is a former superintendent of the Flowing Wells Unified School District


Back-to-school ads are already hitting the Sunday paper, which means parents are beginning to stress, but not about what clothes or backpacks to buy. The stress is about what teacher their child is going to have for the new school year.

Although we are more forthright in discussing this stress when our kids are starting school in early elementary grades, parents experience this stress at every grade level, including college and graduate school.

I call this "perfect teacher" stress. Every parent wants that perfect teacher to meet his or her kindergarten student at the door and then have this experience repeat itself in every classroom for the rest of their lives.

Parents desperately try to alleviate this stress by asking their child those universally accepted dinner table questions, "How was school?" "What did you learn today?" "How do you like your teacher?" Since the days of the one-room schoolhouse, students have frustrated their parents with the same one-word answers I gave my mom and dad: "OK." "Nothing." "Fine."

Three years ago, I decided to help parents by having 20 students in grades four through 12 participate in a one-hour focus group where I asked them two simple questions: "Describe the perfect teacher and the perfect classroom." Different students were chosen each year, and they were split into four independent groups and didn't get to see each other's answers.

Although I was in the same room with the groups, I did not sit in on their discussion. I wanted authentic feedback, not influenced or stifled by the dinner table (I know my mom is going to get me later for that one). Unlike those dinner table short responses, students in these focus groups had a lot to say, and you might be surprised by how consistent their perceptions were over the three years. I was fascinated by how accurate students were in identifying key perfect-teacher attributes, attributes world-renowned researchers have validated in hundreds of studies.

Save this column and read it during dinner sometime and see if you observe a lot of head nodding. Here's what your kids want in their perfect teacher and classroom.

Classroom setting like home

Students identified the following top characteristics for their perfect classroom: clean and fresh, interesting books, desks arranged in groups so students can learn from each other, neat, good snacks, organized, posters, technology that works, softer chairs, everyone is working and class pets (animals).

One group nailed it when it said, "Somewhere where you feel like you want to be there." Students want their classrooms to have the same comfort and safety of home.

Teachers who are fair, kind and make lessons fun and exciting

Students were very passionate and articulate in describing their idea of the perfect teacher: understanding, cares about academic achievements, sense of humor, creative, not too much homework-not too little homework, not the same tone, not mean, have fun when teaching a lesson, take control when needed, strict but not too strict, prepared, listens to student ideas, inspiring, hands-on projects, and doesn't roll his or her eyes at students.

One group captured a strong theme in all the data collected over the three years when it stated, "Doesn't favortize students." Spell check doesn't like it, but I love it!

We in the school business need to continue to listen to our students, to hire, train and retain perfect teachers so every parent can stress more about the back-to-school sales and less about what teacher their child is assigned.

We want every student to have that perfect teacher meet him at the door on the first day of school.

Nicholas Clement holds the Ernest W. McFarland Citizen's Chair in Education at Northern Arizona University's Tucson campus. Contact him at