Behind Closed Doors

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Should teaching be a subversive activity?

It's the end of my first month of teaching, and everything is in its place. The desks are aligned in perfect rows, the day's objectives are carefully written on the board, each student is quietly seated with an open book, and I am standing in front of the class. "He" appears at the door and slips into a desk I have placed at the back of the room.

For the next 40 minutes, my 8th grade English class and I march through the objectives on the board, one by one. Each student takes part: They raise their hands, answer my questions, and take notes. Everyone calls me Mr. Ellsasser. Seated in the back, "He" writes notes and watches as the clock ticks toward the bell. With exactly five minutes to go, "He" gets up and leaves.

Sighs of relief fill the room. I loosen my tie and sit cross-legged on top of my desk while my students shuffle their own desks out of the rows. Alex gets up and opens the window. Jen turns to me as she walks toward the door. "Hey Chris, do you think he gave us an A?"

I smile. "You guys were perfect." The room empties as Jen and Alex follow their friends to second period. I have no doubt that our deception worked. But I have to wonder: Does such subversion perpetuate the idea that teachers aren't professionals?

Every morning when the bell rings, I walk across the classroom and pull the door closed. Though the click of the latch signals that it is safe for me to focus on my students, the sound is troubling all the same. Cut off from my colleagues, I become the judge and jury of the validity of my own teaching practices. No one can challenge my belief that a casual environment encourages student participation, and no one can offer advice on how adolescents learn to reflect through writing. Everything from my decision to cover the walls with poems to my practice of using journals to begin class discussions springs from my own experience and my own intuition.

The deception that my students and I engage in on observation day further isolates me. But it also isolates the administration. When "He" comes, my decision to adhere to traditional norms--to put the desks in rows, to have students call me by my last name, and to list objectives on the board--prevents the administration from considering the value of such norms in light of my own unconventional practice. No one observes the chaos of my students sprawled on the floor or hears the cacophony of my students calling out to have their voices heard above one another. And no one sees my students warm to a lesson in which they lead the discussion more than I do. Ironically, my subversion supports the sameness of teaching by not presenting those in power with anything different.

The truth is that my students call out during heated discussions, my lesson plans are rarely followed, and everything from rainy weather to the latest romantic breakup affects how we talk about the reading. However, subversive behavior like our observation-day charade lends credibility to certain myths: that students learn best when seated quietly in rows; that well-planned lessons with stated objectives signify effective teaching; that carefully designed curricula serve the needs of all learners.

But if we open the doors to expose students randomly calling out and teachers yielding to a last-minute impulse to do journal writing, then our supervisors will have to consider our real challenges. Though such openness puts us at risk by going public with the often chaotic reality of teaching and learning, it also allows us to build a common knowledge and language grounded on what really happens rather than on some idealized theory of what should happen.

If we expose what really goes on in our classrooms, then our supervisors will have to consider our real challenges.

Hiding the not-so-neat nature of teaching and learning may have been necessary in the days when teachers were asked only to serve as curriculum implementers. But with the modern call for professional teachers, it seems time to leave our classroom doors open in order to challenge traditional perceptions of what a classroom should look like. If an administrator sees what happens during my class "discussions," when my students are allowed to randomly approach the board and express their ideas with drawings, then I stand a chance of getting money for boxes of colored erasable markers and a classroom paneled in white marking boards. However, when I only show myself writing lesson objectives on the single board at the front of the room, the perception is that I have all that I need. How are my administrators supposed to meet my teaching needs and my students' learning needs if they never see what we really do?

During my first few years of teaching, I considered the classroom door an accomplice in my covert effort to help my students learn. Recently, though, I've come to see it differently. On the one hand, shutting the door protects my students from demands for rote learning, test training, and decontextualized standards. On the other, it locks out any chance for me to learn from my fellow teachers or for them to learn from me. Teaching behind closed doors, I've concluded, may do more harm than good.

Now I leave my own door wide open so that others can see me sitting cross-legged on my desk while my students talk in clusters or charge the blackboard with colored chalk. My hope is to encourage others to open their doors, too, so that together we might discard the classroom tradition of keeping everything in its place and embrace the messy challenge of reforming this thing we do called education.

Vol. 10, Issue 5, Pages 46-47

Published in Print: February 1, 1999, as Behind Closed Doors
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