The classroom lottery

How educators decide who teaches your child


Heather Cunningham


As a child, I remember worrying about being assigned to one particular teacher for third grade. I heard she was mean and gave lots of homework. Word in the hallway was that having her for a teacher was a fate far worse than dropping your hot lunch tray in the middle of a packed cafeteria.

She did end up being my teacher—one of the best I ever had. 

If my parents had been savvy enough to think of it then, they would have uttered the phrase one of my daughter’s teachers uses today: “You get what you get, and you don’t throw a fit.”

Back then, teachers were teachers. Parents didn’t campaign for a preferred teacher. If they had a favorite, they never talked about it publicly.

Administrators now preparing for next year’s classroom assignments say times have changed. Parents are much more involved in their children’s education. And they should be.

But there are ways to approach the school’s administrator and ways to communicate without demanding your child get what you want them to have. The key is to maintain ongoing communications with teachers and administrators, while understanding that school placement is a massive job that has a ripple effect on every child in the school. 

“It almost doesn’t matter where it is, if you have a school of 600 students or 300, classroom placement has become a very hot topic,” says Bhavna Sharma-Lewis, principal of Edison Elementary School in Elmhurst. “It has become an issue of how much parents can participate in the process.”

Who’s in charge?

While parents have to be advocates for their children, their participation can make life difficult for administrators.

Principals say most parents think the more control they have in the selection process, the better. “Parents are willing to tell you exactly who they want teaching their kids if you are willing to let them,” says Lew Girmscheid, currently assistant principal of Eastview Elementary School in Oswego and principal of Prairie Point Elementary School, slated to open this fall.

Many districts want parents’ input. But some administrators say they are taken back by the growing number of parents who challenge educators’ decisions, including classroom placement.

“Even though we spend six hours a day with their child all year long, more and more parents feel that they know their child’s educational needs better than we do,” says Sharma-Lewis. “And sometimes that makes it tough.”

Some administrators go so far as to suggest that an overbearing parent may hinder a child’s learning and social development.

While a parent has just one goal in mind—to get the best placement for their child—educators say parents need to realize that placing children into classroom is a two-part process, with the needs of the overall school coming first and the child’s individual needs coming second.

“We have to first take into consideration the staffing that we have and our special education and gifted programs and how they operate, because it is important to group classes so that those services run in the most efficient way possible,” says Todd McDaniel, principal of Henry Puffer Elementary School in Downers Grove.

Then, principals say, they consider how each child learns.

“Meeting the kids’ educational needs comes first, before any social factors,” McDaniel says. Children who need a structured environment are more likely to get a teacher who runs a tight ship as opposed to those who do best in a classroom that favors independent learning.

Making the choice

How do they know what type of learner your child is? “We rely mostly on teacher input,” says Jim Pawelski, principal of Chicago’s Falconer Elementary School.

For many parents, that’s OK.  “I think my son’s teachers and his principal are the ones in the best position to choose the classroom that he is placed in,” says Batavia mom Loree Hupach. “That is why I would never put in a specific request.”

It’s a fine line. Parents have to be their children’s advocate and what if the experience with the current teacher is not good? It’s a parent’s responsibility to speak up.

“You may have additional insight into what type of classroom or teacher your child would benefit from, and we want to know that,” Girmscheid says. “But it is our job as educators to take that information and consider it, while at the same time keeping kids where they need to be—not just where their parents want them to be.”

The problems come, Sharma-Lewis says, with the parents who are unwilling to relinquish control.

“We just ask them to trust us to create the ultimate learning environment for their child,” Sharma-Lewis says. “That is the big issue here—getting parents to trust the decisions we make.” 

At Edison Elementary School, the placement team works to balance a classroom with a heterogeneous group of boys and girls, and to consider social situations that would make a classroom assignment better or worse for a child. 

“We don’t want a volatile student mix in any classroom, and will avoid it if a teacher tells us that putting Johnny A with Johnny B would be ill-advised,” Pawelski says. 

Administrators say if teachers know about problems your child has with another student, they may separate them next year—unless the conflict looks different at school than when your child talks about it at home.

“With my own child, as well as my students, I know that behavior at home can be incredibly different than behavior in the school environment,” Sharma-Lewis says. “In most cases we know your child best at school, and are aware of their social relationships here and how they work or don’t work.”

Teachers and principals consider test scores to get classrooms with students at varying learning levels. They may mix up groups of children who have been classmates several years in a row.

“We try to give students the opportunity to meet and learn with a lot of different peers in their grade,” Girmscheid says.

Saying your piece

So what if you have something to say about which teacher Jane gets next year? What if you fear she is so shy that Teacher A will scare her away from the love of learning or that Annie from next door will be a distraction?

There are ways to ensure that message is heard by school officials.

First, says Sharma-Lewis, make sure your child’s current teacher is aware of the situation. Keep the communication open all year—don’t wait until spring to let the teacher know your child has struggled with an issue all year and that next year you hope to avoid it, she says.

But just because spring has arrived doesn’t mean it’s too late to do anything. Let the teacher about your concerns.

“Let them know things that you have noticed about your child’s school or learning experience, and indicate that you would like to make sure they consider them when deciding your child’s classroom placement,” Sharma-Lewis says.

Girmscheid says: “As a child’s parent you are their No. 1 advocate, and if you have something to say regarding placement, the time is now. In the summer, principals have already started working on their student placement plans, and it is difficult to make changes once the next school year has started.”

When you make your feelings known, McDaniel says, do it in a way that steers clear of personal or judgmental feelings about a teacher.

“Instead, approach it this way, by saying, ‘I know that we are not allowed to pick teachers, but I do know that we liked the structure that Teacher A provided for our older child and feel like our younger child coming into that grade has a need for that same structure,’ ” he says. “Or indicate that you feel your child has a need for extra academic nurturing or challenge. Administrators are more likely to consider your input if you give examples of your child’s needs that stick to learning issues and the best fit for your child educationally.”

And, no matter what kind of discouraging vibes you get from administrators, don’t let it stop you from advocating for your child. Start with your child’s teacher. If you don’t feel as though your concerns have been addressed, don’t hesitate to schedule a visit with the principal.

“Even though I take every request on a case-by-case basis, if parents ask me to do something that I can do and that won’t set a precedent that is impossible for me to uphold, I will try to do it,” Girmscheid says.

Oswego parent Diane Ericson says that seems to be the case throughout her district. “Administrators and teachers all seem to work with parents if there is an issue,” she says. “I know that if I had concerns in the future, I would voice them.”

What not to do

Like most people, school administrators say they don’t respond well to demands. Instead, they suggest you approach the meeting as a way to share your concerns about your child’s learning experience. 

“If parents are bossy, demanding and micromanaging their child’s experience, it is hard to take their suggestions into account,” Girmscheid says.

Equally important, he says, is to refrain from criticizing a particular teacher in front of a child who might end up in that classroom. If that happens, “he has already started his year on the wrong foot,” says Girmscheid.

That is an all-too-common occurrence, educators say.

Girmscheid says children often come to school prepped about a teacher by siblings or peers.

“Kids are better able to handle that information and eventually trust their own perception about a teacher than if the information they have came from a parent. Then it is just harder to overcome.”

Bottom line: Parents can talk, but educators are only somewhat inclined to listen—something they argue may be in the best interests of the kids after all.

“If you guide them to develop a predisposition for a certain kind of teaching style, they are going to be in trouble when they get to a point when they are faced with something different,” Girmscheid says.

And, educators say, getting stuck with a teacher you didn’t want can be a lesson in itself.

“There are student learning styles and teaching learning styles, and even though we try our best, do they always mesh?

No. But in those instances students may learn to develop different strengths in new areas,” Girm-scheid says.

Naper-ville mom Maribeth Miller says that is a good thing. While she has never requested a specific teacher  for her son, now in seventh grade, she knows people who have. “While it is good for parents to feel they can speak up on their child’s behalf, there also has to be a certain amount of learning to get along with others along the way,” she says.   

So in the end, if you don’t get what you want, do you get angry? You would discourage that action from your children, so it’s not a good idea to indulge yourself.

And the reality is that anger rarely gets you the desired outcome.

But with communication, early and often, your child will have the best chance to get teachers who truly fit their needs. 

Heather Cunningham is an award-winning writer living in Batavia who writes frequently on parenting and health issues.


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