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Open-Door Success

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My students rose to higher levels of thinking skills when they perceived themselves impressing the vice principal.

One Friday morning when my class was reading the local newspaper and sipping cocoa in the cafeteria, the school secretary walked by, on her way to get coffee. "What are you doing?" she inquired, genuinely interested. There was a wealth of information given to her. She was told about the 100 donated newspapers that were distributed to every 7th grader that morning. She learned about sports scores in the National League, which comic strip was the best that day, and, upon giving her opinion on a front-page article, she evoked a debate on the controversial issue of capital punishment.

I couldn't have been more pleased. When she left, the class settled down to read again, this time with greater earnestness. They had enjoyed her five-minute stay and had been treated to an adult parlay, discussing the newspaper in a mature fashion.

This incident led me to start an open-door policy in my classroom. I began to encourage staff members who walked by to come in briefly and participate in our language arts activity. Sometimes, I told them in advance what we would be doing and what to ask the children about when they came in. I did this because I found that my students rose to higher levels of thinking skills when they perceived themselves impressing the vice principal, the president of the parent-teacher organization, a department head, or neighboring teachers. They seemed to work harder, be more creative, and write more clearly (handwriting and syntax included) if they suspected that a roving administrator might drop in and read their second draft.

They seemed to have spurts of adrenaline that were channeled effectively and continued long after the guest left.

I have invited administrators to my classroom to see mini-Shakespearean plays performed. They are adorable and enjoyable. But the effect of having a guest in the class really became an outstanding experience when our principal came to a rehearsal one day and gave his input into the personality of Macbeth's three witches. The students were thrilled by his knowledge and his evident interest in their play and them. They couldn't wait to perform the "real thing" and have him attend.

Our school system encourages teacher/peer evaluation, teachers shadowing teachers, inclusionary personnel in the classroom, and a variety of other interesting open-door policies. Each is a wonderful teaching tool. Students who often see many adults in their class become comfortable with the situation and use it to their advantage. "Can she read my paper when I'm finished?" "Can I ask him what he thinks of this idea?" "Would she help me with this problem?"

Not surprisingly, on those days gum chewing was at its lowest.

Many years ago, I worked for a principal who personally delivered the paychecks every other week. Savvy students learned when he would be around and looked forward to his visits, since he always spent a few moments getting to know them better. Not surprisingly, on those days gum chewing was at its lowest, and silly or hurtful name-calling between students almost ceased to exist. At the end of the day, I noticed that there were fewer papers on the floor and the room seemed otherwise neater too.

There is no doubt that ground rules have to be set up early when an open-door policy is instigated in a classroom. Flexibility and control both need to be understood. Having someone walk in unannounced has to become a relaxing yet anticipatory condition, one that, with time, becomes a very positive entity. In my case it does work. You should try it!


Bonnie M. Faiman is a middle school teacher in Framingham, Mass.

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