Jacob Sullivan* had always liked school, and he loved learning. But by grade four, says his mom, Carla Sullivan,* his attitude had changed, largely due to the dynamic with his teacher that year. “It was as though she put him in a box and marked it, ‘Doesn’t listen, doesn’t behave,’ and was content to leave him there,” says the mom of two from Sault Ste. Marie, Ont.
As a teacher herself, Sullivan acknowledges that Jacob has difficulty paying attention, but she felt the school wasn’t helping to address his needs. The effect was devastating. “By the end of grade four, Jacob didn’t believe it was possible that he could be successful in school. He actually said things like, ‘I’m dumb. I don’t listen.’ He didn’t like school. He didn’t like himself. I would ask his teacher for help in finding resources for him, and she did nothing. When I heard that the same teacher might be assigned to teach grade five the following year, I went to the principal to make sure that he wouldn’t have her again.”
Similar scenarios unfold across the country each spring, as parents campaign to ensure their children are assigned the “right” teacher for the next academic year. And with good reason: Research shows that having a good—or a bad—teacher has dramatic effects on learning. Stanford University economist Eric Hanushek, for example, has found that pupils of top-ranked teachers (as determined by student outcomes) got an entire year’s worth of extra learning during the school year, compared to students of low-ranked teachers. Keith Robinson and Angel L. Harris, two sociologists who wrote the book The Broken Compass: Parental Involvement With Children’s Education, recently argued in a New York Times op-ed that parents have very little effect on their children’s educational success, but teachers do. They found that parents who help with homework, observe a class, communicate with the school about behaviour issues or weigh in on course choices, do not improve student test scores or grades. (In fact, this kind of parental involvement in schooling can actually impede student achievement.) But one form of family involvement that does make a positive difference, according to Robinson and Harris, is requesting a particular teacher.
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This may be why many parents—myself included—risk being branded “pushy” or “needy” when it comes to who will be instructing our children. There’s no hard-and-fast data on what percentage of parents request certain teachers. The practice varies by city and school, although almost all of the principals interviewed for this story noted that, in their experience, requests spike dramatically in schools located in more affluent areas.
Typically, says Harold Robertson, principal of Dr. John G. Egnatoff School in Saskatoon, parents at his school are most concerned with making sure their kids are in a class with their good friends and separated from their rivals. The phenomenon is widespread enough that on the supplemental information form emailed each spring to Egnatoff parents, the warning “This is not a teacher request form” is printed in bold. “We just can’t entertain individual requests for teachers,” says Robertson. Instead, the form gives parents a chance to provide relevant information as he and his staff work to assign teachers and divide all 720 of their students into class groupings.
These kinds of forms are increasingly common at Canadian schools. While it’s rare for parents to be allowed to make outright requests, the trend seems to be toward welcoming some parental input, while making no guarantees. At David Oppenheimer Elementary School in Vancouver, parents are asked to submit, in writing, answers to three questions: “What are your child’s educational needs and learning style? Which peers would your child work well with? Is there any other information that would be helpful to us?” That last question might encompass anything from parents separating to a child being diagnosed with a nut allergy. “But I don’t allow parents to name individual teachers,” says Oppenheimer principal Celina Mau. Doing so, she says, is disrespectful to her educational staff, all of whom have different strengths and who work together as a team.
To Mau, the supplemental information forms are also a useful way to educate parents about the different factors that go into creating class and teacher assignments. Those include gender balance; academic strengths and abilities (“We don’t want all the needy students in one classroom and all the strong students in another”); learning styles; behaviour (“We can’t have all the challenging students together”); peer groups and student cliques (“Everybody needs a friend or two they can work with”); special needs; physical maturity and medical considerations.
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Hopefully, says Mau, a better understanding of these criteria allows parents to see the bigger picture, rather than focusing only on their own son or daughter. After all, even a great teacher won’t be as effective if he or she must constantly manage a disproportionate number of rowdy or difficult kids, or mediate conflicts between arch-enemies who should never have been placed in the same class.
Parents may not realize the amount of effort and thought that teachers and principals put into creating classrooms, says Robertson. “I’ve heard parents ask, ‘Isn’t it just alphabetical?’ Well, no, it isn’t. We really think about who’s going to work well with whom, and the strengths and concerns for each kid, and how we can best match that in—hopefully—not too large a class, while making it a good experience for everybody.”
For most schools, the process of creating classrooms typically starts in May or June and goes until the first week of September, when student enrolments are finalized. It’s an exercise that takes hours and hours—and lots of coffee and early mornings—says Robertson. He describes a scene of teachers and administrators huddling over library tables, arranging and rearranging sticky notes with student names.
Some principals do try to honour requests. “If it works for the school and it works for the parents, why would I fight that?” asks Thelma Sambrook, principal of Bowmore Public School in Toronto. At the end of the day, though—as it states very clearly on Bowmore’s form—“the ultimate responsibility of placement and promotion lies with the principal.”
This may not sit well with some parents. Try to remember that school staff members are experienced professionals, with a perspective that differs from that of a parent, says Robertson. “We see the kids for five hours a day in groups of 25 or 30. That’s the environment where we’re the experts. We’re focused on putting students together for a learning situation. That’s why we really defend making a school-based decision.”
Still, savvy parents can work around those “don’t name names” policies by requesting the teachers they want without saying so outright. For example, if your desired teacher is extroverted, with a strong track record for teaching math, and takes the kids on lots of field trips, it can’t hurt to write that your child works well with outgoing personalities, needs a strong math curriculum and is a hands-on learner.
Sullivan took this approach with her own request. “I framed it positively and talked about the strengths of the teacher I wanted, who is extremely well structured. I explained just how much Jacob needs that kind of structure.”
Chera Arabsky, a mom in Winnipeg, remembers how intent she was that her daughter, Laine, have a particular kindergarten teacher. “I’d heard such good things from other parents on the playground,” says Arabsky, whose older son attended the same school. Although the school has a “no teacher request” policy, she was able to get the teacher she wanted by requesting to move Laine from afternoon to morning kindergarten.
What if, despite your best efforts, your child doesn’t end up with the teacher you want? The first step might be to consider doing nothing—it could turn out to be a good match. “My older son got the teacher who had a reputation for piling on the homework, and she ended up being the best teacher he ever had,” says Arabsky.
If, on the other hand, your hunch was right and you feel your kid is in for a suboptimal year of learning, make sure to bring it to your principal’s attention (in writing). “If your child is going to have one bad year,” says a principal who asked not to be named, “then I will really make an effort to make sure that child gets a particular teacher or classroom the following year.”
The best compliment, says Sambrook, the principal in Toronto, is when parents tell her, “‘Please just place my child with the teacher that best meets his learning needs and abilities.’ That demonstrates a trust in me as the principal and in the child’s current teacher, and says we’re doing our job well.”
That’s exactly how Arabsky plans to approach teacher requests from now on. Looking back, she says, “I can’t believe that I ever cared enough to request a certain teacher. When I volunteered in Laine’s class I saw that the other teacher was just as good and that I should have been thrilled to have her, too. Now I think that maybe parents get too wrapped up, when, really, it’s the teachers who know them best in the school environment.”
Carla Sullivan has no regrets about intervening in her son’s education. “When you know that somebody isn’t acting in the best interest of your child, you don’t really care about the rules. I know both sides of the equation, and I still have no problem advocating for my kids.” She says Jacob, now in grade five (with a teacher he likes), is excited about school again. “He came home beaming one day because his teacher had praised him for doing well. That was the first time in two years that a teacher had talked to him that way, which has led to him working really hard. It moved me to tears.”
* Name has been changed
Do’s and Don’ts
* Be polite: Getting aggressive with the principal or badmouthing one of her teachers isn’t likely to win you any points. Respect the fact that assigning teachers and classrooms is a complex process that often takes several months.
* Focus on strengths: Rather than complaining about the teacher you don’t want, focus on praising the qualities of the teacher that you do want and why he or she would be a good match for your child.
* Don’t obsess over playground recommendations: Just because a certain teacher wasn’t a good match for your friend’s kid doesn’t mean she won’t be a good match for yours. Instead, do your own research on her style, training, strengths and weaknesses, and talk to other parents whose kids are like yours in terms of behaviour, learning styles and interests.
* Talk to your child’s current teacher: This is the person who sees your kid every day and will (usually) have the keenest sense of—and some input into—the best match for the following year. It doesn’t hurt to mention teacher preferences in the spring, when classroom assignments for next year are on the brain.
* Put it in writing: If there’s a form, fill it out. If not, write a brief note or email to the principal outlining your child’s learning style, strengths and weaknesses, and any other needs, as well as the kind of teacher you feel would be the best match.
* Don’t talk about it in front of your kids: The last thing your child (or his teacher) needs is to know that you’re not confident in his teacher’s abilities or approach.
A version of this article appeared in the June 2014 issue with the headline, “Multiple Choice,” on pp. 34-36.