“It is very nearly impossible, after all, to become an educated person in a country so distrustful of the independent mind.”
― James Baldwin, “They Can’t Turn Back”
During my 18 years as a public high school English teacher, I had a standing commitment shared with my students: I taught with my door open.
This may not sound that radical, but I want to offer two points of context: (i) I taught with a colleague who always kept the door locked (and advocated that all other teachers do that also to create a barrier for drop-in visits by administrators), and (ii) I taught in ways not supported by my school as well as allowing student behavior explicitly punishable by school rules (eating and drinking in class, for example).
This context of my years as an English teacher came back to me during my session at the 2014 National Council of Teachers of English. At the end of the session, including Sean Connors (University of Arkansas) and Nita Schmidt (University of Iowa), the audience discussion turned to a tradition in teaching that likely is doing us great harm: teaching with our doors shut as an act of resistance (since we use the shut doors to implement practices counter to mandates).
Let me offer two moments from the history of teaching English before making a call for teaching with our doors open as acts of resistance.
Around 1931-1932, English educator (and 1954 NCTE president) Lou LaBrant taught while working on her doctorate at Northwestern University. In her unpublished memoir housed with her papers at the Museum of Education (University of South Carolina), LaBrant recalled a powerful—and disturbing—situation she encountered with her roommate, a Spanish teacher at her school.
Since the school had a prescriptive curriculum (including required books, etc.) and a standard assessment system based on that curriculum, LaBrant and her roommate fabricated an entire year’s lesson plans to conform to the mandates, but then implemented what LaBrant called progressive practices throughout the year (LaBrant did not require the books provided, allowing choice in reading and writing instead, for example).
In one respect, LaBrant and her roommate represent the all-too-common “shut your door and teach the way you believe.” But the disturbing aspect is that LaBrant’s students scored exceptionally high at the end of the year on the mandated assessment, prompting the administration to highlight how well LaBrant implement the requirements—and thus attributing the students’ success to the prescribed curriculum LaBrant did not implement.
Now let’s jump forward about 40 years to what Stephen Krashen calls Whole Language and the Great Plummet of 1987-92.
Krashen and Regie Routman have both detailed how problematic “shut your door and teach” can be when we consider literacy policy.
While many blamed whole language as a policy commitment in California for the literacy test score drop in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Krashen explains:
Did teachers change their ways in California? Nobody really knows. There have been no empirical studies comparing methodology in language arts teaching before and after the 1987 committee met. (p. 749)
Routman is more direct:
So while the California framework…recommended the teaching of skills in context (as opposed to isolation), in actuality, the teacher training to empower all teachers to do this successfully was insufficient. In addition, the framework was widely misinterpreted. (p. 19)
At best, then, we can say about whole language implementation in California: (i) we have no firm data on if it was practiced, (ii) few teachers were adequately trained to implement whole language, and (iii) evidence suggests whole language was misunderstood often. Ultimately, California failed whole language, but whole language did not fail California—in part, because so many teachers shut their doors and teach.
This highlights a central tension around teacher agency and professionalism within a culture that demands teachers to be not political, not activists: Implementing mandates is not the work of professionals, notably when teachers and the research base for a field are excluded from how the policies are created within a partisan political arena (that teachers are deterred from entering as professionals).
My solution, then, is that teachers must begin to embrace and embody their professional selves by teaching with the doors open, especially when our practices reject flawed policy and mandates. Additionally, we must make transparent more credible artifacts of students learning, and not simply rely on the high-stakes testing data also used to de-professionalize teachers.
Teaching with our doors open creates agency where the system has denied it; teaching with our doors open offers direct alternatives to the practices we reject, to practices not supported by the evidence of our field; and teaching with our doors open models for our students how professionals behave.
While there is understandable refuge in teaching with our doors closed—historical and current forces that have worked to deny teachers their voices, their professionalism—it will only be through teaching with our doors open that we can both serve our students well and create a lever to reclaim our profession.