Forget the kids. For many parents (OK, moms, mostly) there’s a mix of excitement and anxiety when class assignments are released. Whether they come home in June with the final report card, in the mail over the summer, or are tacked on a school bulletin board in August, there’s the initial eagerness, Who did she get?, followed closely by nagging dread: Please don’t let it be _____________.
This may not happen every year, but chances are it will happen at least once in your child’s school career. There’s always a teacher with a bad reputation whom no child — or parent — wants. And, one year, your child may land in that dreaded classroom. Believe it or not, this is a good thing.
“[A child] has to learn how to deal with an ineffective teacher,” says Vanessa Rodriguez, doctoral candidate at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education and a 10-year veteran teacher of New York City public schools. “How is he going to ask for help? How is he going to work on his own learning strategies to help overcome [the fact] that that’s a bad teacher for him?”
A child who learns how to advocate for himself in a less-than-perfect classroom will emerge with far more real-world skills and an ability beyond what was on the curriculum that year, she says.
“The goal of every teacher — and I believe strongly of every parent — is to have a lifelong learner that’s self-sufficient,” Rodriguez adds. “If they get everything they need individualized to their own learning styles from K-12, they will not know to seek that out on their own when they leave. It’s a hard thing for a parent because you want everything for your child. But the last thing you would want is for your child not to be able to survive when you’re gone.”
Twenty-nine-year teaching veteran David McCullough, Jr. agrees. “Having a teacher a student would otherwise prefer not to have encourages, if not forces, the kid to be more independent and to take charge of his or her education and not leave the creation of inspiration to the teacher,” he says. “In the long run, that’s a very good skill to have.”
McCullough, the author of You’re Not Special…and Other Encouragements and an English teacher at Wellesley High School, says three of his four children have had teachers with whom they’ve been frustrated. “All of it, in the long run, is a very good experience for them,” he notes. “A charismatic teacher may be lousy at teaching the nuts and bolts or the teacher who’s really good at the nuts and bolts is sort of dull. Bad teachers come in all shapes and sizes.” Rodriguez says there is no one-size-fits-all teacher or teaching style, a case she makes in her 2014 book The Teaching Brain, in which she argues teaching is not the simple act of filling young minds with knowledge but rather a social cognitive skill that develops over time.
“There’s no such thing as Mr. Right for everyone, but there is a Mr. Right for me, who’s a Mr. Wrong for someone else. Teaching is no different,” she says. “There is no perfect teacher and best practice for everyone. It’s about best fit.”
And even if your child has a year with a less-than-perfect fit, “it doesn’t mean a child had an awful year,” Rodriguez says. One of the biggest parental misconceptions about the classroom she sees relates to individualized instruction. “It’s impossible to have 1-on-1 direct communication with each child at all times,” she notes. “But it’s not necessarily a bad thing that we can’t.”
While that statement seems to run counter to every parental instinct, Rodriguez urges parents to look to the future for the payoff: “As a child you don’t want him to have a successful year every year he’s in school. It would not serve your children well if they [had the ideal teacher every year]. They’re going to go to college. They’re going to be in a lecture hall with 300 students trying to do the most difficult math they’ve ever experienced in their life and it’s going to be a real struggle.”
Who would fare better in pushing through the obstacles in that situation and advocating for extra help or time with the professor? The student armed with educational self-sufficiency or the one used to a “perfect” classroom?
“On the soccer field or in the waiting room at ballet class, you hear people talking about, ‘Who do you have next year?’ ‘Mrs. So and So.’ ‘Oh, she’s awful!” shares Heidi Richard, a mother of two and second-grade teacher in Shrewsbury. “As a parent of school-aged children, I can see this from the other side.”
She encourages parents to form their own opinions of teachers for one simple reason: “Different kids interact differently with different adults — just like some adults we meet, we hit it off, and some we immediately can’t stand.” Richard takes her own advice professionally when it comes to students’ reputations.
“For the same reason, teachers need to form their own opinions,” she says. “Most schools have some kind of transition meeting between the grade levels at the end of the previous school year. I always tell the teachers I’m meeting with from the first grade, ‘I don’t want to know your opinion.’ I always tell them that I want to know things that were helpful in the classroom, things that will help me be more successful with this student. But I don’t want to know, ‘He’s a trouble-maker.’”
A Simple Way Parents Can Support Teachers
Regardless of a teacher’s reputation, Rodriguez says there is a way parents can set their children up for a successful school year.
“If you read a book with your child every night, just reading together, the learning that occurs in those moments will drastically shift what a teacher has to do when she’s in the classroom with them,” she says. “And I’m not just talking about English Language Arts teachers, every teacher will benefit from that. The struggles we have as a teacher in school is when children feel like their parents aren’t around for them. Whether the parents are or not, it’s the perception the child has.”
Rodriguez says the simple act of reading has incredible benefits in and outside of the classroom, far beyond fluency and comprehension: “They’re just showing their child that they’re there. This is our time and it matters. I’m here, no matter what. You don’t need to go to school and try to find somebody else that’s here for you, I’m here for you.”
The habit of reading together creates an opportunity in which a child can work through anxiety and concerns, or just engage with their parents, through the lens of a book.
“When you’re reading, it gives your child a safe space to talk about themselves by talking about the characters,” she adds. “It allows them to talk about their teachers and their friends. It also helps them to build problem-solving skills. You’re going to wind up having these conversations that are so much more complex than we can create within a classroom.”
And those conversations yield high payoffs that even the best teachers can’t reproduce.
“That high-level cognition that’s going to occur as you’re reading with them is something we can’t replicate and we surely can’t do so in such an individualized way,” Rodriguez says. “It covers every single aspect of learning. I can design the most fascinating project in my classroom, it’s never going to compare to the natural interaction a parent has with their child. It seems simple, but it’s huge.”