Open Door Policy

by Matthew Koslowski on October 28, 2009
in Essays

In This Essay

Letters to a Young Teacher by Jonathan Kozol
Teachers’ house calls make pupils, parents feel at home by James Vaznis, The Boston Globe
A+ for teachers’ house-call program by Hetti K. Wohlgemuth, Letters to the Editor, The Boston Globe

All children’s education suffers when they are unable to get the support of a good teacher.

But those same children’s education suffers even more when they are unable to get the support of their parents. Every day, children watch their parents, the other adults they know, and their siblings to learn what it means to be human beings. If their parents don’t show them the value of an education, how can they learn?

We often hear it said that parents are disengaged. In fact, I posted a link to an editorial cartoon about that very thing not too long ago.

But do we really look into the causes of that disengagement? Do we explore the real cost to children when their parents are disengaged? Do we look for solutions? Or do we simply point fingers?

Learning through Imitation

Do you remember those play sets that were fake kitchens or fake retail stores? We learned to be adults, in part, by the imaginative play of adopting roles. We observed the adults in our lives and then play-acted at being one of them.

Do we really remember what it was like to play house?

You and your friends would pick roles and you would act them out. And your friends would chastise you if you went out of the roles. “A daddy doesn’t do that!” they might say. “No, no, no! That’s for a mommy, not a baby!”

Even what is often termed free imaginative play has its own internal order. It is called “free” in the sense of children are allowed to create their own narrative, as opposed to a scripted play. The children may debate what it means to be a mommy or a daddy or a brother: one child may argue that, for example, doing dishes is mommy-work, another may respond that his father does the dishes.

Even as we age, we continue to learn through observation and imitation. As the proverb — or cliche, take your pick — goes “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.”

Disengaged Parents, Disengaged Children

What does the above discussion of learning through play have to do with education?

Everything. What gets modeled at home becomes the child’s reality.

If they never see their parents reading, do you think students are going to have respect for reading when teachers say reading is important? Do you think students are going to respect teachers if parents are saying at home that teachers are know-nothings?

When parents are disengaged, they teach their children to be disengaged. When parents have lost their curiosity about the world, they teach their children that curiosity doesn’t matter.

Deaf Teachers, Disdainful Teachers

And parents are not the only ones that play an important role in causing students to become disengaged. Teachers have an impact on this as well.

Jonathan Kozol, I believe, tells a story of a student who he once gave a lift home. The student didn’t do very well in school, was very moody and refused to learn. But knew the lyrics to every song that came on the radio station they listened to during that ride.

By not engaging students interests and using those interests to lead students towards the subjects that are tested, teachers are either deaf or disdainful.

We ask students to be open-minded and to tackle the problems that we adults have decided are important. But are we open-minded to their culture, their interests? The best teachers are.

Teachers Making House Calls

And some teachers are building bridges into the communities of their students, and building support that will help their students succeed.

James Vaznis wrote an article in last weeks’ Boston Globe about teachers going to their students homes and having dinner with their families in Boston and Springfield, Massachusetts. And both programs are looking to expand to include more schools.

This is a program I believe in and one I’m looking to implement with my students when I become a teacher.

Why House Calls?

Why are some teachers going to the homes of their students? What good does having a meal with the family do for the students involved?

What the home visits do is eliminate the cycle of mistrust that happens between educators and families.
–Linnette Camacho, family education administrator for Springfield schools, quoted in “Teachers’ house calls make pupils, parents feel at home”

Now, I will admit that I am nostalgic for a past I have never known, for a past that may never have existed. I believe that there were once tightly knit communities in which, for the most part, teachers and parents were a part of the same community, saw each other at the grocery store or at church, and saw each other at other social events.

There is a lot of talk about accountability in education. Personal and familial reputation are great methods of enforcing accountability. How much more accountable can you get than knowing that your parents are going to be talking to your teachers during check out at the grocery store or during coffee after church?

The Open Door Policy

A door, once opened, can be stepped through in either direction.
–Madame du Pompador, Doctor Who

Despite the source of the above quotation, the image still holds. Once we begin to break the cycle of mistrust between parents and teachers, the open door will allow parents and teachers to engage in productive ways.

Granted, not every parent will come on board. Enough will that the Open Door Policy makes a lot of sense. But some are so disengaged and almost outright hostile to education that they will not open their doors.

Why are some parents disengaged? When they are disengaged, they teach their kids to be disengaged; so, some of them may have learned from their own parents. But the cycle had to start somewhere.

Jonathan Kozol writes about home visits and engaging parents in his book Letters to a Young Teacher. He engaged in this practice when he taught in Roxbury. And I think he provides one answer.

When I was a teacher in Roxbury, it soon became apparent that a number of such parents, who had been given a rockbottom education in some of the same schools 15 or 20 years before, looked upon these schools as places of remembered misery and failure and prolonged years of humiliation.
–Jonathan Kozol in Letters to a Young Teacher, page 23.

Part of the Open Door Policy involves not just physical doors being open. Intellectual and emotional doors need to open too. There needs to be a sense of humility as well as openness on the parts of both parents and teachers. Both are liable to fall for the danger of a single story.

Perhaps the communities for which I am nostalgic never existed. But people have always gathered around food as a means for building community. Home visits and the Open Door Policy give us the opportunity to build learning communities.


One Response to “Open Door Policy”
  1. Jessica says:

    Take heart. While that tight-knit community that you speak of may not exist in areas of high population density, I do believe that there are places still in existance where parents and teachers interact regularly in their community; I was raised in such a place.

    You touch on the accountability that the students might feel in such a situation, which I think is a great point. It’s harder for a student to gloss over the details of their educational life (and the possible failings therein) when their parents have the ability to easily verify later that they were telling the truth.
    But don’t forget that the parents and teachers both have a greater sense of accountability in communities like this as well. So you have the reinforced sense of responsibility and duty of multiple parties.