After Sophie Tippl ’17 received her full schedule with teachers for her junior year, she could not help but worry.
Her friends had warned her about one teacher who had a reputation as one of the most difficult graders for the subject, she said.
Her friends also advised her to switch out of the class, which she could not do since schedules were already live.
“I was a little scared and anxious,” Tippl said. “Junior year is really important, and I didn’t want to feel like I had a disadvantage from the other students.”
Each year, Upper School Dean Sharon Cuseo receives schedule change requests from students attempting to change their teacher because of various preconceived perceptions that they have formed about that teacher, she said.
Frequently, Cuseo said, a teacher who one student may perceive to be difficult, another may believe will give them an easy A.
“Hardness or difficulty is in the eye of the beholder,” she said.
In a Chronicle August poll, 40 percent of the 367 students polled think that the teacher request process is unfair, and 37 percent said that they have made a teacher request.
The deans said that the process for requesting teachers, or any schedule change, is centralized. The deans look at the thousands of requests together and try to accomodate requests while ensuring that classes fulfill gender balance and class size requirements and that no teacher has more students than other teachers.
Students can get the teacher because by chance those factors end up working out, Cuseo said.
“The reality is every dean takes in everything that a student asks for and it’s all treated equally,” Cuseo said.
Some deans do not take teacher requests into consideration at all, but Upper School Dean Beth Slattery said that most deans will at least try to accomodate requests.
“[Former Upper School Dean Kyle] Graham loved following rules, which I admire about him – black and white there’s no gray area,” Upper School Dean Jamie Chan said. “So he did not entertain teacher requests. You are assigned a class. You take the class.”
However, one student confirmed to The Chronicle that he or she saw his or her schedule with teacher assignments for the next year with a dean in the spring of the year prior. Another student did not confirm or deny that he or she saw his or her schedul early.
Both students wished to remain anonymous because they did not want to receive any backlash from students or faculty.
Slattery said that it is not possible for a student to see his or her full schedule in the spring since teachers’ class periods are not finalized until July.
While most students do not find out who they have for each class until the day before school starts when full schedules go live, in the past two years The Hub has prematurely leaked teacher assignments. Cuseo said that students cannot try to change their teacher after their full schedules with teacher assignments go live.
“It is not something we can totally accommodate and in particular it is 100 percent not something we can accommodate after the schedules are released right before school,” Cuseo said.
Students who work in the bookstore during the summer also have access to full schedules since they need to pack each student’s book box for the year.
Twenty-eight students also said in the August poll that they had seen their teacher assignments before the leak on The Hub.
Paige Thompson ’17, who joined the school as a new senior, said that once she was officially attending the school in late June, her dean made her schedule during one of their meetings.
Slattery said that new students meet with their deans over the summer and try to make the next year an easy adjustment for them.
“While [my dean] did not tell me what teachers I would have, I think she tried to make my schedule to the best of her ability to fit with what teachers I would mesh well with,” Thompson said. “As a new student, I obviously don’t know teachers, besides from what my brother has told me, are the most popular, but I believe that the deans successfully try to make each student’s schedule personalized to their interests and course schedule.”
Siblings cannot switch out of a class because their sibling had a bad experience with a teacher, Cuseo said.
“Because my older sister went to HW, she is able to tell me if she didn’t like any teachers or if she loved some,” Audrey Kotick ’17 said. “If there’s someone she felt very strongly about, I’ll ask my dean if there’s any way for me to have that teacher or to not. If she can’t help me switch it, I understand why and don’t ask again.”
Tippl said that some teachers are harder graders than others, but that it’s not intentional. Still, these reputations often compel students to request certain teachers over others. Forty-nine percent of students said that they requested to have a certain teacher to avoid another whom they heard students didn’t like.
“It’s just that different teachers teach differently,” Tippl said. “But sometimes it’s frustrating to feel like other people are doing better or worse because they have a different teacher for the same class. Maybe I would have had a different experience with a teacher but it’s definitely scary to hear that you have one of the hardest teachers for the subject.”
However, some students said that, from their own experiences, some teachers are inherently more difficult than others.
English Department Head Larry Weber and history teacher Katherine Holmes-Chuba said that the grading for history and English is more standardized than students realize.
Marissa Hattler ’16 said that grading disparity became apparent to her and her family when her twin brother, who is strong in math and science, was doing much better than she was in a humanities course, an area in which she normally excels, she said.
“He was doing a lot better in the course than I was and that’s because his teacher had lower standards on reading quizzes and probably all around a less harsh grader,” Hattler said. “My teacher definitely expected a lot more from us. Even my parents were a little bit upset when they saw there was a huge difference in the course we were taking. It kind of seemed like I was taking an honors and he was taking a regular course. Because of that, I didn’t do as well as he did.”
This was not the first time Hattler and her family had noticed discrepancies between humanities teachers.
During their sophomore year, the situation was reversed and she seemed to have the more lenient teacher in the same course, Hattler said.
She said that she and her brother were also on the same math track, and they have found the grading, tests and expectations have been more uniform across the board in that subject.
“The humanities like English and history, those are definitely more subjective, maybe because there’s more writing in them so it’s definitely more personal work,” Hattler said. “In terms of math and science there’s always a correct answer, there’s always a uniform way of doing it.”
Hattler said she was initially excited for the challenge of a harder teacher in a subject she liked and did not try to switch out of the class.