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Picking teachers: Should parents weigh in?

After doing some research, including sitting in on classrooms, Valerie Gilbert thought she knew which third-grade teacher would be perfect for her son, Stanley. The school, however, placed him in a different class. But to her surprise and delight, her son excelled.
/ Source: The Associated Press

After doing some research, including sitting in on classrooms, Valerie Gilbert thought she knew which third-grade teacher would be perfect for her son, Stanley.

Impressed by that teacher's creative, visually stimulating style, the Berkeley, Calif., mother lobbied on Stanley's behalf. "I did my best to make my opinion known," Gilbert said.

The school, however, placed Stanley in a different class. And to his mother's surprise and delight, the year wound up being so successful for him that Gilbert said she is approaching his pending entry into fourth grade in a new way: by vowing to stay out of the process.

"I'm learning to be more open-minded," she said.

‘Parents should worry less’With parents becoming increasingly involved in their children's lives and educations, Gilbert's foray into her son's classroom placement process is not unique, particularly around this time of year when anxieties about the coming school year run high.

Whether such parental input into teacher selection is good for children is open to question.

"Parents should worry less about these kinds of decisions," maintains Dr. Paul J. Donahue, a Scarsdale, N.Y., child psychologist and author of "Parenting Without Fear" (St. Martins, 2007). "Our job as parents is not to make everything perfect for our kids."

Children learn important life lessons — how to be resilient and adapt to a range of situations — when required to roll with the punches, Donahue said.

"Our kids are capable and they can cope," he said, adding that in general parents should do less for their kids to help make them stronger as individuals. While a small percentage of children with special needs may benefit from more parental involvement, most kids are bound sometime in life to be in situations that are less than ideal and "they have to learn to deal with it."

Another important lesson learned when parents step back is respecting boundaries, Donahue said.

"The kids need to see that their parents cooperate in the process," he said. "Parents have to follow the rules."

‘Who knows the children better than parents?’Not everyone agrees.

Sheila Carter, principal at William Hatch Elementary School in Oak Park, Ill., said she welcomes parental input as one of many factors used in trying to create a diverse class with children of mixed abilities. In fact, she solicits it through a memo circulated toward the close of each school year, when the next year's classes are formed.

Carter said she draws the line at unreasonable requests. "I've had a parent almost try to make my class list," Carter said. "Now that's a lot of nerve."

Yet she believes that while she and her teachers do their best to know students and their needs, parents usually have a far deeper understanding of their children and what factors may help or hinder them in school.

"I've heard principals say they don't take requests," Carter said. "Well, I think they are making a serious mistake not listening to parents at all. Who knows the children better than parents?"

Although it's not possible to meet every parental request, giving them credence is also important in building relationships with parents, an essential component in students' success, she said.

Leaving it to the professionalsThere are parents who would rather leave the classroom stuff to the professionals.

Karen White, an Atlanta-area author and mother of two teenagers, said she was so turned off by neighborhood parents discussing the ins and outs of local teachers that it was a factor when she decided to put her children in private school.

"I just thought it was ridiculous with so many other things to focus on," White said.

She said she was raised to believe that learning to get along with a range of people is key to success. "It's so important for your children to know you are there to ground them, but you need to give them the tools to survive in this world once they're out of college," White said.

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White said she has never requested teachers. It hasn't always been rosy for her kids, but they are no worse off for it, she said.

"Have my kids had teachers they've absolutely hated? Absolutely," White said. Both, though, have excelled. White's daughter, a high school senior, managed to end a semester of three Advanced Placement classes with a 3.96 grade point average, despite having grievances with two of those three teachers.

Backing off isn't always easy for parents, however. Gilbert — who is trying for the first time to let the chips fall where they may — said it's going to take a lot of self control.

"It's primarily about letting go, I'd say," Gilbert said.

"My resolution is to let what happens happen," she said. "Now we'll see if I can actually live up to this."