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My child is now in Kindergarten, and next year she will switch schools. I watched the movie Waiting for "Superman" and now I would like to know how I can influence the selection of a teacher (e.g. so that she get a teacher who has been teaching there for a while and is experienced).

  1. What are some strategies I could use to influence the decision about which teacher winds up teaching my child?

  2. How are teachers normally assigned?

  3. What are tracks and in which grade are they typically introduced - at level, below level, above level?

  4. Do schools try to mix the students so they end up with balanced groups, or do they purposefully put poor performers/best performers into one group?

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This is completely different in different countries and can even differ within states, and can therefore not be answered. You'll have to ask your local administration. –  Lennart Regebro Feb 15 '12 at 10:18
    
@LennartRegebro I have edited the question in an attempt to avoid some of the localization issues. –  Beofett Feb 15 '12 at 14:37
    
@user984532 I have modified your question to try and make it applicable to a wider audience, since, as Lennart mentions, the way individual schools handle these scenarios vary wildly from location to location. Please feel free to edit it further to clear up anything I didn't get quite right. –  Beofett Feb 15 '12 at 14:38
    
Please watch several other movies. Basing your opinions off of that one movie is shortsighted. (Not that the movie is in any way bad...but there's a lot more to the issues involved as well) –  DA01 Feb 15 '12 at 22:07
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As Lennart rightly noted, this varies too much even within states / countries. But even without that, your question still can't be answered without a definition of what "highest quality teacher" means to you. –  Péter Török Feb 17 '12 at 21:22
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6 Answers 6

This varies from county to county within states, and even from school to school within school districts. One of the most successful schools in the state I used to teach in purposely tracked kids once they left kindergarten and grouped them according to their academic performance. Children who needed extra help, while they were moved forward, were placed in the same classroom together to ensure they were given the extra help they needed and their teacher was able to differentiate his/her instruction effectively. The teacher assigned this class rotated each year so that the teacher avoided burn-out and so that the students never really knew which teacher was assigned the kids who needed that extra help who are so often labeled by other kids as "stupid" or "dumb". This continued certainly throughout elementary school, and the high school associated with school had a 99% graduation rate.

But that doesn't answer your questions. You need to go to the school your child is zoned for and talk directly to the principal. Call and schedule a meeting--don't just drop in. Principals are extremely busy--especially during the school year--and you want to make sure that a) the principal is there when you arrive (and not at a meeting at another school or the central office, for example) and b) you have the principal's undivided attention for the time you're there. You can ask things like, "How long have your 1st grade teachers been teaching?". If one's been teaching for 10 years and the other for 20, does it matter to you which teacher your daughter gets? Also, ask things like, "How long have they been teaching first grade?". It isn't uncommon for elementary school teachers to teach several grades throughout their teaching careers and there is a huge difference between teaching a 5th grader and a 1st grader. Ask what the typical school day is like.

Doing this will also give you an idea of the personality of the principal and the vibe of the school overall, and should allow you to express any concerns you have and ask any questions. You may not be able to influence the decision of which class your daughter is placed in, but you should hopefully come away more comfortable with the process.

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Getting the "right" teacher has be important. I remember reading a study (NYTimes but couldn't find it to cite) showing that a poor teacher will cover 6 months of work in a year but a great teacher will cover 18 month's work.

Generally, we will ask around the school to get an idea of who the good teachers are.

Our experience has been:

  • A teachers bad reputation can come from parents who didn't like them. We had one teacher thought to be a dud who turned out really well.
  • Teachers with lots of experience can be duds too.
  • The set of kids in the class is at least as important as the teacher. A good teacher may be assigned difficult students because they are good. A few problem or slow children can suck up all the teacher's time.
  • Teachers come and go. You will get duds. You need to be actively involved in your child's education to make up the shortfall and to optimise their learning.
  • Our school does not tell you who the teacher assigned is until the last day of the year, presumably so the parents can not whinge about who you got. They will rarely change the assignment once announced.
  • Our school rotates the teachers through different grades so you can not necessarily guess who the teachers will be. Even the teachers do not know which grade they'll be teaching next year.
  • There are 500+ kids at our school and every parent wants the good teachers.

My daughter is in grade 5 in our local public school. In grade 3, we submitted a letter to the principal to ask for a specific teacher who we heard was very good. We got that teacher, but we had a 1/3 chance of getter her anyway so I have no idea if the letter worked. In grade 5, we submitted a letter asking for a teacher experienced in dealing with gifted children since the set of teachers for that year was not known. In this case we did not get the teacher we would have expected.

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"Even the teachers do not know which grade they'll be teaching next year." That just sounds incredibly bizarre to me. –  afrazier Feb 15 '12 at 19:21
    
@afrazier - Yep, but I spoke to one of the teachers and that is what she told me. Could be because they do not know how many classes per year they'll need (many kids enter the private system in grade 5). –  dave Feb 15 '12 at 20:09
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+1 for "a few problem or slow children can suck up all the teacher's time" and "You need to be actively involved in your child's education". I also agree that it seems extremely weird that they rotate the teachers like that. Some teachers are horrible fourth grade teachers, but are great kindergarten teachers. –  Meg Coates Feb 16 '12 at 15:18
    
Most primary teachers I know rotate classes each year. Some of them feel it gives them greater experience, others hate it. –  Rory Alsop Jan 17 at 21:58
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I don't know if this works at all schools, but every year, my wife writes a letter to the registrar at our children's schools. She describes our children: their strengths, weaknesses and learning styles. It may be luck, but so far we seem to have gotten good teachers who were a good fit for our children.

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I'd just point out (as a former teacher) that the 'best' teacher can vary from child to child (I had students I know I worked wonders with, and others that I couldn't reach but other teachers could, and vice versa).

Also, although first grade may be young for this, learning how to deal with a difficult person in authority may be the most valuable lesson a student can learn in the classroom.

Finally, experience is certainly important (I'd be wary of first-year teachers--we're all terrible) but an experienced teacher is not always better. Just like everyone else, we're individuals.

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Some teachers are clearly better at teaching than others. But it's more important to know that some teachers are a better fit for your particular child than others. For example, a strict disciplinarian is great if your child doesn't need much disciplining anyway, because noise and chaos from other students will be minimized, but for another child that teacher might turn the classroom into a battlefield and poison the joy of learning. So you want to learn which teacher is the best fit, not which teacher is the best.

This turns out to be a good thing, because it means that the people settling the classes can please everyone, instead of just the fraction of parents who want Mrs X because they've heard she's the best. It does mean more work for the class-settlers (typically the principal) and possibly the parents.

What should you do? First, gather information. This is hard to do when your child doesn't attend the school yet, but simpler once you're there. Come to every parent-teacher night, volunteer appreciation barbeque, concert, sports event, fundraising bake sale etc etc. If you can, volunteer at the school (milk lady, headlice checker, reading to the Grade 1s, whatever your school wants of the parents.) And when you're there, surrounded by other parents, talk to them. Many have a child older than yours and can tell you about the teachers - their styles, their strengths and weaknesses, etc. You will probably also get a chance to see the teachers in action, even if it's just watching them on yard duty or in the hallways. Field trips really show a teacher's personality as well. If you can, join non-school activities like skating, scouts, gymnastics etc that pull kids from the area - those parents who are watching along with you (or volunteering along with you) probably know the teachers too. Talk to every parent you can.

Second, once you know that Mrs X would be a great fit for your kid do not contact the school and ask for Mrs X to be your kid's teacher. If you feel that Mrs Y would be terrible, do not ask for "anyone except Mrs Y." Instead, do three things:

  • list out to yourself what you think is vital for your kid to have a great year. The kind of teacher it is, whether their best friend X is in the classroom, being a split class (eg Grade 2/3 in the same room) or not being one, you liking the teacher (my kids loved teachers I hated and vice versa) and so on
  • decide what the top two or three things are
  • write a letter explaining about those things and asking them to be taken into account when settling the classes

Why not just say "I want Mrs X" or "I don't want Mrs Y" ? Because the principal can then tut to themselves about how naïve parents are and they don't know all the stuff the poor overworked principal has to take into account when mixing classrooms. Which is true: you don't want all the kids with involved caring parents in one class; who will volunteer in the others? You don't want all the rambunctious loud kids in one class, or all the timid and shy ones either - it needs to be mixed up on a lot of axes. So you are not telling the principal what to choose. You're providing some information that might not otherwise be available, about your child fitting well with a strong disciplinarian or a soft soothing type, or an outdoorsy nature focused type. But you're doing so know that there is only one "outdoorsy nature focused" teacher in your child's grade, and that you like everything else about that teacher and want that teacher for your child.

Everyone I know who does this has got the teacher they wanted every time. Ten or more years in a row per kid. But one more thing: nothing will help your child in school more than you being involved in the school. Coming on field trips, coming to events, knowing the teachers and the other kids by name and them knowing you. Your kid will get the benefit of the doubt in a lot of circumstances if the adults involved all feel good about you. Your letter asking for something is more likely to succeed. And you will know what is happening and what the issues are if things start to go badly for your child. Be there as much as you can.

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I would say the most important thing you can do is get your child into a good school, with a solid principal and staff. Once you've done that (either by living somewhere with a good school, or by going to a good private school, or otherwise), you're already putting your child in a good position to succeed; you probably won't have a lot of control over which teachers your child gets, but if you have 8 years of primary education, and are in a school staffed with mostly very good teachers, odds are you'll get enough good teachers to make a difference.

Otherwise, just keep an eye on things, and if you have a particularly poor fit, see if you can get your child transferred; and of course, stay heavily involved in his/her education so you can make up for the gaps that do occur.

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