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Dear Mitch,

I know this isn't the kind of question you usually get, but I'm at wit's end and I'm seeking help from anyone and everyone I can think of to get some sound advice.

My daughter, Maria, is in 11th grade in a large public school (we're new to this country and I did not know enough to even investigate schools other than the local public one).

Anyway, my daughter is a very bright young girl, but since our arrival to this country she has been very self-conscious about her accent and quickly became one of those students you see hiding in the back of the classroom spending their whole day avoiding making any eye-contact with the teacher and praying not to be called upon. I would guess that this sort of approach works about half the time for most high school students who practice it, but my daughter has the added advantage/disadvantage of having a last name that assures her a seat in the very back in any class that has the students' seating arranged alphabetically. Of course, as luck would have it, in an effort to be fair and not pick favorites (or allow certain students to declare themselves as favorites, I guess) my daughter's school is very committed to seating each class by alphabetic order using last names. To top it off, the building was designed so that each room is almost identical in size and shape, which gives a consistent result: My daughter is in the very back of every class, enabling her to hide and, in my opinion, learn less, participate less, and be required to present less.

I realize the school's system is not 'out to get her' and is fair in a systematic way. BUT, it doesn't feel fair. I realize the school cannot change its longstanding method of assigning seats, but do you have any suggestions I might try to shuffle her around a little? Anything, that is, except change our family name, which my husband and I are not prepared to do.

Thanking you in advance for your time,


Sandra R. B.


Dear Sandra,

I DO have a suggestion. ABSOLUTELY.

First, though, let's back up a bit to your premise of a system being "fair".

As a former administrator, I came to understand that some systems seem fair, because there is an arbitrary nature to the way a good or service is distributed (such as the seats in a classroom), but merely seeming fair does not always translate to results that are fair. And when they do not, someone in a position of authority has the duty to step in and make adjustments to remedy the situation to whatever extent is reasonably possible. Then, if that does not bring new results, the person in authority should feel an urge to try an adjustment that is beyond 'reasonably possible'; when it comes to having a timely impact on the life of a young person before too much opportunity is gone, sometimes awkward and unprecedented measures must be taken. I have always felt that an attentive and proactive administrator (principal, vice principal, or whoever is in charge of academics and/or "equality of opportunity for student progress") should devote some time during the first few weeks of a semester visiting, eavesdropping, observing, and analyzing lessons and the classrooms in which they happen. And the administrators need to do this with the right blend of unobtrusiveness and clear presence (which, depending upon how you think of it, is either a dichotomy or a delicate balancing act.) For these complicated moments, most people develop their own style; I used to bumble/fumble my way into strategically selected classrooms to borrow a stapler, etc., and then remain there for the duration of whatever bogus stapling task I was botching up, a la the Three Stooges (minus the talented two). In terms of what I would observe, I tended to give wider latitude to veteran teachers, who had already managed to demonstrate that – whether I liked their style or not, they got the results I required; lacking such leadership experience, I appropriately guided newer instructors through various methods until we found one which worked for them with their students. BUT in all cases, one of the items on my mental list to watch for was the seating of students. The 'attentive and proactive administrator' I refer to above should be keeping a careful eye on situations like the one you describe in the case of your daughter. The alphabet does not require that some letters will always be in the front of the room and some will be in the back; an administrator can require a teacher to stop a row one seat short and continue the letter at the front of the next row, rearranging chairs if supply is an issue. There is no alphabetical or logical reason why a student named Zack Zuckerman cannot be seated up front – beginning a row of Z's, even if it is a row of one. It is the administrator/teacher's role to note if the school's system results in some students doomed to the back day after day in class after class. Alternatively, with an administration that tends to other issues but not this one, the responsibility falls squarely on the shoulders of the individual teachers (where it should have been dealt with initially before becoming something to adjust; though in this case a question arises: How can one know what the seating arrangement is in other rooms? After all, unlike the administrator who can visit several rooms in a single period, teachers must remain focused on the group in front of them. ANSWER: A teacher can inquire.).

I recently had dinner with friends of mine who spent most of their lives in the former Soviet Union (Now, Russia). We found ourselves discussing the demeanor of a teacher their daughter (who happens to be my newest intern) had in their local public school. These parents, who are intelligent and reasonable people, were appalled at the teacher's casual approach; the man often sat on a table in the front of the room, rather than in a chair. Not knowing the man and never having seen him teach, I tried to defend him (mind you, I never had the experience of seeing him carry out these behaviors, and what one teacher can pull off and do with grace and elegance another cannot even attempt without instantly giving the students the sense that they're watching a buffoon).

I expressed that I would rather see a teacher sit on the edge of his desk in the front (or nearby table) so that he could make eye contact with all students, including the ones who might otherwise have a relatively easy time hiding in the back, over a teacher who sits elegantly at his desk while giving his lecture to the first couple of rows and whoever else he could occasionally glimpse when a front-row student sneezed or moved positions unexpectedly. Most often – though not always – I would reserve judgment on the 'manners' of a particular teacher's seating habits until after a semester's results are in. If sitting on the table is an important element for a teacher in reaching more students in a classroom, well, I think that's a trade-off worth making; besides, it's never too early for students to learn a very important lesson: Among sophisticated societies, manners and etiquette are more complicated than a mere copy-the-role-model hierarchy; much is to be learned by developing understanding of the range of appropriate behaviors that are not uniform but are related to the various roles of the players. Hosts, for example, can end one phase of an evening by announcing, 'And now we shall sit down for dessert', while a guest typically should not; likewise a teacher need not raise a hand to interrupt a student's argument to help clarify a point, whereas a student typically should. Teachers have a more complicated task than does any particular student, and students should stay in their seats unless permission is granted to sit elsewhere, but teachers should get out of their seats, move about, and change vantage points, ruled by a combination of his/her teaching experience and instinct.

Hope this helps,