Open Doors, Open Classrooms, Open Minds

Jose VilsonResources14 Comments


A few days ago, United Federation of Teachers president Michael Mulgrew asked a collection of us, “How many of you teach with your doors open?” I presumed he meant metaphorically, so I raised my hand. During breakfast, he reiterated the push for teacher professionalism, and one of the keys to school success in his mind is opening our doors to the rest of our school.

I’m assuming he meant opening metaphorically, and I agree. Our current phrase of mind when it comes to education, however, makes me cautious. How do teachers keep their doors open when the people who visit don’t always give appropriate feedback? How do they open their doors when they seem to control less and less of what actually happens in it? How do they open their doors when they don’t always have a sense of trust, in administration, in colleagues, in the plethora of visitors who come with a critical eye, often to the detriment of everyone else in the classroom?

Sometimes, opening the classroom door often makes us vulnerable, and teachers aren’t confident that doing so will lead us to growth as educators.

Yet again, when will we open our doors? Opening our doors has been the best tried and true professional development any of us receive. When I walk into a classroom as a humble observer, I get a chance to sit as a student, both taking in the view that the student does, but also checking out pedagogical approaches from the teacher. Teaching with our doors open changes the conversation from, “Leave me alone” to “I got nothing to hide!” There’s a power in leaving your door open (even metaphorically) that’s assumed when a passerby sees it.

I get it, too. Sometimes, the hallways are noisy, the rush never stops during a double period, or the one or two wanderers find their way into your classroom when you’re turned around, trying to cause a commotion on the other side. In those moments, I find my door closed, too. When I get a moment, I’ll pop the door back open, hoping my students see that I’m not afraid of whoever should drop by. Whoever should come in ought to know that I’ll take whatever remarks they’ll have, and adjust accordingly. Even if it’s absolute nonsense.

But what do you think? Do you leave your classroom door open? Do you think people should? What are your thoughts about open classrooms?

Mr. Vilson

Comments 14

  1. I always tell folks who visit a classroom that there is a history there and a set of relationships that may not be visible to you. Yes, you can see evidence of norms and routines, but why did the teacher give that one student a disproportionate amount of floor time? Why does she not say anything to the kid with his head on the desk? We can pose these as questions, but we must not presumptuous that the answers are that she is unfair in the first instance or oblivious in the second. Maybe the first child hasn’t made a contribution in awhile. Maybe it’s the first time that child spoke since his parents split up. And with the second, maybe it’s a major triumph that this child is IN the classroom today. We don’t know the story. We can make observations, humbly. And anything else needs to be a question. That is how we treat professionals.

  2. I will never be comfortable with open doors. It’s not that I have anything to hide. I share my lessons, my plans, my strengths and weaknesses when asked. I think I’ve been pretty vulnerable online, for example. But the nature of a community – including a classroom community – includes walls. That’s not a bad thing. It’s part of the intimacy of the group. Great students are sometimes shy. Great teachers are sometimes the same way. When someone walks in with a clipboard, it’s hard not to feel that you’re being watched and judged and picked apart. Instead of joining our ecosystem, it feels like they are tourists gawking at a place that is full of life. That, right there, will always make me edgy. Always.

    1. I totally get that, John. It’s because we are only ever visited when we are being evaluated. I had the great privilege of working with colleagues who really learned from each other — up to and including being in each other’s classrooms. It took me awhile to get used to having critical friends without clipboards, but there is no doubt in my mind that the growth I had from opening the doors was unparalleled in any other form of professional development.

      When we share instances of our teaching with a colleague, what do we have to freeze the complexity of the classroom? Student work, lesson plans… the artifacts that erase the interaction and relationships and activities that went into their production. When we sit in a colleague’s classroom, we notice the smart question that didn’t make it to the student’s paper, we notice the way the particular question turned a light on in a reluctant student’s face, we can help interpret with our colleague the inchoate student contribution and brainstorm all the possible meanings of it.

      I don’t know another way to get that into the conversation, and to me, that is such a huge part of what makes teaching eternally interesting.

  3. We don’t have classrooms anymore for our intermediate and “junior high” classes at Anastasis. We start and end our days in a common room- each class with its own space in the large room. During the day, we move to different rooms for different needs, or we stay in the large room. There are pros and cons to this for me, as well as for the kids. We’ve only been in school for a little over a month, so it will be interesting to see how we feel by December. Metaphorically, our doors are always open, yet now… we are also operating without physical doors- even walls! -for a large chunk of the day.

  4. This is a great article (and great blog!) but what about student safety? For safety reasons, teachers are being asked to lock their classrooms, especially after Newtown where the first classroom the gunman approached was locked so he moved to the next & killed everyone in that classroom… :/ How to balance open doors & student safety…?

  5. Post

    What a vibrant discussion happening here. Thank you all for reading and taking the time here.

    Nicole, when it comes to school shootings, I do get that. First, we have to keep in mind the protocols every school has for extreme situations. There’ll always be those emergency situations when we have to shut our doors. I’m more getting at a metaphorical opening. In other words, how often do educators let others walk into the classroom. It seems to depend on purpose, Nicole, which the comments highlight well.

    Ilana, your comment is perfect. I find the need to preface visits from a learner’s perspective important. Because of how education has worked for however many decades, people coming in want to find out what’s “wrong” rather than taking in general observations. Some of us don’t even know how to control that instinct, either. We want to walk in and critique and nitpick immediately. The only way Iwas able to get trust was by walking in with a learner’s mentality. I also had to reciprocate that by letting others walk into my classroom.

    Of course, John, that can be disastrous, too, if we don’t have the right community. We have to develop a community that allows for that sort of thing. With the way schools are being run now, the pressure is on, thus making it hard to feel comfortable sharing with others. Yet, in effective learning environments, letting others in works for the whole school. It really is a testament to the leadership (including teacher leadership) to fight back and share things that work across the board.

    Until we’re free from the constant clipboards patrolling many of our schools, then we may not get to the point where we’re OK with each other. At least that’s what I’m reading from you all.

  6. Jose, Thanks for the response. I agree wholeheartedly with the metaphorical “open doors”. 150% Thank you for your work & thoughtful writing on these topics. Much appreciated!

  7. Having open doors is easy if everyone keeps in mind that NO teacher is always on. Everyone is human and has their good days and their bad days. Sometimes we even have a really great day, and that feeling above all is why we do this. Having someone validate those really great days is satisfying, but having someone say, “oh boy have I been there” is probably even better. For this reason, I think teacher to teacher evaluation would be much more meaningful and beneficial.

  8. My door’s always open except when something is bopping outside, and even then, it’s only closed for a moment or two.

    Folks drop by partly because the principal knows my door is open–we had a crew from China that led to interesting discussions among us, a discussion that would not happen otherwise.

    If we are teaching because we believe in this republic thing, and because we believe in the commons, and because we think public spaces matter, then the door should be open metaphorically, and literally as well if feasible. We are not paid to be comfortable, we are paid to be public school teachers (which goes way beyond just teaching).

    My kids know folks might drop in. We don’t play the 4th wall game–if someone comes in and does not introduce himself, my students are encouraged to (politely) ask who he is. They are not involuntary participants in some fishbowl–it’s our classroom, and anyone in the room (including observers) are fair game for questions.

    That any of us play the fiefdom game where we can pretend a public space is some stage for us gets to the heart of our confusion about professionalism. I welcome anyone to come in anytime, but I ask that she stays more than a few minutes, and that she reads the notebook next to the door that sums up what we have been doing week by week, and that outlines our procedures that I should not have to delineate, but given the misconceptions so many have about young adults, is necessary to explain why a particular student may be wandering over here or over there. (The students, given a tad of autonomy, rarely abuse it–and I am a cranky fuck when they do.)

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  10. I dislike visitors if I don’t have any idea who they are and what’s at stake, but otherwise, I welcome people to come in. I like teaching with my door open, in all senses. I’ve always taught in places where observation and feedback were part of the norm, starting with TFA and continuing to the present, and while I’ve encountered good & bad leadership over the years, I’d say I’m better for the vast majority of feedback I’ve received.

    I close the door for all the reasons you describe, loud hallways, friends clowning in the hall, and safety, but I prefer it open metaphorically and physically. I especially dislike having it closed and locked, the new normal for us post-Newtown so that no one would have to run to the door to lock it (from the outside) if an incident occurred.

  11. I try to do the same thing. I leave my door open and then usually shut it in the middle of a double period. Then I try to re-open it. I mainly do it because it sends a message to the students: that we’re not afraid to open ourselves up to whomever wishes to come in.

    In the past, some students have asked me to shut the door (or simply gotten up to shut up themselves). I think for some it gives them more of a license to misbehave, however strange that seems. When I taught middle school, I often noticed students trying to shut the door on a substitute teacher. And I’m pretty sure I know why.

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