Sunday, September 28, 2008

Parent & Student Guide to Getting the Teachers and Classes You Deserve

At this point in the school year, students probably have a good idea about whether their teachers are any good. Kids know when they're getting screwed, but they don't always know how to maneuver the roadblocks put in front of them to prevent them from switching out of a class. You know how you always hear about schools and districts putting adults ahead of children? This is an example of what they're talking about. Schools avoid changing students' classes whenever possible because they don't want to do the work involved.

There are ways to improve your chances, but it will take a lot of planning and mutual support between parent and student. One note before we get into it: if you know that the principal must approve every schedule change at your school, skip right to Level Two. Otherwise, here we go:

Level One: Student Action
Students need to prepare to present their case in a mature, responsible way. Parents and trusted teachers can certainly help with this. You need to be ready to approach counselors in a way that will get those adults to want to do things for them.

This means providing legitimate reasons for wanting to change your class. "The teacher hates me," or "I hate the teacher" won't get you anywhere. "That class is boring" or "stupid" won't work either (even if it's true). Legitimate reasons might sound like:
  • "I'm having trouble understanding the way [Mr/Ms X] teaches. I ask questions and go for extra help, but I still don't get it."
  • "I learn better with [a certain style of teaching], and my friend is in [another teacher's] class and told me that's what they're doing in that class."
Counselors want to hear that you're doing everything you can to make your current class work. Asking questions, coming before and/or after school, getting help from other students (or at home), are all things that a responsible student would be doing to keep their grades up. You're approaching them in a way their not used to--counselors hear a lot of complaining and deal with many immature students and teachers all day. You have to be a breath of fresh air.

Your chances of success will also go up a lot if you also provide a solution to your problem. Bringing up your concerns in a responsible way is good, but taking it one step further makes it easier for people in power to say yes. This means you have to do some research:
  1. Find out about the other teachers from friends, relatives, and trusted adults. It would be a good idea to go talk to the teacher you think you want and ask them if they would be okay with you switching into their class. You could even ask them if they would be willing to talk to the counselors on your behalf (which could help you avoid Level Two). In the end, you need to find the class where you'll have the best chance to learn and be successful. After all, you wouldn't want to have to go through this again later, would you?
  2. Figure out how to fit it into your schedule. Your first priority should be to see if the teacher you want has a class at the exact same time as your current class. The more changes counselors have to do to your overall schedule, the less likely they are to say yes. If there's no way to make it simple, you have to at least try to figure out a new schedule that would fit both your desired new class and different periods with your same teachers for everything else. Ask trusted teachers for help with the schedules of other teachers so they can help you lay out something that will impress the counselor you bring it to.
Why do you have to do all this, you might wonder. As with anything in life, if you do most of the legwork, it's easier for people to help you when you need it.

If all your hard work results in the counselor stalling, not answering your questions, or just a flat out refusing, it's time to move to Level Two.

Level Two: Parental Action
If you've presented both legitimate reasons and possible solutions without success, it's time to bring in one or both of your parents/guardians. Most school administrators (and of course the districts themselves) are so afraid of angry parents complaining to the press, getting them fired/demoted/reassigned or suing that they will do whatever the parents want with little hesitation.

First, go back to the counselor with your adult supporter. They must make it clear to the counselor that they support your very reasonable, very well thought out request. They also have to make it clear that they will go to the principal if they aren't satisfied with the result of this meeting. It would probably be good to get the counselor to commit to a timetable, telling you exactly when the changes will be made, and when you can start your new class(es).

If the counselor is still obstinate or won't give you a clear answer, you need to set up a meeting between you, your parents and the principal. Again, while it is okay to be upset in this situation, your adult supporter needs to refrain from yelling at the principal, as that will make them less likely to want to help you either.

I think you, as the student should first explain (without losing your cool) what you're trying to accomplish, and what you did to try to make it happen. Keep it short and simple. You have to do this because the principal will probably have no idea why you're there until you get there. Then it's your parents' turn. Again, they should explain that they support their student's position and tout all the hard work you did up front. They should also explain that in spite of this, the counselor wouldn't or couldn't do what you requested. If the counselor was at all rude or unreasonable with you, tell the principal.

This is a key as well: If the teacher whose class you're trying to get out of is doing or saying inappropriate (or illegal) things in the classroom, you should use that information now (generally it would be a waste of time to bring that kind of information to the counselor first). The principal is the one person at the school most directly connected to the higher-ups in the school district. Whatever their teachers might be doing, they're going to be held personally responsible.

Any threats that you might be forced to go to over the principal's head will almost certainly result in one of two things:
  1. The principal immediately acquiesces to your demands, fearing the wrath of the school district (and beyond).
  2. They will think you're bluffing and refuse your request, forcing you to leave empty handed.
Either way, you're looking at the end of the meeting. In most cases, things won't have to get this far. If, however, you're still not satisfied, you have one last option.

Level Three: Friends in High Places
You and your parents have the right to bring your request to an administrator in the school district, probably the person with a title like Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction. You would repeat your case and what happened when you brought your concerns to the administrators at your school.

It's hard to go too much farther at this level if your parents don't have any connections to district officials, the school board, the superintendent, city council members, the mayor, or anybody with political clout where you live. If they do, they should call in a favor. I guarantee you that no matter what the school thinks, if someone at that level starts throwing their weight around, you will get your way very quickly.

Similarly, connections to the local media would be really helpful as well. Again, it's hard to imagine most school districts letting an issue get that far in the first place.

Success and Failure
If you've exhausted all of your options to no avail, then you'll just have to suck it up and deal with your terrible teacher. Just remember that if you hate that teacher, refusing to do work, getting in trouble all the time, or otherwise disrupting their class will only hurt you, not the teacher. In that position, you need to work twice as hard so that you'll pass the class and give them no reason to make the class any worse than it already might be.

Remember that time is not on your side, and the longer you wait to make a change happen, the more difficult it is going to be. If you need to switch out of a class, you need to start the ball rolling this Monday if you haven't already!