After one Herndon mother saw that her child wasn't happy in school anymore, she decided it was time to step in.
Her son was "always glad about going to class," says the mom, who asked to remain anonymous, but "then in his fourth-grade year, he started coming home and saying, ‘I don't want to go to school.' "
At first, she thought he might just have had a bad day or received a poor grade, but he continued to be unhappy. She doesn't believe his teacher said anything negative to him, but somehow he got it in his head that his teacher didn't think he was smart. "He started getting down on himself."
Her husband was in graduate school and spent most of the day at home, so
he talked to the school about switching his son's teacher, which the principal agreed to do. The end result: Her son was much happier.
Changing classrooms is rare these days, in part because schools give a great deal of thought to the mix of students' personalities and how they mesh with each other and with the teacher's educational style. That said, it remains a sensitive topic: The aforementioned mother who requested that her name not be used? Her son switched teachers a decade ago.
Administrators have the final word when it comes to class assignments and transfers. Yvonne Fawcett, principal at Glen Allen Elementary in Henrico County, says that determining classroom makeup is a group effort involving the previous year's teachers. They try to create a balance among the ability levels of the students in the class, taking into account past behavior issues. Parents are not allowed to request specific teachers, but they do have some input.
"I send a form home to parents, usually
about April, and the form that I send home has all the information about how we group students on one side, and on the other they can advocate for their child," she says.
On this form, parents can describe the type of learning environment they think is best for their child, whether that is highly structured or a classroom with more freedom, and any other concerns they may have.
Irene Carney, executive director of Sabot at Stony Point, a Richmond private school for children in preschool through eighth grade, says that making class assignments involves a lot of variables.
"A great deal of thought goes into those decisions — including the total number of children, the gender balance of the group, the distribution of children who might need some special consideration, and the match between teachers and children," she says. "The goal is to effect a class chemistry that will foster each student's learning and that, as a whole, is a healthy mix both socially and academically."
Fawcett usually receives fewer than five requests for classroom switches a year at Glen Allen, but the school honors a request only if a student has been re-assigned to a teacher with whom he or she has had difficulty in the past. "For the most part, parents have been fine with that because we do place children where we think they will do best academically."
As a small school, Sabot usually receives only one or two requests per year. Some of the most common reasons parents request changes are a perceived difference between the student's learning style and the teacher's mode of teaching, concerns about academic performance, and concerns about where the child falls age-wise among his or her peers, Carney notes.
She says they take change requests seriously, and they are open to doing it if the switch causes minimal disruption. However, Carney tries to guard against a domino effect, with granted requests causing more parents to ask to switch their children's classes. "School offers many opportunities for learning life lessons and life skills. If children always have the way made smooth for them, they may be ill-equipped later in life to deal with life's inevitable curveballs."
Sandy Shaw, who teaches English at Tuckahoe Middle School, agrees. "Most of the time I would say we try to work through it, so the child ends up staying with the teacher."
Carol Shakeshaft, director of the educational leadership department at Virginia Commonwealth University, which trains future administrators, encourages open lines of communication between principals and parents.
"We suggest that administrators talk with parents about the reasons why they are requesting a change," she notes. "If a complaint is made about a teacher, we urge administrators to investigate and report back. We also recommend that school divisions have policies about how to request a change of teacher, what variables will be taken into consideration, and the process that parents and administrators need to follow."
It's not a decision to take lightly. When the unhappy fourth-grader's dad went to see the principal and the teacher, other considerations — such as the boy's friendships among classmates and familiarity with the routine — were raised. Still, the mom says she wanted her son removed from the classroom after being unhappy for a month.]
Valerie Robnolt, an assistant professor in VCU's teaching department, urges communication among parents, children and teachers; she doesn't believe removing the child is a good option. Also, if the talking starts even before the school year begins, teachers can establish positive relationships with all the parents, she adds. Communication should continue through the school year, by a variety of means, including newsletters sent home and appearances at back-to-school nights and other activities — steps that can keep a parent from wanting to remove a child from a class.
"When I was a classroom teacher," Robnolt says, "I always saw myself as a partner with the parents, so that what we did was what was best for the child."