Teaching with Our Doors Open: Professional Transparency as Acts of Resistance

“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 In her unpublished memoir housed with her papers at the Museum of Education (University of South Carolina), LaBrant recalled a powerful—and disturbing—situation she encountered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.

See Also

A Call for Non-Cooperation: So that Teachers Are Not Foreigners in Their Own Profession

4 comments

  1. kathymclinn

    If tenured, they can torture you, but they can’t fire you without cause. If I were counseling young teachers, I would suggest they choose 5 non-negotiables and to implement those philosophically aligned practices, no matter what, with the door open. List the top 5 priorities of your principal, and if those 5 don’t conflict with your top 5, you’re in luck. If some do, make sure you do a good job on the ones that you are okay with. Don’t rebel against everything for the sake of rebellion. Follow stupid rules; disobey unfair rules or rules that run contrary to the ideals you hold most dear.

    To be honest with you, though, I’m responding to your question as though there are a lot of teachers that want to break out and express their radical practices. I probably met 3 in my whole career that are pushing the envelope enough to raise the eyebrows of their principal.

  2. csskubik

    I find your writing quite interesting, in light of the fact that my last blog post was entitled “Shut the door and teach.” I think you are exactly right. In the LA Times on the same day you posted Jim Newton said, “They (teacher unions) don’t represent children, and they shouldn’t be permitted to set policy.” If we can’t help contribute to the policies that are set, through an existing grouping such as our union, who shall? I think we know. We have to be proactive and assertive. Thank you for this post.

  3. mark dziedzic

    I understand the desire to close the door so that we can do the good work we know we should be doing, those teaching practices that inspire and engage learners but seem to run contrary to the ever narrowing focus on what constitutes success in education – I have been guilty of closing the door myself many times over. When I was closing the door I thought I was doing it as an act of defiance, I thought I was doing it for the benefit of the kids. And in a sense I was – I was trying to make the best of some bad situation, I was trying to shield the students in my classroom from something that did not benefit them educationally. But the truth of the matter is that my closing the door made me complicit, not defiant. How defiant is it to stand in opposition where no one can see you? And as the Lou LaBrant story and others personal stories shared during the NCTE session attest, when our good work done in defiance is done behind closed doors it can be used to further advance the misguided policies we were working so hard to defy.

    Unfortunately, Iain’s question about how to openly act in defiance while protecting one’s job is the part of the equation that often gets left out and/or unaddressed. I believe that the first thing we must do if we are going to act in defiance is to be knowledgeable about what we are choosing to defy and why we are doing so. If we are going to oppose some mandate, rule, curricular approach, etc. then we must be well informed and articulate as to why we are standing in opposition, and be equally well versed in why we are choosing the alternative we have chosen. If we can’t justify our actions (as I would argue many policy makers cannot do) then how can we possibly expect anyone to support our opposition?

    However, being knowledgeable while working in isolated pockets of unseen defiance will never amount to more than isolated acts of defiance. These pockets help small groups of students for small periods of time, but they release those students back into the same bad situation – the solo acts of quiet, unseen defiance do nothing to change the situations that we are defying. In essence, we end up playing the Bill Murray role in Groundhog’s Day. Year after year we are left trying to make the best of a bad situation. Instead of ever fixing the dam, we are perpetually left plugging hole after hole, until the day comes when the whole dam burst.

    We need collective action. We need our colleagues, our professional associations, our unions, and our Schools/Colleges of Education to stand together, to stand for educationally sound policy. We need an Educators’ Hippocratic Oath to Do No Harm that can guide educators and education policy – an oath that empowers and obligates us to first do no harm. What are you doing now out of fear rather than because it makes sound educational sense? If you knew our profession had your back, what acts of unseen defiance would you bring out into the open?

    I am in no position to tell someone to risk their job. However, I am in a position to say that the teaching profession I love, the profession that is ingrained in my soul, is at risk of becoming something unrecognizable and unacceptable to me. And as such, I am willing to draw some lines in the sand, because being an educator in a system I cannot support is not an option – I’d rather leave teaching than participate in a system that is harming students. As Thoreau said so eloquently in Civil Disobedience, “Let your life be a counter friction to stop the machine. What I have to do is to see, at any rate, that I do not lend myself to the wrong which I condemn.”

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