School & District Management Opinion

Why Every Teacher Can (and Needs to) Bust Out of the Cage

By Marilyn Rhames — April 13, 2015 5 min read
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I read Rosa Nam’s recent blog post entitled “Why I’m Calling It Quits After Six Years as a Teacher,” and I felt her pain. I, like Rosa, have experienced the same school-induced depression. The purpose of me writing this piece is not to convince Rosa to continue teaching, but to share what freedom feels like when a teacher finally busts out of the mental classroom cage.

The Cage-Busting Teacher is the title of Rick Hess’ new book. The premise is that teachers have more power to change their school than they realize, they just need to know how to use it. He mentions me on page 135 in his book; asked me to share a short success story in a video; and invited me to sit on a distinguished panel that he will moderate at his book launch at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) in Washington, D.C. on Wednesday, April 15.

I am the unlikeliest person to receive such an honor. The first five years of my 12-year education career played out like a bad movie, and I seemed to be the protagonist that administrators loved to hate.

It started during my teaching residency when I endured a messy breakup with my so-called “mentor teacher.” All she was teaching me was how to teach from the textbook, and how to manage student behavior with a litany of sarcasm and threats. So I petitioned my university’s program director to re-assign me to a different cooperating teacher. That’s when things got ugly.

During that time, I also filed a complaint against the supervising principal who told me, among other hideous things, that she enjoyed breaking up hallway fights because it was her chance to sneak in body shots on the kids in the process. She wasn’t joking. (Fortunately, other people came forward and she lost her job in a matter of months.)

Then in my first years of independent teaching, I had an assistant principal who would tell me not to work so late in my classroom so I would have enough energy left to satisfy my husband at night. And when I got pregnant the second year at his school, he made sure to tell me how he couldn’t keep his hands off his wife when she was carrying his kids. Worried that I could lose my job for lack of tenure, I didn’t report this abuse to my principal until I announced I was taking a position at a new school.

The first year at that school was great, but I got fired at the end of my second year. I dared to tell the principal that the assistant principal wasn’t doing enough to support me and my other teacher colleagues. Both administrators had their own spouses, so I had no idea that they, too, were lovers. (Two years later they were divorced, married to each other, and they left the school in shambles.)

That’s when, like Rosa, I felt like giving up. I had seen and heard too much. I was tired, disillusioned. I was an Ivy League-trained reporter who left a promising career in journalism in New York City to pursue the high calling of educating underserved children in Chicago. I had sacrificed so much, and for what? To be called “unacceptable” to my face and fired for daring to hold my school leaders accountable.

During all this drama, however, I began the early work of establishing my non-profit, Teachers Who Pray. I was regularly asking God to empower me with the wisdom, strength, and endurance to keep pursuing academic excellence despite the craziness that surrounded me. I invited other teachers to join me in prayer after school, and I cannot express what a difference it made. (Teachers Who Pray is now a 501c3 organization with more than 50 chapters across the nation.)

As long as I stayed in my classroom and got results, nobody bothered me. But as soon as I tried to improve the greater school, that’s when I was type-casted a “troublemaker.” I never said I was a perfect teacher--far from it! But if ever there was a teacher who loved her students and advocated for them, it was me.

Nobody told me I was a cage-buster back then.

In fact, I was so distraught about getting fired that I broke down and cried in my first subsequent job interview. I had gone to the annual Illinois Network of Charter Schools job fair and met the principal who, unbeknownst to me, would change the trajectory of my teaching career. Though I had just met her, we clicked instantly. She seemed like the only administrator on the planet who understood me. I was so overwhelmed to finally feel validated that I wept uncontrollably, snot and all.

I remember her saying, “I feel like I should hug you, but I think that would be inappropriate with all the other candidates around.”

A few weeks later, I got a second interview with a panel of teachers from the school. I didn’t cry that time, and within two months I was offered a fourth grade teaching position.

I’ve had my share of frustrations at my current school, but seven years later I can still say that it’s a great place to work. I’ve always felt empowered to do my best work and to extend my impact beyond my classroom.

That’s what Rick Hess means by a “cage-busting teacher.” This teacher finds innovative ways to solve problems for the benefit of the school, not just for a single classroom. But first, this teacher has to embrace their passion and find their voice.

Here are a few examples:

In 2009, I applied for a teacher travel grant to study Spanish in Guatemala. I was denied the grant. I asked my principal for a PD stipend, added some of my own money, and off I went!

2010, I was accepted into a two-year Teach Plus Teaching Policy Fellowship, which was exposed me to the curious world of ed policy. The fellowship also helped me tap into my long-dormant journalism skills to land the position of opinion blogger at Education Week Teacher in 2011. Since then, I’ve been pouring my teacher-heart out in my blog, and in 2013, I was named by the Bammy Awards “Education Commentator/Blogger of the Year.”

I’ve done a TEDx talk about teacher voice, and I’m now a regular on-air education expert for Moody Radio Chicago’s FM morning show.

All long the way, I’ve gotten to pick the brains of great contemporary thinkers in education including Andy Rotherham, Howard Fuller, Karen Lewis, Larry Ferlazzo, Rae Pica, Ray Salazar, Jean-Claude Brizard, Peter Meyer, and Rick Hess—which brings me back to notion of what it means to be a “cage-buster.”

Back in the day when I was being hit on by one administrator and called “unacceptable” by another, I was made to feel like I was nobody, just a disposable, insignificant teacher. I may not have been Teacher of the Year, but I was damn good—with the potential to be great. Had I let certain people in my school define me, I would have quit teaching in 2008!

So no matter what you end up doing Rosa, whether it’s in the field of education or outside of it, you betta bust that cage!

Feel free to watch the live stream of the “Cage-Busting Teacher: Who They Are and What They Can Teach Us?” panel on Wednesday, April 15 from 3:15 to 5:00 p.m. EST or watch it online anytime 24 hours after the event.

Seeing how far I’ve come, I’ll try not to cry.

Last updated on 4/15/15

The opinions expressed in Charting My Own Course are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.