schools? Just wondering if there are any obvious differences between these two that I'm missing b/c I see the pros and cons of the issues as being equivalent.

Posted by: proxy_knock | February 24, 2010 9:08 AM | Report abuse

I don't have any experience in this, but I do think that basing educational theories on Jaime Escalante is kind of weird. He is (was?) so far off the chart compared to most teachers. Most parents are not choosing between a famous teacher and his protege!

Posted by: pittypatt | February 24, 2010 9:37 AM | Report abuse

On a personal note,, our daughter was assigned a "stiff" in 2nd grade and it really encouraged my wife to reach out to others in trying to assure that it wouldn't happen again. On the other hand, she was assigned a male teacher in 5th grade when she would have preferred to continue having only female teachers and the experience really made her less shy and more assertive.

Parents know something about what their children need or respond to that principals should at least be able to consider. But if we are going to have diverse and balanced classes, we can't give activist parents complete control over who teaches their child.

Posted by: mct210 | February 24, 2010 9:38 AM | Report abuse

I used to work with a male teacher who had more military boot camp style. I am very freewheeling. However, we taught the same subject and worked together on our lesson plans.

At the beginning parents hated him and loved me. They wanted the "nice" teacher. However, nice doesn't work for every student. Many students learned better in his class than they would have in mine and some students preferred him. We took to trading students back and forth, some students "for keeps", others just for a while.

Our administration was supportive and the students thought it was fun. This was a high school so the students were "in the know" and got to have their say in the switches. Sometimes we'd switch for personality reasons, sometimes just to get a break, sometimes because the students asked, and sometimes for a specific learning goal.

This was a teacher led initiative; we made the whole thing up on our own and were lucky enough to have a school that supported our efforts. I hope someday, more schools are supportive of parent and teacher ideas and have the energy and resources to support them.

Posted by: ben83 | February 24, 2010 10:04 AM | Report abuse

I'm all for it. Let parents and kids provide feedback about teachers to principals. They might get insights that they wouldn't glean from walk-throughs. And if the point of education is for kids to learn, why not allow kids and parents to choose a teacher a teacher who best suits their learning needs? Or at least have input without being vilified. On numerous occasions I have seen how teacher match matters. My kids had the two same teachers at a certain grade level. The "good fit" was exactly opposite for them. I have seen one child's grade go from a C to an A in a semester simply with the switch of a teacher. More flexibility and humanity please.

Posted by: SwitchedOnMom | February 24, 2010 10:34 AM | Report abuse

How much do parents really know about each teacher? They are basing it on what they hear from other parents who are basing it on what they hear from kids. If parents want to request a specific teacher then they should be in classrooms observing to see if what they have heard is really true. Without that they have no real basis in reality.

We allow parents to share their thoughts about the type of teacher their child needs. They can talk about all sorts of information without requesting a teacher. That is valid. A parent knows their child well and knows what sort of atmosphere will be best. However, there is no way they really know which classrooms truly have that atmosphere.

My daughter attends school where I teach and I have not ever requested a teacher for her. I have made sure her teachers know what sort of classroom I think is best for her and then I allow them to find the best option. They know the teachers better than I do (even when I teach with them!).

Posted by: Jenny04 | February 24, 2010 10:36 AM | Report abuse

You set up a false choice. Usually, in public schools, there is one teacher that stands out. The rest simply aren't as competent. It's not the Escalante/Jiminez choice, which simply rested on teaching styles.

Parents should feel free to give administrators information about their child (e.g., he does better with structure); teacher requests should not be allowed.

I saw it get absolutely out of control at an upper NWDC public elementary school. The parents on the PTA gave the principal what she wanted for the school with money from the PTA coffers, and the principal gave these parents the teachers they wanted for their little darlings. It was nauseating,and unfair to kids whose parents were not in the "in" crowd.

Posted by: trace1 | February 24, 2010 10:45 AM | Report abuse

These comments are extremely helpful. Please keep them coming. I plan to ask all of the school districts in the Washington area if they have any policy on this, and then address it in a future column. I may use some of yr comments. If anyone would like to give me a thought or tell me an anecdote I might attach to yr real name, please email me at mathewsj@washpost.com.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | February 24, 2010 12:19 PM | Report abuse

I had a truly disastrous and I meant DISASTROUS 5th grade teacher. I went from being a normal if shy student to being called to the principal's office in a matter of 2 months. Finally the teacher had enough and demanded both my parents meet with her, the other 5th grade teacher, and the principal to find out what should be "done" with me- she wanted me in special ed. She outlined the issues and, I learned when my parents explained it to me as an adult, the other teachers in the room defended me as an excellent student and the principal sent an apology letter to my parents. I find out at my high school reunion that the same thing happened to two of my friends. Not getting stuck with an irrational or hateful teacher is critically important to a child's elementary education.

I had a relative who was accused, as a 6 year old, of being anti-Semitic and was asked to leave their first grade teacher's class. It literally came down to the 6 year old saying she wanted to sing "Frosty the Snowman" and not "Dreidel, Dreidel, Dreidel." Well, Frosty, unlike what this teacher claimed, is not a Christian song!!! If all teachers were sane this wouldn't be an issue, but the profession attracts a sizable percentage of people who can't do anything right in their lives.

I volunteer at my son's school, donate money, and meet with the principal to be able to have that kind of influence in my son's education. I don't whine and beg, the teachers and principals know who I am because I lead projects at the school. I will make everything work, I assure you, and not by asking, but by doing. Do I know who I want for my son's next year? Yes, and I've told that teacher already.

Posted by: bbcrock | February 24, 2010 1:10 PM | Report abuse

I say this with no shame. A significant reason I put in a lot of work as a volunteer is to ensure that I get a chance to request who may daughter's teacher will be the next year. I have always received my request, not sure if the placement would have been the same and I know in at least one case I did choose the wrong one. I think a parent is a fool not to make their preference known. Too often if there is a weaker teacher principals will out of survival give them the parents who will not complain. Children's author Andrew Clements wrote a great book called the Landry News that has a burned out teacher and he writes this great description of how kids ended up in his class it gave a lot to think about, and then I made sure I volunteered some more.

Posted by: Brooklander | February 24, 2010 1:13 PM | Report abuse

Having the ability to select teachers would be extremely helpful, especially to parents that have multiple children that have a couple of year’s difference in age. But somewhat unrealistic.

At the very least, all school systems should have brochures prepared that contain teacher’s background, qualification/certification, years of teaching experience to include grades and subjects taught.

Basically, an information packet that contain brief resumes of teachers within particular grades and/or school. The same should be updated annually and should be available at least electronically at respective schools.

Principal, Vice Principals and Administrators also included!

This at least gives a preview of whom we are intrusting our children when it comes to their educational experiences.

Posted by: TwoSons | February 24, 2010 2:31 PM | Report abuse

I like these ideas a lot. I hadn't considered disseminating information as TwoSons suggested. Keep them coming please.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | February 24, 2010 2:59 PM | Report abuse

Isn't this the whole concept of charter schools?


Trace1, I would like to complement you on you post here as well as the one yesterday. In both cases you had good points.

Posted by: mamoore1 | February 24, 2010 3:06 PM | Report abuse

I'd like to know more about how parents decide which teacher is best for their child. I worry that parents might choose based on who is most popular among the students, rather than who is actually the best teacher for their child. And if parents are picking teachers for the next grade, what information will they have about those teachers. If they're lucky, they can volunteer in the school or know other parents who had children in those teachers' classrooms. I too like TwoSons suggestion of providing parents with information packets about teachers. It would be interesting if they could also disclose each teacher's educational philosophy and, if the school allows teachers to use different approaches, the pedagogical methods typically employed in each teacher's classroom. Finally, if value-added student performance data were available, that would be very useful to parents.

I wonder what would happen if all parents got to rank their teacher choices, and that information was used both for placing students within classrooms but also as part of a teacher's evaluation. Would teachers care if few parents wanted to place their children in their class?

Posted by: gideon4ed | February 24, 2010 3:17 PM | Report abuse

I teach at a small public high school and am the only history teacher. One year a parent with connections demanded that her child receive another teacher--which would have required hiring a teacher just for their student! I bring this up to suggest that maybe parents can't be truly rational when considering their own children. For the good of their child, parent input is essential but must not be allowed to become decisive.

Posted by: sammons58 | February 24, 2010 3:34 PM | Report abuse

First, Jay, I have to laugh at your headlines. A few days ago, it was "Down with Parent Power!" and now it's "Let Me Pick my Kid's Teacher." Make up your mind - do you want the parents to be involved and have some control, or don't you?

Second, TwoSons brochure ideas has me a little confused. What does your resume have to do with how good a teacher you are? One of my worst high school teachers had multiple degrees from prestigious universities, years of experience, and couldn't remember my name, even though I had her for both English and homeroom! My mother once had a look at her gradebook during a parent conference, and nothing was even labeled. One of my best teachers was a first-year teacher I had for Spanish; he had only minored in Spanish, having majored in History (he now teaches Social Studies) - I learned more that year than in the next two years combined. Who would look better on paper?

In general, the only time parents care is when one of the teachers is really, really bad. Unfortunately, in that case, NO ONE is going to choose that teacher, so if we let parents pick a teacher, the classes will be horribly unbalanced. But the squeaky wheel often gets the grease, and the parents that complain are usually the ones who get their kids moved out of the class - or whose kid never even gets put IN the class, because admin knows they'll complain. I've heard arguments for and against pushing to have your child moved, but I suspect that if I were in the same situation, I would complain.

As an ESL teacher, I usually just arranged for my kids to have the "good" teacher as often as humanly possible - and I usually got away with it. Was it obvious? To some people, sure. Was it fair? Well, that depends - to whom? To my kids, absolutely. To the other teachers, maybe not - although they were always willing to take my kids.

Posted by: LadybugLa | February 24, 2010 3:38 PM | Report abuse

Well, I like the idea of information packets, but I doubt those would contain the kind of information I really want. For me, it's all about fit. DD was recently diagnosed with ADHD; before her diagnosis, we ran the gamut, from teachers who knew exactly how to manage her (better than I did!) to teachers who thought she was fundamentally a bad kid who should be isolated, criticized, and punished so she would "learn" to sit still. And DD internalized those views; not surprising, the teachers who told her she was smart and helped her to manage herself brought out the best in her, while the two critical ones got her so down on herself it took her months and months to get over the experience. Guess which version I want?

So I don't care (much) about all the basic stuff. What I care about is their sense of kids -- I want the kind of teachers who know how to manage different kinds of kids, who consistently enforce clear rules, but who do so calmly and without that "bad kid" kind of judgmental tone that creeps in. I want the teacher who always manages to catch her kids doing something right.

Probably not surprisingly, DD's two best teachers had themselves struggled with ADHD. That experience gave them both an innate understanding of DD's struggles and first-hand knowledge of the kinds of strategies that are critical to managing it. But somehow, I doubt "do you have ADHD" is going to make it into the info packet!

Posted by: laura33 | February 24, 2010 3:48 PM | Report abuse

Boy, does this post show up some weaknesses in the system.


If the principals were allowed to remove teachers who were "bad", it would only be a matter of parents and students wanting the teacher who matched learning styles.


Also, as many parents have admitted in earlier posts, they may be mistaken in which teacher would be the best. (Do you want the best teacher with the most disruptive kids, or an okay teacher w/no problem students?) But, shouldn't parents have the right to make those mistakes rather than letting someone else make the mistakes?

Posted by: Lizz1 | February 24, 2010 4:10 PM | Report abuse

LadybuLA,

I did not state that a teacher's resume or let's even consider a brief biography, would "determine how good a teacher is" but it would allow parents to be educated on who these individuals are and charged to provide instruction and leadership in respective schools.

I also like gideon4ed's suggestion relating to teachers providing their "educational philosophy" on why they've chosen the highly honored tradition as Educator.

Most if not all schools have websites, why not include information about personnel within?

Involved parents are being proactive and selective on schools. Why not offer the ability of "preview" on teachers, staff, and principles and vice principles?

Professional, medical, and legal entities typically provide public and readily available information on their personnel; why not include schools as well?

Posted by: TwoSons | February 24, 2010 4:24 PM | Report abuse

I just thought I would chime in on how things work at the elementary school I teach at in Farifax County. At the end of each year the teachers get together and group students into classes for the following year. The majority of the staff takes this task very seriously. We take into account many things when putting these classes together. Among them, we look at matching learning styles, parent requests, administrative requests, and personality conflicts that may arise. It is also important that we take into account things such as gender ratios, varying ability levels, and pull out groups such as ESOL, Special Ed., or AA. This helps out with disruption because it is much easier to pull a group of six students from one class at the same time, instead of pulling two kids each from three separate classes.

I am partial to our system, where we do our best to accommodate all requests and I find myself mentioning it to all of my parents during conferences. I see no reason they should not be involved in this decision.

What do you all think about this approach?

Posted by: learningshouldbefun | February 24, 2010 6:53 PM | Report abuse

Another point: often, the parents who insist on choosing the teacher also request that their child be separated from certain kids, i.e., "we want this teacher for Johnny, but we do not want him in the class with Issac or Alex."

If the principal honors this request, he or she ends up letting another kid's parent dictate who Issac's teacher will be. I've seen this happen, too, at a school where the requests were out of control.

When we left public school, it was a whole new ball game. The principal's letter stated specifically that parents were welcome to share information about their child's learning style, but submitting teacher requests, or requesting that their child be grouped with certain kids, or separated from others, was expressly forbidden. And guess what? Overall, it works.

Posted by: trace1 | February 25, 2010 6:52 AM | Report abuse

There is an occasional circumstance where a teacher/student combination would be a disaster or a student having a special circumstance which warrents a particular teacher. My problem is with the parents who "cherry pick" the top teachers for their child every year and the principals who let them get away with it. This is one of the reasons I no longer am supportive of the PTA/PTO organizations in my child/s school. I am tired of the politics like this.

Posted by: READR | February 25, 2010 7:52 AM | Report abuse

"I plan to ask all of the school districts in the Washington area if they have any policy on this"

Jay- I think the practice varies from school to school, principal to principal. Even if a school district tells you it has a policy, I doubt it is enforced or even enforceable.

Be careful of what school districts tell you-- as you know, DCPS told you that kids get PE three times a week by law, while at my local DCPS middle school, kids don't have PE at all for half of the year. Policy does not equal practice.

Posted by: trace1 | February 25, 2010 8:56 AM | Report abuse

My MCPS elementary school has an approach very similar to the one used at earningshouldbefun's Fairfax school. We also regroup for math and reading, so students can sometimes have multiple teachers throughout the day. Through the school administrators, we take parent requests into account and try to accommodate them.

Posted by: daveairozo | February 25, 2010 9:23 PM | Report abuse

There is often a big difference between teachers who are "nice" and teachers who are effective -- and frequently parents, and especially students, are hard-pressed to tell the difference. At a couple of schools I've taught at, I've encountered students taught in the previous year by a teacher who might have had a fabulous rapport with the students, but wasn't rigorous and didn't get much done, leaving students ill-prepared by the end of the year. The teacher would give wonderful grades and glowing feedback for work that was earnest but not A-quality... and the following year's teacher would bear the brunt of communicating to a student used to getting such grades that she wasn't working at the expected standard. Too often the student's grade "drop" was attributed to the new teacher having an incompatible teaching style (read: new teacher isn't "nice").

Given their druthers, parents listening to their kids who want the "nice" teacher, or wanting the teacher with the record of high "achievement" would choose ill-advisedly, and by the time the student gets to a benchmark standardized test that shows the lie of the previous grade inflation, the student may already have lost out. This may sound like an isolated extreme example, but it's all too common, in my experience, and sours some students and parents toward demanding, rigorous teachers.

Students, like anyone else, need to learn the skill of dealing with different types of people, which includes different styles of communication and teaching. If the conflict between a student and teacher is genuinely hurtful to a student (and I've been there too), then parents have a right to intervene. But doing so pre-emptively because of *perceptions* of a teacher before the student has even encountered him or her in the classroom could inadvertently cause more harm than good.


Posted by: TOteach | February 26, 2010 9:09 AM | Report abuse

Toteach:
Interesting points. On the subject of parents wanting their kids to get As, I agree, and I think that parents care more about the grade then the rigor of the curriculum (in their defense, an "A" is easy to see, how the curriculum compares to another school's or teacher's is much harder for parents to evaluate).

On this subject, I wish Jay Mathews would explore the concept of published honor rolls. They seem required at public schools, while many private schools eschew them, and I personally think there is far less grade inflation at schools that do not publish grades. Parents tend to get a little nuts when they know their child's grades,or at least in general (e.g., if a kid gets a C, no honor roll) are public domain.

Is there any educational research that suggests publishing an honor roll actually motivates? What are the downsides?

Posted by: trace1 | February 26, 2010 12:04 PM | Report abuse

Quick question- if parents can pick a teacher, can a teacher opt out of some parents? Trust me, there are a few that I'd rather not have next year.

Posted by: hkerrie | February 27, 2010 10:51 PM | Report abuse

When I moved from teaching special education classes to a typical heterogeneous 5th grade class, I had parents requesting my class based on my prior experience. Unfortunately, this included students who I felt should not be put together based on my knowledge of their learning and social styles. My principal wished to keep parents happy. The result was a disastrous experience for at least one child who was separated from the role model I wanted him paired with in another class and placed with two students who were a poor influence.

It's not just about the teacher. Most schools do allow parents to write a letter describing their child's learning style and teacher preference becomes obvious. But it's imperative that teachers and principals be able to consider the make up of each class in its entirety in order to provide the best learning environment for all students. The mix of students can be just as influential on learning as the teacher in the classroom.

It's also important that children (and parents) come to understand that not everything can be crafted perfectly for them. Sometimes, we need to learn to work with others who may not be our favorite person or personality. As adults, we need to do this every day. A child may want the more soft-spoken or less demanding teacher, but derive the most benefit from the teacher that pushes them just a bit more to achieve at a higher level than the child would work without the added push. You never know, that non-favorite teacher may be the one your child remembers for having put them on the road to success.

Posted by: teachpeace4all | February 28, 2010 5:23 PM | Report abuse

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