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Hey, Teach!

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Last summer, I did something I once thought I would never do during my children’s journeys through the local public school system: I requested a specific teacher.

My oldest son is only in third grade but I’ll admit, I’m kind of proud of myself for letting the “rigorous and thorough process of class assignment” take its natural course. As parents, we envision a huddle of teachers, administrators and other experts poring over the students’ permanent records and test scores, carefully building academically balanced, demographically diverse and socially enriching classroom communities. Perhaps this is the reality for some or all of our local school districts; or perhaps it’s wishful thinking.

Whatever the process, it certainly inspires strong emotions in parents. (OK, mostly the moms.) As summer roils on and parents await the news of which teacher their children will be spending the next academic year with, the “mom talk” around town turns to who the “right” teachers are—and are not.

Our family lives in a good district, which—I am told—attracts good teachers. Parents can get information on performance scores, complaints about performance, etc. But many times reputations get handed down mom to mom. With so much subjectivity, it’s hard to know what to believe.

My oldest son has now been taught by four elementary school teachers and I’ve had little reason for concern. There were qualities I admired in all of them, but we had our share of minor bumps in the road, too. There was the reading readiness concern in kindergarten (yes, KINDERGARTEN!), behavioral concerns in first grade, and the lack of feedback in second. This past school year, I didn’t have reason to call or e-mail his very attentive and motivated third-grade teacher even once. What makes this funny is that he has somehow—according to the Mom Grapevine—already had “the worst teacher in the district” and “the best.” I personally saw little difference between the two.

As much as I laugh about these word-on-the-street assessments, I know they are not always taken so lightly. I know mothers who have had their children taken out of classes with teachers my kids had good experiences with, basing their decision on what others told them. Other parents are shocked when I tell them that another one of my son’s former teachers wasn’t exactly the wellspring of teaching expertise oral legend had led me to expect. 

In spite of it all, my oldest son is exactly where he should be academically. The “bad” teacher did not cripple his love of reading or science, nor did that “great” teacher give him the educational experience of a lifetime. It all balances out, I guess. Is it surprising that life in public elementary school is, kinda, sorta, like … life in general? 

When my youngest son started kindergarten last fall, things got a bit more complicated. He has a personality considerably—and happily—different from that of anyone else in our house. He’s vibrant, outgoing, spontaneous and pretty much fearless. But he is also an emotional kind of guy, making it sometimes difficult for his little body to hold his big presence. If he was to have a successful integration into the highly structured atmosphere of public school life, he needed a teacher who could help him manage his energies. So long before preschool was over, I started asking around about kindergarten teachers.

Luckily, some well-placed friends gave their own assessments. And by the end of the previous spring, I was hammering out a letter to the school, requesting—no, actually it was just suggesting—that my kindergartner be placed with a particular teacher. 

I was oddly grateful to our principal when the letter arrived last summer saying that my son had in fact been placed with the teacher I asked for. But I was also a little disappointed with myself for abandoning my own principles on this issue. What message was I sending with that request: that I lacked confidence in my son’s ability to handle it if I had just let the chips fall as they may? That I expected more from this particular teacher than the other, just as qualified and compassionate, teachers at our school? 

With the final days of the school year racing by as I write this, I’m glad I did what I did. But I have also renewed my pledge to stay out of the fray—and out of the way—unless I have a good reason for getting involved. And I’m sure that will happen.
For me, education has always been a lifelong endeavor, not a series of hoops to jump through on the way to collecting a diploma. I’m not naive enough to believe that every teacher my sons have will help them build upon this philosophy, but I have to trust that these men and women, who have decided to spend six, seven or eight hours a day opening the minds of a couple dozen little ones, are still driven by the inspirations that lead them to the classroom in the first place. Right? 

For my part, that Mama Bear impulse to be involved with every decision in my children’s lives has to be tempered a bit—starting now—if I’m ever going to make it through that long ride home on the day my husband and I drop our oldest son off at college. I’m working on it!                         

© Family Times: The Parenting Guide of Central New York