January 22, 2019—The winter solstice is a month past. The earth is no longer at its maximum tilt away from the sun in the northern hemisphere. As my backyard incrementally tilts toward the sun it slowly absorbs more heat as the season of winter leans toward spring and then on to the summer solstice. Two periods of equal light and dark (equinox) and two periods of unequal light and dark (solstice) are key markers as the earth orbits the sun. The natural world crosses four thresholds and passes through four doorways during the year in the process of integrating varying amounts of light and dark. Parker Palmer encourages educators to look to the natural world for clues and metaphors for understanding the tilted-axis of the teacher’s identity as we journey around the gravitational pull, periods of light/dark, and the warming presence of our students. The seasonal metaphor of thresholds and doorways offer, I think, an interesting way to understand the ebb and flow of teaching.
What are the doorways of my teaching? What are the thresholds of your teaching? Where are they inviting you and me to enter and experience the newness of our craft? The first doorway that speaks to me is the threshold of my classroom. I teach in different buildings and different rooms with different doors but the threshold experience is the same for my teacher heart. It marks the boundary between the ordinary spaces of the university and sacred space of the classroom. In the classroom we have, as a collected community of teacher and students, the opportunity to structure time and space in ways that preserve aspects of power and hierarchy or we can disrupt those elements. Doors and thresholds are magical and powerful. They are at their best symbols reminding everyone to enter the classroom with openness, vulnerability, and attentiveness to the other. The more explicit I am with naming this threshold the easier it is to enter ready to consider new approaches to learning and to embrace opportunities to change perceptions of self and others. Rituals are important when passing through doorways and crossing thresholds intended to facilitate transformation. I mark this transition by reading a poem at the start of class. A good poem allows time for everyone to settle into our shared space and to begin the task of education, change, and challenge.
A second teaching doorway is my office door. Although not directly associated with traditional images of a classroom my office is an important feature of teaching and learning. Sometimes the office-lessons are planned: mentoring sessions around doctoral research or office appointments with a student requesting modifications to a course assignment. Other times my door stands wide open and the teaching moment is more organic and spontaneous. Only when the conversation is sensitive is my door closed. I try to pay attention to the fact that my office door is more than an institutional barrier between faculty professional life and student interests, wants, and needs. My office door is just a different kind of threshold that once crossed is an invitation to change and learn in the same way as the threshold into my classroom. My plants, my books, and a small round table are meant to signal this transition for students, colleagues, and myself. At the end of every week I take a moment, a regular ritual of practice, to honor this threshold as I close my door.
The real quality of doors and their metaphorical equivalent can make a difference in the crossing of thresholds along the journey of knowing. Some doors are glass and others steel; some teaching is transparent and some is not. What would it mean to teach as if you were separated from the rest of the world by a screen door? Some classroom doors are unlocked and easy to pass through. Others are locked and require a key or access code to enter as if only people with the official code are privy to the learning within. Some educators find themselves teaching from behind the locked doors of fear, anxiety, and a sense of instructional inadequacy. In these classrooms students may find it harder to step over the threshold of deep learning and into a space of intellectual transcendence. What type of door are you when you are at your best as a teacher? How about when nothing seems to be working and you feel ill-suited for the work of teaching? When I’m at my least effective my door is bolted shut with only a small sliding panel for communication across the threshold.
Anne Hillman in her poem “We Look With Uncertainty” reminds me to remain humble in the face of successful moments of learning as my students cross the threshold into knowledge and knowing. She writes: “We look with uncertainty… to a softer, more permeable aliveness which is every moment at the brink of death”. The possibility for pedagogical uncertainty is always just over the threshold of my classroom instruction. But as Hillman notes the possibility of a failed lesson is an invitation to aliveness and the movement through new and unexpected doorways; places where transformation exists on the other side. Her response to this uncertainty contains good advice for me and other teachers: “We stand at a new doorway, awaiting that which comes…” What are the new doorways in your teaching inviting you to cross the threshold to change? Who or what is preventing or encouraging you to open a door and move into a new instructional room?