Selecting Good Teachers for your Children: What questions should you ask of your children’s teachers?

Commentary, Education, Rodney Clifton


In the last ten days, three mothers of 10 to 12-year old children have said: “My child had a terrible experience in school this year, what can I do to make sure that next year is better?”
When I hear questions like this, obviously I ask the mothers to tell me what they think was wrong.
These three mothers indicated that the problem was that their children were not being challenged by the teachers’ lessons, little homework was assigned, and none of it was corrected and returned in a timely way.
Of course, without further investigation, I cannot be sure the parents’ claims are true. But, if they are, it is time for parents directly to help their children get better teachers for September.
First, parents must take responsibility themselves and not assume that principals will ensure that all their teachers are excellent.  For a number of reasons, principals can’t or won’t pressure teachers to improve, or fire them if they are incompetent.
If school administrators are not rigorously evaluating teachers, then parents must interview and assess the teachers themselves. Of course, many parents will find it intimidating to do this. But, many have already interviewed baby sitters or perhaps changed dentists as a result of bad experiences. Likewise, parents must hold teachers to high standards if they want their children to have better experiences in school.
In this respect, I suggested that the three mothers read about what constitutes effective teaching in chapter 5 of “What’s wrong with schools and what we can do to fix them,” a book I wrote with Michael Zwaagstra and John Long.
Parents must go to the schools their children could potentially attend, and interview all the relevant teachers. Parents should then rank-order the teachers, and they will need to tell the principals accordingly that they want specific teachers to teach their children.
Unfortunately, assessing and obtaining better teachers for their children will only work for children in elementary schools, where students have fewer teachers, and in urban areas where they have choices of schools.
Here is a list of questions that parents should ask to assess teachers. They appear under the headings “personal and professional attributes”, “organizational skills”, “instructional skills”, and “evaluation procedures”.
Parents cannot ask all these questions, but they can ask two or three from each area, and they should record the responses as “No”, “Maybe”, and “Yes”. Obviously, teachers with more “yeses” will probably be better than those with more “maybes”.  
Personal and Professional Attributes
  • Does the teacher treat the students and their parents with respect?
  • Is the teacher fair?
  • Is the teacher enthusiastic about teaching?
  • Does the teacher accept responsibility for the students’ learning?
Organizational Skills
  • Are the classroom routines and lessons well-organized?
  • Does the teacher anticipate potential problems?
  • Does the teacher orchestrate smooth transitions between subjects?
  • Does the teacher limit disruptions?
Instructional Skills
  • Does the teacher focus on the students’ learning?
  • Does the teacher maintain momentum within and across lessons?
  • Does the teacher set reasonably high expectations?
  • Does the teacher stress students’ responsibility?
  • Does the teacher emphasize the core literacy, reading, and mathematical skills?
Evaluation Procedures
  • Does the teacher carefully monitor the progress of students?
  • Does the teacher give clear, specific, and timely feedback?
  • Does the teacher set assignments and tests that clearly relate to the lessons?
  • Does the teacher review assignments and tests soon after they are finished?
  • Does the teacher re-teach material to students who are having difficulties?
In a nutshell, effective teachers are empathetic toward students and their parents, but they also challenge them to learn and develop. At the end of every school year, students should be able to read better, compute math more accurately, demonstrate a better understanding of their place in the world, and show other worthy gains in achievement.
These questions, of course, only reflect what may happen and not what actually happens in the teachers’ classrooms. For this reason, parents must continually be vigilant about the education their children are receiving. 
Second, parents must discuss their concerns with principals, who hopefully will take the corrective action that is necessary. If principals fail to take corrective action, parents will then need to talk with the superintendents, and perhaps with the school boards, with the expectation that they will act judiciously.
Unfortunately, if superintendents and boards fail to correct the situation, the only thing that concerned parents can do is home school their children or send them to private schools. These solutions, however, are much more expensive than trying to get a good education for their children in the public system. And, June is the month for parents to make sure that their children get into classrooms with good teachers next September.