How Opening Up Classroom Doors Can Push Education Forward

| February 18, 2014 | 21 Comments
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Transparency is not a word often associated with education. For many parents, the time between 8 a.m. and 3 p.m. can feel like a mysterious part of their child’s life. Questioning students about their school day often results in an unsatisfying answer and not every parent has the time to be in constant communication with their student’s teacher.

For teachers, transparency can have a distinctly negative connotation. In the political debate, the word is often used in connection to hot button issues like posting teacher salaries and benefits publicly or publishing test scores. And within the school walls, transparency can feel like judgement. Teachers can see principal visits as inspections, not respectful check-ins to offer encouragement and suggestions. No school is the same and dynamics between teaching staff and the administration are different everywhere, but for many teachers the classroom is a sacrosanct, personal space.

 “I try to become a bridge between the quantifiable and the qualifiable.”

But what if teachers embraced the idea of transparency as a form of activism, a way of shining light on what works in the classroom? “The minute we say, ‘Come look and talk to the students,’ we can show what we’re all about,” said Jose Vilson, an educator and panelist at EduCon in Philadelphia. “If we can do that with a sense of trust and expertise, with respect for ourselves and others, then we can have a pro something instead of an anti-something.”

Opening one’s classroom to public scrutiny isn’t an easy thing to do. “In order for us to get more people involved, some of us are going to have to be twice as involved, go twice as deep and explain what we are doing in the classroom,” Vilson said. That means being vulnerable and willing to defend teaching practices to anyone who asks. But by welcoming a variety of voices into a discussion about what drives powerful learning experiences, and why certain teaching practices work and others don’t, the process becomes participatory. Everyone shares the responsibility for changing a system that matters to the future of the country.

At Mission Hill School in Boston every structure in the school is based on transparency. “Openness is the willingness to be disturbed,” said Ayla Gavins, principal of Mission Hill. At her school, teachers lead the effort to be transparent with one another and families and everyone else in the building tries to support that work. The school also has structures in place to support that kind of openness such as weekly meetings, short meetings before or after school and retreat time. There’s an understanding on her staff about what times of the day suit different kinds of meetings.

As the leader of the school, Gavins believes that commitment to openness extends to school decisions. When Mission Hill had its budget reduced by the district, a group of teachers came together to figure out how to hire a new teacher with less money, and do it with the culture and integrity of the school in mind. Operating out in the open comes with a different level of accountability. Decision makers have to be prepared to explain and defend tough choices. Still, Gavins found this process less destructive to school morale and mission when done democratically than if she had made the decision herself.

Being transparent is a decisive action and can be used as a tool.“Take advantage of your captive audiences,” Gavins said. She encourages her teachers to share their vision for the classroom in letters home to parents. That letter can be an important communication tool teachers have at their disposal to help parents understand why they are doing what they are doing.

Social media is another way for teachers to be transparent about what’s happening in the classroom. Teachers can even feed parents informed questions to ask their children at home, to continue and share learning that happens at school. With a little more knowledge about what happened that day, parents won’t be stuck asking the generic, “What did you do in school today?”

Test scores continue to dominate the public conversation about how well a school or teacher is performing. But a teacher willing to be open about what goes on in the classroom can help provide a different narrative. “I try to become a bridge between the quantifiable and the ‘qualifiable,’” Vilson said. He wants to give the story behind the numbers, the narrative that makes those numbers matter.

“We can find a way to create a balance between, ‘Here’s the story and here’s some reflective and introspective evidence,’ put it all together and see what’s going on,” Vilson said. “Right now, I feel like our narrative is being controlled by one side.”

Educators who want to see change in the way classrooms are run and how priorities are set have the difficult job of meeting today’s needs while keeping an eye on the future. “You can’t forget what your kids need right now,” said Gavins. “And as you are preparing for the future you need to put some things in place to make a change.”

One way to promote change is to allow the outside world to see inside innovative classrooms, hold up positive narratives and be sure everyone knows the consequences of seemingly distant policy decisions.

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  • Indira Sahajwalla

    It shows willingness to be transparency.Parents can and observe

  • Sean

    I certainly agree with the message behind this article. Opening ourselves up to inspections and feedback can be a scary thing, especially when the person giving us the criticism may not deliver the message in a sensitive or respectful manner. When and if this happens, it’s important to focus on our ultimate goal and ask ourselves questions (e.g. “Do I want to prove that this criticism is wrong, or do I want to look for an opportunity to grow and improve my teaching practices?”) to make sure that the overall process is a success. If anyone can make this work, it’s our teachers!

  • arbi

    I find the idea of opening up classroom doors so interesting and even avant-gardist. And probably, the whole idea was inspired by the Brechtian way of looking at theater and how it should open up to and involve the audience in the play through the destruction of the fourth wall. However, I think the education of the pupils is not the business of teachers only. The family plays quite an important role in the education of their kids. In fact, a lot of things that take place within households and of which teachers are not aware are likely may affect the development of the pupils. Therefore, and pushing openness to the xtreme, I suggest families also open up doors to teachers and school staff in order to have a comprehensive picture of the way kids are assisted to grow “academically” outside the classroom! I
    wouldl say mutual openness is a virtue and both parties would largely
    benefit from ii and hopefully students would ace in their studies!

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  • samfoster

    good idea …..

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  • Dan

    The “trouble” with these kinds of discussions is that they assume the existence of a self-aware faculty – a faculty whose personal and interpersonal narrative is healthy and reality-based and honest. Without such adults in these classrooms, transparency has the potential to become another in a long list of facades and stage shows that have little or no positive impact upon kids.

  • Diane Birdwell

    LITERALLY keeping the doors open, though, is a pain. It is based on the idea that anyone can see in on what is going on. So can the kid who spits in my trashcan as he walks by, the noise from the bathrooms or the custodian who is cleaning up a spill.

    The IDEA is great, but the image of open doors, as they make us do in Dallas, is counter-productive.

  • JoJoFox

    Ambient noise from the hallways can interfere with classroom acoustics and significantly decrease student listening comprehension by 40-50%. Most schools are tile and cinder block castles where sound bounces around, reverberates and becomes distorted and diminished even with the door closed. There have been a multitude of studies conducted concerning acoustics and listening in classrooms… and many new school buildings have included sound fields built into classrooms, especially grades k-4, which significantly improve the sound to noise ratio, resulting improved listening and learning of young students. In 2014, poor acoustics is considered a ‘architectural barrier’ to efficient learning. I really wish people would get a clue and stop suggesting we revert to failed practices of the ’50′s for their ‘ education innovations’. Geez.

    • Bev

      You do realize that this article isn’t implying that teachers actually open their classroom doors, but rather to have open communication with parents and the community by sharing what’s going on in their classrooms through social media.

    • EngineeringJim

      Obviously you did not actually read the article. Opening the doors is symbolic, not literal.

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  • Georgia Dennis

    Feedback should always be focussed and the goal negotiated between the recipient and the person giving the feedback. Feedback is a constructive evaluation of the task or goal and does not include praise or criticism. Feedback should focus on the observation/ data and affirm the work whilst engaging the recipient in diccussions surrounding , ‘where to from here”. Whilst John Hattie is a Master in this field, Glenn Capelli also provides some interesting questions to ensure that feedback is effective, constructive and a rich and reciprocal opportunity for learning.

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  • Heike Larson

    At LePort Schools, we love it when parents are in the loop about their child’s education. We use all kinds of ways to communicate: weekly emails, classroom newsletters, photos and information posted in a closed Facebook group and “Watch Me Work Wednesday”, where we invite parents to take a seat and observe in class.

    The more a parent knows about what their child learns, the more we can be on the same page, the better for the children.

    More detail on how we practice transparency, with a list of items, here: http://leportschools.com/blog/the-home-school-connection/

  • Cathy

    As an itinerant teacher who sometimes has students in hallways, tables in the library, conference rooms, shared classrooms and so on, my door is always open. My students know where their focus has to be and are not distracted by everyday noise. I love it when people come up to see what we’re doing. When I actually have my own classroom, I leave the door open if at all possible.
    One of my greatest sources of pride is when my students explain to visitors what we’re learning about and then politely tell them they can watch.
    My students are English language learners from more than 20 different language backgrounds. I welcome questions and feedback from observers because I know there is always more that I can do for my kiddos.