Our eldest starts kindergarten in the fall. I’ve been diligently researching schools and going on tours. After touring a handful of promising local schools — and perusing dozens of handouts — I realized how far off the mark these informational resources are. Most of what my child’s day-to-day experience would be like at school isn’t covered in glossy brochures or on clunky websites that talk about school lunches and after-school programs.
So what am I looking for? Information about the teachers, please! Movies — from Dead Poet’s Society to Dangerous Minds — help us see how memorable great teachers can be. But the reality is just as compelling. My child’s teachers will shape how he feels about learning, the classroom, and himself. Teachers such as Sarah Hagan, for example, teach students to embrace “Awesome” (aka math) with no text book but tons of creativity. Consider learning polynomials through a speed dating lesson for instance!
This is what I want my child’s teachers to be: innovative, persistent, nurturing, and smart. I’m not just star-struck. Research, like this study from Rand, shows that not only do teachers matter, they matter more to student achievement than any other aspect of school.
Teachers’ role in school
But on school tours, teachers are often mentioned as an aside — and rarely by name. Instead, we learn the school’s philosophy and go over the schedule. True, these are important, but on school tours, the assumption seems to be that the teachers simply follow the administration’s lead. In reality, every teacher has control over what happens in his or her classroom and how s/he engages students in learning.
I don’t have a problem with that. In fact, I’m looking for signs that teachers are treated like trusted professionals. I want a school where teacher input is valued, where classrooms have freedom, and the teachers — like the students — are encouraged to question the status quo. Instead the principals and tour leaders discuss the bulletin boards that line the hall or that partnership with a local nonprofit that visits twice a year.
The result? I’ve become that parent. The annoying one. The one who keeps asking questions that stray from the carefully planned five-page tour agenda.
Here are five of my favorite questions to ask:
How involved are the teachers in setting the school’s vision and direction?
Why this matters: You may not be able to ask outright about a principal’s management style, but listen to how s/he refers to the teachers. Is the principal supportive of teachers’ approaches and needs? Does s/he bring them up at all? You want a principal who treats teachers as partners rather than employees. If individual teachers are valued as professionals, rather than taking all their cues from a micromanaging administration, it’s an indicator of a better environment.
Do teachers get time off to keep their skills current?
Why this matters: Staff development days are not parents’ favorite additions to the calendar, but having a teacher with up-to-date skills should be. You want to hear about teachers taking advantage of a wide range of professional development opportunities, beyond the typical conferences. For example, do they regularly meet with other teachers from across the district to discuss common standards and transitions between schools? Are some teachers actively involved in training others or writing or speaking about the topic of teaching? These are good signs.
How often do teachers in the same grade level meet to discuss their students?
Why this matters: Traditionally, teachers function in classroom siloes, but it’s magic when they get a chance to learn from each other. They share ideas for how to bring out the best in their students, regardless of which physical class the child sits in. And if they share students, they can acquire a better understanding of each child by sharing experiences and observations. Ask what teachers at this school are doing to break down the walls and share best practices with each other.
What is the average teacher tenure?
Why this matters: In California, the average experience of a teacher is currently around three years. This is true despite the fact that it takes nearly five years for a professional to really get the hang of leading a classroom. Also, the higher the turnover, the less confidence I have in the relationship between teachers and the principal. On the other hand, having a staff full of folks who’ve spent the last two decades in the same role worries me. My concern is that these people do not embrace change. I wonder if they are stagnant and doing the same things they did a decade ago.
How are teachers handling the shift to Common Core Standards?
Why this matters: This one is tricky, given all the bad press around this issue. The simple fact, though, is that these standards are already a reality in most states. No matter what the parents’ or teachers’ opinions, the transition to Common Core is happening, and it can’t be easy. I want to know whether it’s going well at this school, what the principal and teachers see as the biggest challenges, and how they are addressing these concerns. I’m looking for people working on this transition together as a team. Hearing that teachers have been resistant to the rollout has me worried that they’re more interested in maintaining their tried-and-true lesson plans than in ensuring that my child learns the skills she needs for her future. On the other hand, hearing that everything is going perfectly makes me wonder how transparent the school is being with parents.
Don’t be afraid to ask a few probing questions on your next school tour. I was that mom, and while I garnered a few eye rolls, I also believe I helped other parents think more about the role and importance of the teacher.