- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 6, 2002

The woman was one of those teachers who parents don't just hope but request that their children don't get.

She had been in the Montgomery County public school system for a quarter of a century or so. She had a reputation, says Leslie, a mother of two who wishes to remain anonymous. "And then once you had experienced it, you realized it was well-deserved."

Leslie found her family at odds with the teacher, not once but twice.

"When my older son had her seven years ago, there were numerous issues, frequent meetings," Leslie says. "Speed ahead five years later my next child got her, even though I said don't give her to me again. But I knew if we got stuck with her, I was going to advocate for my son."

Actually, this situation could and does happen to anyone. Today, a projected estimate of 3.5 million kindergarten through 12th-grade teachers are walking public and private school corridors nationwide, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, which is part of the Education Department. Common sense dictates that the teaching ranks would contain their share of ineffective employees. A mismatch between student and teacher is not uncommon, either, parents and educators say.

"It's possible that it will happen in the life of the child," says Linda Moody, president of the District of Columbia PTA and a board member of the national PTA. "It happened in the lives of my children. It's possible they'll have an incompetent teacher. Before you start complaining, make sure you've evaluated your own child, and you are doing what you're supposed to do as a parent."

Leslie says her family got a taste of things to come during her second son's first week with the teacher in question.

"He got detention two days in the first week of school because he didn't sit in a chair with all four legs on the floor. This is a bright kid who never gets detention," she says. "But that was really the tip of the iceberg. The teacher would constantly berate the female students. My son would come home very upset at the way things would happen in class not necessarily to him but to others in the class, as well. It was an intimidating way to learn."

Leslie took her concerns directly to the teacher "to get her side of the story," she says. "If there was an issue with me, I would not like someone going to my boss. She acknowledged the situation, but the way it was described by my son was accurate."

The boy's mother then took a walk to the principal's office.

"Other parents had already gone to the principal about her," Leslie says. "The principal said put it in writing. To me, that sends a signal that this principal was going to take our concerns seriously."

In fact, the principal did. That year of discussions, careful documentation and continual meetings with school administrators bore out: The teacher was referred to a mentoring program within the school district. The teacher chose retirement instead.

"It was gutsy of the principal, and the community was thrilled," Leslie says. "There were people who had left the school knowing their child was going into that grade and that there would be a 50 percent chance they would get that teacher."

This type of outcome, however, falls just short of a miracle, says Guy Strickland, an educational counselor and adviser who has written the book "Bad Teachers: The Essential Guide for Concerned Parents."

"It's nearly impossible to get rid of a bad teacher," Mr. Strickland says. He describes a "bad" teacher as one who is not helping a child learn, and a "good" teacher as one who does.

"The criterion for everything has to be student achievement, from the parents' point of view," he says. "But teachers aren't paid on the basis of student achievement. It's not a factor in hiring, firing or rewarding them."

Is it the child or teacher?

Observant parents will recognize during the first six weeks of the school year whether their child is learning, Mr. Strickland says. Many parents advise not to wait too long to respond to a problem with a teacher.

"If he's not learning, then you have to figure out why," he says. "Is it the kid, or is it the teacher? Go and spend a little time in the classroom and see what's going on. Sit and talk with the teacher about how you're concerned with the child. Talk to other parents. You're not going to find out the truth about this teacher by talking to other teachers or administrators."

There's no simple answer to whether someone's a good teacher, says John Nori, director of school leadership with the National Association of Secondary School Principals. Mr. Nori has had 29 years of experience as a teacher and a principal in middle and high schools.

"The broadest guidelines are looking for teacher engagement, setting up a purpose to the lesson, looking for the interaction between the teacher and the students," he says. "Don't assume that what you hear in the grocery store about a particular teacher is necessarily true. Have interactions, ask questions and listen carefully."

Mr. Nori says student-teacher mismatches can range around a collection of issues "from something big to something relatively minor. Everyone involved needs to do a lot of talking and listening, and come to what really is the problem."

Most uncomfortable situations can be resolved, he says.

"Sometimes that means moving the child to another classroom, but most of the time, in my experience, the child didn't move, and it was resolved in another way," Mr. Nori says.

"I've been in parent conferences where a student has said, 'I really don't like the teacher.' We get everyone together, and it turns out there's been a misunderstanding, and they can work it out. That's a scenario that can play out in many, many schools," he says.

Parents should talk with their children, he says, to learn whether it's a case of "'We don't like everyone we meet,' and sometimes it's a case of 'I don't like them, but I can still learn from them.'"

One Reston mother of three, who does not want her name used, says she tells her children that "you're going to have a bad boss, a bad teacher, a bad coach. Part of life is learning to deal with people."

Her children all attend private schools in the area, and she says that "because I'm paying for [their educations], I'd be apt to be more critical. But that's really how I feel. My 12-year-old daughter is very, very bright. She has a teacher right now who she says is super, super boring. That goes back to my 'Figure it out.' I think she just needs to learn to deal with all different styles of teachers."

She says her son had a bad fourth-grade year.

"The teacher made reading a negative experience for my son," she says. "If he got in trouble, the punishment would be to read. He left the class hating reading. But the next year, he had a phenomenal teacher who was his favorite, so he got back on track."

What makes a great teacher?

Veteran teacher Fred Stephenson has spent some time thinking about what makes a teacher good if not phenomenal. He is the author of the book "Extraordinary Teachers: The Essence of Excellent Teaching" and a 30-year veteran of the classroom.

"I'm looking for a teacher who really cares about my child," Mr. Stephenson says. "I expect them to have knowledge in their subject. They should be able to communicate very well, and I expect them to use correct English. I want them to speak and write properly, and they should have a lot of enthusiasm and passion. If they can't excite a student to learn, you're going to have a problem."

Mr. Stephenson says he also expects a good teacher to be fair, to exhibit common sense and to have character. A teacher should be organized, prepared and punctual.

"The top teachers get students involved and get them to think," he says. "It's not passive education, it's involvement. They build people and help them believe in themselves. They work hard and have the courage to fight for what's right. The front-line teachers are very innovative people who are not afraid of change."

If parents believe a problem exists in the classroom, Mr. Stephenson says, "they need to be absolutely sure they're right. Sometimes, if the parent got into this, they would find the teacher is right, and the parent should be supporting the teacher. There are some very fine teachers leaving teaching because they're getting sick of parents nickel and diming them to death over things like grades. Sometimes, a parent gets a 'My kid is perfect' mentality."

Parents should not expect all teachers to be great, he says.

"It's not going to happen," Mr. Stephenson says. "But you do not have to put up with consistent, poor-quality teaching. Sometimes you have to fight. Not enough parents do this. The focus should be on learning, not on the pursuit of high grades, self-esteem or political correctness."

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