Q: I want my second-grade son to have a specific teacher next fall. The school has a "don't ask" policy, but I think she'll be good for my son. How should I make the request?
A: This is a hot topic this time of year. Some parents try to get their kids assigned to teachers who have reputations as the "best," "nicest," "toughest," "most experienced," "most traditional," "easygoing" -- whatever attribute a parent thinks will enhance a child's learning. Other parents wouldn't think of making such a request. They view part of growing up as gaining the confidence to thrive in unknown situations.
Before you ask, learn how your school makes class assignments and list specific reasons why you want this teacher for your son.
"While the general trend is to not take parent requests, it is usually not a hard and fast rule," says Una Hukill, the principal of Beacon Cove Intermediate School, an elementary school in Jupiter, Fla., that is one of the state's highest-rated. "If a parent truly has a strong reason that they believe a particular teacher is a good match for their child, many principals will take that into account."
Yet most parents don't make a good case. Insisting to a principal that "my cousin said to ask for Mrs. Smith because she is wonderful" isn't enough to influence placement, says Hukill.
Hukill thinks it's important for parents to understand how placement decisions are made and the factors considered.
"When making assignments in our school, we take into account a child's learning style, performance and strengths," she says. "We strive for a balance of boys and girls and a range of academic and behavioral levels. We separate children who may not be good together, either because their personalities clash or because they are best friends and can distract one another. If a parent knows that a specific teaching style or characteristic has motivated their child in the past, we really appreciate knowing about it when we make up the class lists.
"A great match can make all the difference in a child's life!"
Be thoughtful and specific in your request. Describe your son. What kind of a learner is he? What does he enjoy? What frustrates him? What is his temperament like? What type of behavior does he exhibit in various situations? Say why a certain teacher's style or philosophy would be a good match for him.
Not every teacher is a good fit for every child, observes Hukill.
"Just because a child had a great experience with one teacher does not necessarily mean that another child with a different personality or educational needs will have a similar experience," she says.
While parents generally base requests on experience or the parent grapevine, there is increasingly available empirical data on individual teacher effectiveness. Stanford University professor Eric Hanushek has studied it and found that students with a teacher in the top 5 percent gained a year and a half's worth of learning. Those students with teachers in the bottom 5 percent gained only half a year's worth. Look for data that might support your request.
(Do you have a question about your child's education? Email it to Leanna@aplusadvice.com. Leanna Landsmann is an education writer who began her career as a classroom teacher. She has served on education commissions, visited classrooms in 49 states to observe best practices, and founded Principal for a Day in New York City.)