Should principals honor parent requests for teachers?

April 19, 2013

in hot topics, rants and reflections

This is another one of those highly divisive issues that seem to plague large schools all across the country, yet I don’t see a lot of conversations about it online. Anytime there are multiple classes per grade level or subject area, teacher reputations spread throughout the community and parents (as well as students) begin to express a preference for one teacher or another. These requests might be submitted in writing to the principal, or shared casually. But either way, schools have a big decision to make: should they honor or deny parental requests for specific teachers?

Many people don’t realize the enormous amount of factors that are considered when creating class assignments before the beginning of the school year. There needs to be a semi-equal distribution of students by gender, achievement levels, and behavioral concerns (and balancing all three of these factors simultaneously is no small feat.) Special considerations must then be made for the placement of English language learners and students with special needs. Often student-teacher personality conflicts are considered, as well as interpersonal conflicts between students who need to be separated from their peers. Then, just when a near-perfect balance has been achieved, it’s announced that a student is transferring in or out of the school, and more changes have to be made on a weekly basis all throughout the summer. I’ve been involved in the process of student class assignments many times, and it can take hours for just a single grade level. When you add dozens of parent requests to the mix, the job becomes almost impossible.

That said, I believe that parents have the right to do what they think is best for their kids, and their concerns about the classes to which their children are assigned are valid. It’s been well-documented that the skills of a child’s teacher have a far greater impact than the reputation of the school as a whole. In other words, it’s better to have an outstanding teacher in an average school than an average teacher in an outstanding school. The issue goes far beyond just academic achievement: teachers shape students’ personalities, attitudes toward school, and outlook on life.  I certainly don’t blame parents for requesting an educator whose teaching style and personality is the best fit for their child.

So what’s a principal to do?

Picking and choosing which parental requests to honor creates a minefield of problems. What happens if one parent finds out his or her request was not honored but another parent’s request was?

If all parental requests are honored, the effect on the school can be chaotic. Parents who request specific teachers are often highly involved in their kids’ education and support learning at home. If all of those children are placed in one class, that means the other classes will have a disproportionately high number of families who are not actively involved in education. This creates a difficult situation for the other teachers, and an extremely unfair situation for the other kids, who may be assigned to less capable teachers simply because their parents weren’t able to advocate for the “star” educators. (Whether the toughest kids should go to the best teachers is another debate altogether.) When principals and teachers create class lists without input from parents, they have greater freedom to look at the big picture as they consider the needs of all students and how the school will function as a whole.

But if no parental requests are honored, principals run the risk of upsetting their most vocal and potentially supportive families. In some cases, those parents make the lives of both the teacher and the principal miserable until their kids are transferred into the desired classroom. Regardless of how well the parents handle the news, they’re still prevented from having a say in which person will assume a tremendous amount of responsibility for their child’s education over the course of 35 hours a week for almost an entire year. Parents can choose their children’s caregivers and babysitters–it seems natural that they’d have some sort of say in their kids’ teachers, as well.

What do you think? Is there a solution that’s fair for students, parents, and teachers? How are parental requests handled at your school?

 

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Angela was a classroom teacher for 11 years and currently works as an instructional coach and educational consultant based in New York City. She's created a webinar series on pro-active behavior management and has written 3 books for educators. Check out the blog and free teacher resource pages for photos, tips & tricks, activities, printables, and more.

{ 38 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Jenny April 19, 2013 at 4:12 pm

Our school has sort of sidestepped this issue. We send home a paper late in the year with questions for next year. It asks parents to let us know what kind of teacher they think is best for their child. That way they can give their input and help us find the best fit for their child, but they can’t request a specific teacher.

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2 Angela Watson April 19, 2013 at 4:31 pm

Ooh, Jenny, that’s VERY smart! I love it!

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3 Colleen March 25, 2014 at 3:57 am

Our school allows parents to write a letter to the principal describing the type of teacher they want their child to have. As much as possible, it seems those requests are honored. I am sure some slip through the cracks, but it seems a fair way to do it. They also have a placement committee that works with parents who are unhappy with their child’s current teacher. The meeting format and the discussion often helps parents see the teacher in a new light and they make the decision to keep their students in their originial class.

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4 Rebecca April 19, 2013 at 8:24 pm

I love Jenny’s idea. I think it depends on how much of an issue this is in your school. If you only have a few parents making requests, it might be more feasible to work with them. But like you said, not everyone can get what they want, especially if there is one really stand out teacher on a team. I would say if a principal is getting an overflow of requests that can’t be met, then have some sort of system where they parents can request and explain in writing why they want a certain teacher and promise only to consider it, but make explicit that because student learning must be put first, that not all requests can be honored.

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5 Heather April 19, 2013 at 8:27 pm

We are a new school and have always taken parent request. It has caused classes to be ‘stack’ with the same teachers always getting the “good parental involved families”. This has pitted teachers against each other & caused just a wee bit of drama. Due to this & reasons stated in your post 0ur principal will be taking only 1 written non-request per grade level, but the parents have to have a valid reason for the non-request for it to be honored. Meaning if there are 4 teachers in 1st grade then the parent has the option to non-request 1 of those teachers. This is what another school in our district does & is it very effective!

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6 Angela Watson April 20, 2013 at 1:35 am

Interesting, Heather…so parents can’t request a teacher they want, but they can specify one teacher at the grade level that they DON’T want. Hmmm… Thanks for sharing that. I can imagine that solves the problem when the parent is not so much desperate to get their child into a particular teacher’s class, but just wants to avoid having a certain teacher. I didn’t touch on that in the article, but I think it happens a lot.

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7 amber bailey April 23, 2013 at 2:22 pm

I think that is a great idea and more schools should institute a similar policy.

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8 amykuti April 19, 2013 at 9:50 pm

Hi! I don’t think the parent’s should be able to request teachers; It gives unfair advantage to some and a disadvantage to others. Honestly, with the new evaluations, I think that some one should come up with a program to give a true heterogeneous group to each teacher. That is the only fair way for us to succeed.

Just sayin.. :)

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9 Bill April 20, 2013 at 3:26 pm

Disagree with parent input. They should stay in the business of parenting while schools stay in biz of educating. Just my professional and personal opinion. Allowing parent s to dictate our job n profession is and would be a cancer to the integrity of the operations of a school, as well as undermine the principal’s authority. As servant leaders we are charged with doing what we think is in the best interest of the child. Although a problem at every level I am sure this is most rampant at the primary grades. What is the solution? Let your teacher s know your expectations and hire only the best and most caring educators. Peace

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10 Paula April 21, 2013 at 8:04 am

Parents are sticking to the business of parenting when they are involved in how and who is educating their child!

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11 Christina April 21, 2013 at 9:51 am

I disagree! My child had a teacher that I had no day about, and she was absolutely AWFUL to all of the kids, and my child was having behavior issues and falling behind significantly. In order to get my child away from her we had to change schools. At the new school the principal explained the teaching styles of each teacher and let me help choose. Now my child is doing better than any of the other years in school! It’s amazing what a little parent input can do for their child!! NO ONE knows a child better than a parent does!

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12 Christine April 20, 2013 at 7:26 pm

Our principal has asked parents requesting a particular teacher to write a letter stating the reason they believe one teacher would be a better fit for their child than the others.

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13 Thomas Thieme April 20, 2013 at 7:30 pm

Our Open House is the spring is treated by parents like a trade convention. They go around to classrooms, take pictures, notes, and “interview” us. But the truth is, it’s impossible to meet every request. Too many new kids show up in August and last-minute changes have to be made to rosters.

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14 Tracy April 20, 2013 at 7:33 pm

I have mixed feelings on this. More often than not, the parent who requests a particular teacher is doing it thinking that it will be the best fit for their child–but they can’t see everything ELSE that is going on behind the scenes to determine the best fit for the other 80+ kids in that grade level. So say the child gets the teacher the parent requested and it turns out that that teacher (or the makeup of the rest of the class) IS NOT the best fit..then what? You have an upset parent who got exactly what he or she asked for and it still isn’t working out–it affects the teacher’s relationship with the student, the parent, and ALL the other parents when the one who made the request invariably voices their displeasure publicly.

The other side of this are those parents who target the teachers they think they can control–not those that are best for the child. It’s the bully parents I worry about more. They target a newish teacher who has a reputation for being kind, being cooperative, and one who is known for working with parents to do whatever it takes to help his or her students. Soon as the school year starts, the parent demands changes be made to accommodate the needs of the child that are absolutely out of line and that affect the rest of the class. This is the parent who demands meetings during lunch, planning periods, after school several times per week. It’s the squeaky wheel, unfortunately…one wrong step and the teacher’s reputation is ruined.

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15 Jennifer April 20, 2013 at 7:45 pm

Our high school is quite large – over 800 students per grade – and I shudder to think what our counselors would have to go through to honor parent/student requests for specific teachers. No, we have a master schedule of courses on the computer, and the computer does the shuffling.

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16 Sharon Gardner April 20, 2013 at 8:04 pm

The elementary school that I teach in, has in recent years, has ability grouped the students. This has stacked the classes. The same teachers get the higher students every year and the other teachers get the lower students. As in your article, burnout is a major problem. The majority of our students come from lower income families and low parental support. I wish we evenly grouped our classes, but administration seems to think differently.

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17 Mindi April 20, 2013 at 9:14 pm

There are not an overwhelming number of parents who request a particular teacher. If they do, we (the teacher and/or principal) decide if we think it is a good match or not and may or may not agree.If we don’t agree, we just say that classes haven’t been decided or that we don’t think it will work out well. The principal tends to place certain children with certain teachers which may unbalance classes, but there’s not much that can be done about it. We’ve also had parents say they do NOT want a particular teacher. Those are almost always complied with because the teacher doesn’t need an unsupportive parent and there are often valid reasons.

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18 Nicholas Kleve April 20, 2013 at 9:24 pm

Schools and educators can sometimes be very dismissive of parents. In the book, Dealing With Difficult Parents by Todd Whitaker and Douglas Fiore, building relationships with parents of our students is critically important. The authors note that parents are vital stakeholders in the success of our society’s young people.

I believe many schools do a lot of damage to parent/school relationships. When parents speak up and make requests, it is because those parents want the best for their children. They may have valid reasons for wanting specific teachers, and those requests should be considered. If schools completely ignore parent input, those schools fail to build and strengthen relationships with parents. I am certainly not saying that schools can always honor every request by parents; however, parents need to know that their voices and concerns are being heard and matter.

I have had some parents come directly to me requesting that their children be switched to my classroom. After listening to these parents and reassuring them that their children will have a great year even if not in my room, the parents are usually fine. The key is to build and strengthen those vitally important parent/school relationships.

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19 jazzy April 20, 2013 at 9:29 pm

It’s so not fair when school employees get to choose who they want their kids to have for their teachers but the rest of the student’s parents don’t even have a say. I see this every year.

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20 Lisa April 20, 2013 at 9:40 pm

There is no easy answer. Teachers popularity in a school community is not necessarily a reflection of their ability to teach. I have had classes as a result of parental requests and they were difficult – usually the tricky kids socially and behaviourally which meant most of my time was spent on developing relationships and managing behaviour.
The other issue with classes is a lot of time and effort goes into placing children – on paper all looks balanced but put a group of individuals in a classroom and the reality is different.
Our school now asks for class requests in writing with reference to academic, social or behavioural considerations much easier to address individual concerns.

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21 RJSchwab April 20, 2013 at 9:50 pm

In our small school in East Texas, our principal told us it was the law who opened up parent requests. The school is required to honor requests. This isn’t broadcasted, but some parents know. This isn’t always an issue since we don’t have more than 2 teachers for each grade level.

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22 Kay Mason April 20, 2013 at 9:52 pm

My mother-in-law told me several times about hoping her older son would get into the first grade that had the cute, peppy teacher and beautiful bulletin boards, but he was placed in the other class. She said that once she looked past what she thought was important, she realized what a great teacher he had.

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23 Heidi Butkus April 20, 2013 at 10:02 pm

As a teacher that has received a lot of requests for children to be placed in my Kindergarten class, I can tell you that often times, being on the receiving end of the requests is no picnic! For a couple of years, I received quite a lot of difficult children whose parents “chose me” because they knew their children had special needs.
Also, I often find that the parents that usually make the requests are often the most likely to make complaints when something goes wrong. Consequently, my most difficult years teaching have been when I have had the most requests in my class! Since the apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree, a high need child often means a high need parent.

Sometimes, parent requests can work in the favor of the teacher, and other times, they work against the teacher. But they almost always cause issues such as jealousy and animosity amongst the staff. I think that as a teacher, I would be happy to say good-bye to parent requested class placements!

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24 Susan April 20, 2013 at 10:06 pm

As a teacher, I WANT my parents to be able to request me, ESPECIALLY if I have had a sibling and we have developed a good relationship. As I told one mom just last week, “You know what to expect in my classroom and you are already comfortable with me and my teaching, it makes sense!”
I can see how some classrooms might get stacked, but then again, if administration hasn’t done their job in staff placement , why should my own child be punished? I pick my own children’s teachers based on the teacher’s teaching style.

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25 Carrie Horn April 20, 2013 at 10:45 pm

I am now on both sides of this issue. A couple years ago my daughter was terrified of a male teacher in her school and I asked the principal if there was any way she could have a teacher that was female. She ended up LOVING the male teacher when he taught her reading group and other groups in her class. Was it in her best interest for me to try to shield her? We still talk about how much she loved him. I am just finishing my first year teaching and I don’t know how I feel about requests yet. In line with the article I do know that there is SO much to consider when placing a student and that placing all children in a requested slot would make it impossible to create a good classroom.

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26 Wandag April 20, 2013 at 11:22 pm

It is not so much parent requests for a teacher that are the problem but rather the request that certain students be in the same class together. Now there is a real nightmare. Then there are the kids who can’t be together either because of temperament or parent request so when you only have 2 or 3 classrooms this is another problem. Often teachers do know best which students to put together with which teachers and with which students. They do try their very best. Teachers don’t want students to be unhappy.
But still it can be difficult to ignore parent requests whether for teacher selection or for friends in class.

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27 Jennifer April 21, 2013 at 12:41 am

I’m in the position of having 3 of my children at the same school that I teach at. You can bet that I went and asked for specific teachers for my children. If a parent knows that a particular teacher is a better fit for their child’s personality, or they have better classroom management etc, then I think its ridiculous to punish those children by putting them in an inferior class just so that everything is “equal”. So what if one teacher gets all of the kids whose parents are actively involved? Maybe that will make the other teachers sit up and take notice and adjust their teaching. When teachers can affect student outcomes for YEARS, it makes no sense to not enable students/parents to have a say. Also, I find it rather silly that each class must be balanced with low, middle and high students – in order that the low achievers have peers to look up to and be supported by. We make a big deal of peer tutoring, but fail to realize that in most cases we are holding back our high fliers in order to bring along the low and medium ranks. Is that fair to them? If we are all honest as educators we can probably point out at least 1, if not more, ineffective teachers in our buildings. Why on earth should we feel that we are being fair to put children in that class just so that the students with uninvolved parents might have a chance to be in a good teacher’s classroom. And, with parents so uninvolved, will the best teacher even make as much of a difference as would be possible with the student of involved parents?

Unfortunately, when we do not weed out ineffective teachers we are bound to end up in a situation rife with unfairness. I don’t think we should compound that unfairness by denying parental choice in teacher assignments.

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28 Debbie April 21, 2013 at 8:36 am

The unrequested teacher is not always “ineffective”, sometimes the parent is trying to avoid a teacher who has high expectations for his or her students. I am both requested and not requested. I have high expectations for my students. Many parents want me for this reason and many do not.

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29 Leslie April 28, 2013 at 6:01 pm

I believe, as parents, we all want what is best for our children. As a teacher, you may have a little more insight about what is best for your children, both academically and personally, in the classroom. I do, however, agree with Debbie. An unrequested teacher may not be ineffective. I believe that the school administration is more capable in determining their effectiveness than we are as parents. Who is to say that a teacher that someone had trouble with isn’t the best teacher for my child. What they have to offer could be exactly what makes my child a better student. I know I will not always be there to make decisions for my children and I know each year there will be an opportunity for them to learn something…even if it is how to deal or cope with an undesirable situation. I think the ability to do that will serve them well throughout their lives.

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30 Jami April 21, 2013 at 9:24 am

I am a building principal. Many parents attempt a casual conversation or phone call to request or nonrequest a teacher. Once I ask for it in writing – a very few number follow through with it. I always respond that we try to balance numbers however valid concerns from parents will be considered. No guarantees but at least they are heard.

Our biggest problem is the placement of children and grandchildren of teachers.

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31 Linda April 21, 2013 at 4:08 pm

I have worked in both larger (multiple classrooms per grade) and smaller (one classroom per grade or split class situations) schools, and in each school the administration would accept parent requests in writing, to be taken into consideration. But it was not advertised. Administration always stated to the parents that the students would be divided according to ability, gender, social, behavioural, and personality considerations. Sometimes we agreed with their request and sometimes we did not. Yes, parents do know their children the best, but teachers know the classroom the best, and how a group of students will work and live together when there are 25 of them (as opposed to 2 or 3 at home of different ages not required to concentrate on learning for 6-7 hours per day). I do not think a class should be stacked with higher or lower academic achievers or with all or none of the behaviour challenges. Not only does this unnecessarily burden teachers, it widens the gap between the levels of achievement, and creates a stronger case of the haves and have-nots. “Oh, that’s the smart class. We’re part of the dumb class.” This happened when I was an elementary student. The class one year below me was a small group of 14, so the decision was made to have 7 placed with the grade above (my class) and 7 with the grade below. The groups of 7 were originally chosen by academic ability. All the students soon figured out which ones were considered smart or not. Then the decision was made that the arrangement would last throughout elementary – to create better classroom cohesion and community the students were never rearranged. It was an interesting social experiment, but the gap in the levels of learning widened, and one group was always known as the “slow” ones. Not a good plan.

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32 Yolanda Graham April 21, 2013 at 5:54 pm

I would think that schools should at least listen to parent requests for certain teachers and try to honor them as much as possible, letting parents know that it is not a guarantee but the concerns will be considered. Another aspect to solving this problem would be for school leaders and teachers to create an atmosphere that minimizes teacher competition and enhances grade level collaboration. Grade level cohesiveness also becomes a part of the school and teacher reputations. I had an interesting conversation with a former parent of mine who is very active in our school. She named 2 grade levels in which she stated it did not matter which teacher her son got because she knows that they are strong teams. Please understand that I’m not saying that teachers should be carbon copies and do all of the same things, but (in many cases) grade level teams can be encouraged to work together and share things that work so that families can see how well they work together.

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33 Learning Girl April 22, 2013 at 12:18 am

There have been some really interesting ideas and perspectives in the comments. As a parent, I think I’d be reasonably satisfied if the school said they’d welcome parent input but can’t make any promises about the results. They could consider parent preferences, but leave room to override them when it just won’t work out with all the other concerns. I’d assume most parents would not challenge the override once they put in their initial request, and those who do get what they want can’t prove whether it was due to their request or just the way the dice fell in the first place, so no one can really complain that you listened to someone else’s request more than theirs.

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34 Thomas Thieme April 22, 2013 at 10:17 pm

Parents don’t always know what’s best when it comes to teachers. Some parents succumb to their own prejudices and preconceived notions. When I was a young teacher, some parents were appalled that their child might get a male teacher in second grade. Some even suggested to the principal that a male who chose to teach second grade must surely have “ulterior motives”. However, when I was assigned to third grade the next year, some of those same parents requested me so their child could continue with me. They just need to be open-minded to what the school decides.

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35 Allie April 28, 2013 at 5:11 pm

Our school has a problem with this. There is a ‘pipeline’ of teachers through the school that always get requested. Typically they end up with a group of students that has been together each year because their parents request the same teacher. Often these are teachers kids or super-involved PTO parents-kids. Unfortunately not only does it create conflict between teachers, but by the end of those years, it can cause a big problem for the requested teacher. We’ve had groups of students that go through the ‘pipeline’, and by the end they are ‘too cool for school’, because they’ve got their best buds in class & feel like they can do anything. Then the requested teacher has to try to deal with a situation that should have been avoided by splitting up the students.
Sadly, the opposite is also true sometimes. While some parents requests are honored, some parents are not. It is not unusual for a parent to request a teacher, but another teacher requests that student, so administration honors the teacher’s request. This causes issues because now the parent knows how many requests are honored, but theirs was not. If that is the case, then I think the idea posed by someone else would work, in which parents can choose one teacher not to have & know it will be honored.

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36 Denise May 5, 2013 at 2:13 am

In my 20 plus years of teaching, it has been my experience that parents get together and request a teacher in order to have their child put with their friends. In less about the teacher’s style or effectiveness and more about their child’s social needs.

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37 Wanda May 5, 2013 at 11:43 am

Denise, never more true than when you teach in a small town with only 2 classes per grade where everyone knows each other.

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38 Heather May 14, 2013 at 11:15 pm

I have been teaching in the same small-city school for almost 20 years. When I first arrived, the other Gr 1 teacher was a very strong, very well-liked teacher, and everyone wanted her because they knew her reputation. Thank goodness for my son’s friend who wanted me because he knew me. I will love that little guy forever, plus his parents who “wanted me.” It wasn’t that I wasn’t a strong teacher, it was the few people knew me. No I am viewed as the very strong, very well-liked teacher that everyone wants because they know MY reputation. The “new” teacher is in the same situation I was in years ago. Yes, she, too, is a very good teacher,people just don’t know it yet! When parents ask how they get their kids in my room, I feel it’s my job to thank them for their confidence, but to also reassure them that the other teacher is as capable as I am. I wish someone had done that for me years ago, instead of “taking all the glory.” What goes around, comes around!

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