Yes, it's that time of year again; in Weston teacher assignments were made public at 9am this morning and the airwaves are already filled with chatter. We parents are furiously typing, calling, texting, and questioning anyone and everyone to learn as much as we can not only about who that teacher is, but how that teacher is. Apologies in advance for repeating myself, but I wrote about this last year and I don't think I could say it any better this year....
Last Thursday, Kindergarten and first-grade students at Hurlbutt Elementary School in Weston met their teachers for the upcoming school year. Coincidentally I picked my daughter up early on Thursday for a doctor's appointment, so at 2:15 I learned the name of her second-grade teacher-to-be.
My daughter was happy; she was with two friends from her current class and her best friend was in the classroom next door and would share the same lunchtime and recess. I asked my daughter what she thought of her new teacher and she responded that she seemed nice. And so, I was happy too.
And then, I was bombarded.
I received the first "who did u get?" text at 3:18, followed by multiple phone calls and emails. Over the next few days "Who did you get?" was the first question anyone asked my daughter or myself.
I knew I was supposed to respond in kind, but I had absolutely no recognition of any name bantered about except for the one teacher who had served as the assistant principal in previous years. Elmo, Stalin, Madonna — you could have told me any name and I would have smiled, nodded, and tried to move on. I was excited for those who were happy and sympathetic to those who weren't, but mostly I wanted to understand where all these opinions came from.
I was amazed at how much information other parents had acquired, and were willing to share. Not only did parents know the name of their child's teacher-to-be, they seemed to know EVERYTHING about EVERYONE.
I had visions of parents quizzing children as they stepped off the bus about who-got-who and who-was-with-who and creating elaborate color-coded displays resembling a Martha Stewart worthy seating chart for a celebrity wedding. Some parents seemed to have dossiers on every teacher, and I wouldn't have been surprised if someone had pulled out an FBI binder with fingerprints, grainy pictures, and sworn affidavits.
Adjectives of all kinds were applied; "tough," "soft," "young," "energetic," and "challenging" were just some of the words I heard parents use to describe teachers. However, the most frequent comment offered was "I hear he/she is good."
Although educators, researchers, and policy-makers struggle to define teacher quality and effectiveness (and spend millions of dollars on this quest), among parents it seemed to boil down to a simple dichotomy; upon learning the name of your child's teacher-to-be do you breathe a sigh of relief ("Phew!") or gain a sense of dread ("Ugh!")?
As a psychologist with more than 15 years of experience working with schools across the country I think I am pretty accurate at recognizing the "good" teachers. But I still, however, have difficulty labeling and quantifying their attributes.
It's a bit like your grandmother's famous recipe for chicken soup; no one ever wrote it down exactly, but you know when your aunt's version comes really close and when your cousin's totally misses. The ingredient list for a good teacher remains equally elusive.
What makes a good teacher? Is it their education, experience, philosophy, teaching style, classroom management? Is it their impact on their students' behavior, attitudes, social-emotional well-being, grades, test scores, college admission, career path? Is it their ability to communicate with and involve families?
We (education professionals and parents alike) often assume the sum of the good teacher equation even if we can't identify all the addends. And does the fact that I had to double check that terminology with a Google search imply anything about the quality of my math teachers?
My colleagues in the fields of education and psychology have yet to agree on a universal definition for a good teacher and continue to uncover characteristics and components that contribute to a teacher's effectiveness, however many of my fellow parents seem confident assessing whether someone is a good teacher even if they haven't been, or parented, a student in their classs.
But first impressions, or in this case first chatter, aren't always accurate.
I was pleasantly surprised by the teacher with the reputation for being loud and inappropriate; lo and behold, she turned out to be just what my shy child needed to help coax her out of her shell (though she truly was loud and sometimes inappropriate). The teacher brand new to the profession and the school who I was initially hesitant about turned out to be one of the best teachers I have ever encountered personally or professionally, and I have fingers and toes crossed that my younger daughter will also have the privilege of being one of her students.
Unfortunately, my interactions with the teacher I had heard such mixed things about did little to dispel those rumors and despite some glimpses of warmth and understanding, I came away feeling frustrated for my child and myself. However, I know of children and parents who had more positive experiences with the same teacher and requested that younger siblings to be placed in the same classroom.
Likewise, I know there are children and parents who don't share my evaluation of some of the teachers I thought were wonderful.
And that's the tricky part...you don't always know who will turn out to be good for your child, or for you. (Please remind me to re-read this when my daughter brings home that boyfriend....) Just because your best friend's, neighbor's, sister's cousin didn't have a good experience with a teacher you might.
And, more importantly, your child might.
We don't always get to choose the teacher, neighbor, roommate, colleague, boss, or mother-in-law whose sensibilities or style complements our own, and learning how to communicate, co-exist, and collaborate in these relationships helps to develop skills essential for success in school and in life.
So instead of asking "Who did you get?" maybe we should be asking "Who gets you?" since its not really about who your child gets, but who gets your child. After all, isn't that what makes a good teacher; a person who understands a child's skills and strengths and is able to adapt their manner and method accordingly to engage and excite students about learning?
I don't know much about my daughter's teacher-to-be, maybe she's good, maybe she's not, but hopefully she said "Phew!" and not "Ugh!" when she saw my daughter's name on her class list.