A teacher-friend who will be using the Tres Columnae Project with her students this year asked me that question, with some surprise, in an email she sent recently. In some schools (I’m assuming hers is one), Open House is an evening activity a few weeks after the start of the school year. Parents come to meet their children’s teachers, chat briefly, see the work that has been started, and find out more about the rest of the year.
That’s not how school Open Houses work in These Parts. When I was a young teacher, older colleagues called them “Meet and Greets.” Here, they take place a few days before school starts. “Those rooms are ready,” and teachers give a brief little welcoming speech and pass out Important Forms and Paperwork … but not the huge packets of Essential Paperwork, because those go home (“by students,” as we say) on the first day of school.
(“You know,” my wise mentor Ms. N told me more than two decades ago, “the room doesn’t actually have to be completely ready; it just has to look pretty good.” Meanwhile, across the hall, my semi-official mentor Ms. L was hyper-ventilating from the effort of “getting it perfect so They don’t say something.”)
I’ve participated in almost two dozen of these Open Houses over the years. And I don’t think I ever questioned the reasoning behind them. They just happened, like the packets of Essential Paperwork on the first day, the Vital Mandates from Powers That Be, or the slumped, angry shoulders of Ms. X and Mr. Y when an Exciting New Initiative was announced. To “avoid mass chaos,” schools tend to “run a mini-schedule.” Parents and their students are expected to move from one class to another just as if it were a tiny, late-afternoon version of a “regular” school day. Sometimes there are even bells to indicate when it’s time to move.
Many don’t “follow the schedule,” of course, and many can’t. What if you have more children than parents? Or what if your work schedule keeps you from arriving until mid-way through the event? “Try to keep them moving,” is the typical response, “and don’t get involved in lengthy conversations with them.” We haven’t had the pre-Open House meeting yet, so I’m not sure if that message will change. But all the handouts and schedules look the same as ever. And overt message or not, those bells send a loud message … especially if you, the “bad and lazy and tardy” parent and child, are out in the hallway when you’re “supposed to be” in Ms. X’s classroom picking up your syllabus and supply list.
I’ve been thinking a lot about messages – hidden and not-so-hidden – and I realize that the way you structure and schedule school Open Houses sends a powerful set of messages. If my friend’s school has Open House a few weeks into the school year, students and parents can tell it’s our classroom. Our work is posted, our routines have been described, and now we are sharing these things with our families. But tonight? Yes, there’s a sense of community among returning students and their families, of course. But if you’re new – or if you weren’t very well connected with the school in the past, if you struggled or felt out of place – this Open House looks like Them (those teachers and other school staff) putting on a show of welcome for You. “This is Ms. X’s perfectly decorated classroom,” the elegant posters and pretty bulletin boards declare silently. “Is there a place for you and your not-so-perfect contributions?” Mr. Y’s careful attempts to hide his panic (“it’s not as ready as I wanted it to be, but They scheduled so many meetings!”) send a powerful message, too. So do the “club information” displays beforehand, all prepared by club sponsors because club members haven’t been around.
Who owns the learning environment? Who owns the learning? Is there a place for me? As a child, or even a teenager, you may not ask the questions in so many words, but they’re on your mind and your heart as a new school year approaches. Maybe my long-retired friends were right to use the “Meet and Greet” label. If the function of the evening is to meet and greet, the “house” doesn’t have to be perfect; it just needs to be reasonably well organized and clean, especially if a “real” Open House will be coming in a few weeks. But if this is it, the stress and strain of an opening night performance leads to a very different – and much less welcoming – form of welcome to a new school year.
Purpose and intention. Team, place, and time. They’re important when you’re building anything, even if it’s “just” the tone for a new school year. It’s obviously too late to do anything about Ms. X’s stress level, which has been through the roof all week because “They made all these changes and there isn’t enough time.” It’s too late to change the Open House schedule or to persuade Mr. Y that his room doesn’t have to be “perfect” just yet. But Laura Gilchrist’s blog post today, which “just happened” to appear in my Google+ feed, reminded me that it’s always possible to change “the room,” to change “energy and enthusiasm” and “creativity.” All it takes is the right question or observation at the right time.
When (if) that time arrives this afternoon, on our oddly altered work schedule that (as usual) will keep me from one of my own chidren’s Open House, I hope I’ll notice and know what to say.
What do you think?