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Early Schedules Indicate Later Successes

By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 29, 2000; Page A09

Rachel Kallem, 15, would not actually have killed her sister Mary, an adorable 8-year-old, but the thought was not far from her mind as the child leisurely sorted the pile of vacation mail on the pink living room carpet of their small brick house in North Arlington.

Kallem knew the letter with her high school class schedule was in there somewhere. She wanted to see it. Badly. Which teachers did she get? Would she have the same lunch period as her friends? Hurry, Mary!

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This month, such scenes were replayed in hundreds of thousands of households, as American teenagers faced an emotionally charged moment--learning what would be the rhythm and texture of the next nine months of their lives. Each discovery, educators say, significantly affects how much learning will take place, even though it will be a few more days before they step inside a classroom.

When Kallem finally yanked the letter from the stack--ignoring her sister's protest that it was addressed to their father--she was thrilled to learn that she had Michael Palermo for European history and Marilyn Barrueta for Spanish, two gifted instructors said by the cafeteria rumor mill to be both kind and interesting.

Stephanie Impala, like Kallem a sophomore at Yorktown High School in Arlington, said, "I started jumping up and down and shrieking when I found out I had Mrs. Rosenblatt for English because I had heard very good things about the way she teaches, and all my friends who had her last year loved her."

"I think definitely the reputation of a teacher makes a difference in how you approach the course," said Erin McMahon, a junior at Ridgefield (Conn.) High School. "Last year, both my biology teacher and my English teacher were known as tough teachers. That made me more determined. I worked harder . . . and as a result I got an A in both subjects."

The force of teacher expectations is likely to grow as more schools try to mail class schedules before school starts. Not only does it help students prepare mentally for what is to come, school administrators say, but it also leaves more time to make changes if certain student-teacher combinations spell disaster.

Ralph Neal, assistant superintendent for student services in the D.C. schools, said he knows of several high schools that have begun mailing their schedules early. "It is good when students know that they are going to like the teacher, and if there is a mistake or a conflict, we can get the schedule corrected," he said.

The power of a good teacher's reputation comes from the fact that "it is a self-fulfilling prophecy," said John J. Murphy, associate professor of school psychology at the University of Central Arkansas in Conway. "When you expect a positive experience, you are more likely to experience it as positive. . . . Teacher-student relationships as perceived by the student is a crucial variable in learning.

"A lot of kids who walk into that building already know what kind of experience they are going to have," he said.

Bad vibrations have an equal and opposite effect, educators and students say. Courtney Shaw, another Yorktown High sophomore, said she had been told her ninth-grade French teacher would be a trial, and to her he was. "I dreaded when I would have to go to his class--45 minutes of hell," she said. "I almost failed the course quite a few times."

Trystan Sill, a Yorktown sophomore, said that when she learned she had drawn a physical education teacher reputed to be mean and unfair, "the first thing I did was demand my mother call the school and change me out of that class."

Handling such escape attempts is one of the most important duties of guidance counselors in August and September. Deb Donley, a counselor at New Trier Township High School in Winnetka, Ill., said she tells students "they are in charge of and responsible for their own learning. It is a measure of their maturity when they can adapt to the various personalities of their teachers and continue to achieve at a high level."

At Yorktown, director of counseling services Linda Hutchinson tries to convince fretful students that third-hand information is not always accurate. "What you are hearing are rumors," she tells them. "You are hearing what other people may have said, but maybe it was exaggerated. You have not experienced anything firsthand. Why not give it a try?"

John Day, the International Baccalaureate coordinator at Springbrook High School in Montgomery County, recalled the difficult September he had to replace an extraordinarily popular teacher and teach a subject new to him. "In those situations you have to do a heck of a lot of work," he said. He told his skeptical students that he knew he could not fill his predecessor's shoes immediately. "I think kids can see a phony 10 miles away," he said.

It is not only the character of the teacher that is important to students. Each course to them is a nine-month drama. They are the star, but they want to know how much support they will have from the rest of the cast. When schedules arrive, the rest of the day is spent in frantic telephone and e-mail exchanges to see who shares which classes with whom.

"Not only does being with friends make a class more fun," said Stephanie Yoder, a sophomore at Washington-Lee High School in Arlington. "I think that it inspires me to work better in class. I personally don't enjoy turning to my friend and saying, 'Oh yeah, I got a D on that test.' It's embarrassing."

If coordinating classes with friends is important, getting the same lunch period is absolutely crucial. Rachel Kallem and her friends, Sarah Sterling and Linda Choe, last week sat in the Kallem living room and discussed the nuances of drawing the 10 a.m., 11 a.m. or noon lunch period. It matters whom you are with then because "we talk about what is going on and who is mad at whom," Kallem said.

Her friend, Wyatt Fenner, listening to this, said, "I just like to eat."

"You are such a boy," Kallem said.

But this is an age when attitudes are changing. Ben Truman, a junior at Springbrook High, said he used to judge teachers on a simple scale, easy or hard, and prayed for the former. But he is 16 now, and admits that "if you get a hard teacher, it kind of helps you work harder."

Sarah Sterling, Kallem's friend, said the jokes about friends and teachers were fun, but nudged her in a serious direction. "When I got my classes all settled," she said, "it hit me that I actually have to go back to school."

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