When Dawn Carrigan became the principal of Longfellow Elementary School in Portland, Maine, one of the first things she did was stop the practice of parents requesting their kids’ teachers. At the time, more than 20 families hadn’t gotten their first pick and didn’t know why. “I didn’t want to be the judge of whose request was valid or not valid,” she says. Now, parents complete a questionnaire that addresses kids’ interests and learning styles, and Carrigan uses the information to set up class rosters.
Scheduling hundreds of students is a coordination challenge, to say the least, and fielding parent requests can be overwhelming for principals. Carrigan thinks that sometimes parents request teachers they think are "better" than others, based on popularity but little concrete information. And she suggests that kids have a variety of classroom experiences. “I think we do kids a disservice when we don’t let [them] figure out how to work with other teachers,” she says.
On the other hand, author of Picky Parent Guide: Choose Your Child’s School With Confidence Bryan Hassel says, “There is quality and there is fit. Some teachers are better than others, and some teachers are a better fit for your child than others.” That fit can be everything from how your child’s learning style matches up with the teacher’s teaching style to how advanced your child is in a subject. Whether you agree that parents should be able to request teachers or not, research supports parents’ ability to evaluate their school’s teachers.
Achievement vs. Satisfaction
Lars Lefgren, associate professor of economics at Brigham Young University, and Brian Jacob, professor of education policy and economics at the University of Michigan, analyzed data from 12 elementary schools and 256 teachers during the 2005-2006 school year to learn just what parents were looking for in a teacher. “Parents have an idea of which teachers are good,” says Jacob, “and they try to pick teachers who are good in achievement and satisfaction.” But in lower-income schools (those with a higher percentage of students who received free or reduced price lunch), parents were more likely to choose teachers who ranked high on student achievement. In higher-income schools, parents favored teachers who had high satisfaction ratings.
The difference across schools led Jacob and Lefgren to suggest that low-income parents were requesting teachers that they thought would help their kids achieve no matter what. “In general,” says Jacob, “in higher poverty schools, there may be a lot of other distractions, problems or issues with learning or teaching in the school, so parents in those schools need to make sure their kids have a teacher [who’s focused on learning].” In higher-income schools where those issues might not enter into daily life as much, parents can focus more on how much their child enjoys their classroom.
So what's a parent to do? Whether or not your school solicits parent requests, there are some things you can do to help snag the best teacher for your child. Here are some tips:
Get information. Talk to parents whose kids are like yours in terms of interests, learning style and aspects like ADHD or giftedness to learn more about the teachers at your child’s school.
Be polite. Follow the school’s procedure and be polite. Scheduling often takes weeks or even months, especially for large middle schools. Be sure to meet every deadline.
Put it in writing. If your school has a policy against letting parents choose teachers, approach the topic in writing. Explain what would work best for your child and why, Hassel suggests, and don’t question a specific teacher’s effectiveness.
Be flexible. Once kids hit middle school, students are only with teachers for about 40 minutes a day. Not getting the first pick might not affect your child in the long run. Give it at least a few weeks before requesting a change, or talk with the teacher and your child to improve the situation first, before you go higher up the chain.