Guest Column

Just Close the Doors and Teach

by PAMELA R. MORAN

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness … it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us … in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”
—Charles Dickens in A Tale of Two Cities

Times are tough in public education right now. In back-channel conversations, I hear administrators and teachers alike express a troubling sentiment that battles have become so overwhelming it’s hard to keep coming back to work. Many long for time to “just close our doors and teach.”

There’s a reason this phrase has become a mantra. I suspect it emerged when public education slid more deeply into a factory model. Schools enlarged in size, and anonymity increased as educators and students grew apart.

In my first teaching year, I heard that phrase from an experienced teacher with whom I shared storage. She was, fortunately for me, a “one in a million” teacher who enthralled learners. From her, I learned the power of metaphor, story and inquiry, not because I knew what occurred in her classroom but because we co-sponsored a club.

This colleague also taught me the “independent contractor” model. As long as we colored inside the lines and knew the unwritten rules of who not to offend, we controlled our classrooms. However, I found I needed something more.

A Pivotal Moment
I began seeking practitioners who could help me become a better teacher. I learned with them what it takes to keep coming back to work in a career that’s never been easy, financially lucrative or a 9-to-5 job. We supported each other to figure out not just what to do, but why we continued to do it over and over again.

I didn’t buy “close your doors and teach” as a maxim to emulate as a professional. Now I’m even more certain it has no place in contemporary learning either. We’re at a pivotal moment in America’s educational history — a time of high tension as great as any we’ve experienced. We need each other more than ever to ensure we don’t give up coming back to work.

It’s not just the politicizing of education that’s gone far beyond reasonable governance under the Constitution, state codes or local policies. It’s not just about bad business decisions that have led to devastating losses of resources needed to educate learners when this nation needs to close educational gaps, not widen them. It’s not just the inequality of personal wealth that’s created a “haves and have-nots” schism unlike anything in this nation’s recent history.

And it’s not just the 24/7 media preoccupation with market share that’s caused reporters to chase sensational stories that do not reflect the mainstream of learning occurring day in and out across America.

It’s the unified impact of current politics, economics, class divides, mass media and educational institutionalization that’s supersized a national paranoia threatening the Statue of Liberty schooling that inspired many of us to enter teaching. It’s no coincidence that first-generation college graduates became the educational workforce of the last century, fueling the life cycle of public education.

Many of us pursued teaching because we aspired to become the teachers who helped us become college graduates. Today, some of us discourage those we teach from considering the profession. Our own children watch us work and say, “I’d never want to teach.”

Heated Discontent
In the middle of the night, I ask myself, “How close are we to endangering the life cycle of public education by disrupting the flow of energetic young people into teaching? What will be the impact of a workforce of teachers stopping in for the short term rather than being dedicated to an extended journey toward masterful teaching? Who will teach our children in the future?”

Now, more than ever, we educators need each other. We need each other to make sure we keep coming back to work, that we don’t quit. We need to learn from each other — new technologies, strategies and ways of connecting with young people. We need each other to challenge the status quo and take responsibility for critical shifts needed to advance our work.

We need each other for more than inspiration and to reach our own career aspirations. Most importantly, we need to lead on behalf of all the young people who depend on us for inspiration, to reach their own aspirations and to sustain hope for the best of times as they journey toward their own futures.

We live in a crucible of heated discontent. We’ve created some of the heat ourselves. It’s also generated by variables we don’t control. However, of one thing I am certain: Nothing is more powerful than the work we do.

Now, more than ever, we must open our doors and talk with each other. We must raise our voices in every forum available to us. We must remind each other and every community in this country that educators still keep alive the spring of hope and season of light for all of America’s children.

It’s our story. It’s our nation’s cycle of life.

Pam Moran is superintendent of Albemarle County Public Schools in Charlottesville, Va. She blogs at http://k12albemarle.wordpress.com. E-mail: moran@k12albemarle.org