Surfing schools for the best teachers

Portland State student mothers, like mothers everywhere, are looking ahead to fall. They’re wondering what teachers their kids will get in the public elementary schools.

Teacher surfing has become a trend. Many parents are devising new strategies for getting their tots connected with the teachers they consider best. School administrators, to nobody’s surprise, are resisting.

Often parents are doing this through the way they fill out input forms. Some schools send these out to parents. They hope the parents will describe their children’s styles in such a way that administrators can match a child’s style with what is perceived as a teacher’s style.

Some parents use these forms to ask for certain teachers or to ask that a certain teacher not be the choice. Naturally, teachers who find themselves on “blacklists” feel disturbed. Some elementary schools are now drawing up class lists and randomly assigning teachers. Others don’t even send out the input forms.

Parents arrive at these preferences through the good old grapevine, by talking to other parents, by exchanging stories at PTA meetings, by asking the kids themselves what they hear.

Although the school system may abhor this practice, I can see why it exists. Thinking back on my own elementary school experience, I wish I had these choices.

I remember my first grade teacher, Miss Tracy, a warm, outgoing, enthusiastic woman. Under her tutelage, I learned to read almost overnight. I began to savor the whole idea of elementary school. Then came second grade and the cold water shock. My second grade teacher acted as if she’d rather be somewhere else.

She quickly divided the class into groups. One group contained those she considered underachievers. They didn’t read well by her standards. I don’t recall that she exerted any special effort to bring the laggards up to snuff.

My second grade teacher proved not to be the worst. I quickly learned the school had two teachers who frequently erupted into violent temper tantrums. I am confident their type still exists.

From second grade on, it mostly seemed downhill. In health class I had a teacher who acted perpetually depressed. We were not too surprised when she committed suicide one summer.

Seventh grade proved particularly horrible. The teacher radiated so little energy we were sure she would die in the middle of class. I would expect her type still may be found. I am confident these kinds of differences still afflict the public school system. I have had three daughters go through that system, and I have heard their horror stories.

One alibi school principals are offering is that a class should have balance, with a mixture of high and low achievers, both the social and the shy. I consider this nonsense, based on my own more recent experience at Portland State.

I enrolled in beginning Spanish, knowing nothing of Spanish beyond “adios” and “hasta la vista.” I found myself in a class composed about two-thirds of students who had studied Spanish in high school. From day one, they were flipping out vocabulary and grammar that completely mystified me. In that class, I began, and remained, a low achiever. That impacted both my self-esteem and my academic progress.

I believe the balanced class approach is bad. Maybe if you put the low achievers in one class and the higher achievers in another, both will benefit. I’d rather try to reach a higher degree of proficiency among fellow low achievers than to find my self-esteem buffeted about by those who achieve beyond my present potential.

The problem is that the low achieving class would probably wind up with the low achieving teachers. We might be creating ghettoes of underqualified students. These unfortunates may find themselves struggling through subsequent lives as a permanently disadvantaged group.

But then, so far as I can see, the population tends to divide itself pretty much automatically between losers and winners at almost every age level. The old saw about “you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear” may contain more truth than we like to admit, in what we pretend is an egalitarian society.