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Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Teaching Profession Opinion

10 Things I’ve Learned While Talking Cage-Busting

By Rick Hess — July 27, 2015 4 min read
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It’s been three months since The Cage-Busting Teacher was published. I’m much obliged for the terrific reception, the nice notes, and the strong early sales. Thanks to so many of you! (Then again, teachers who identify opportunities to do better, solve problems, speak forcefully but empathetically, engage constructively in policy, and operate with savvy are pretty darn easy to embrace.)

During that time, I’ve had the opportunity to go speak about the book to a variety of audiences (last week, it was the Union League in Philadelphia and the IB Conference of the Americas in Chicago). As I’ve traveled, talked about the book, and heard reactions, I’ve found several things particularly striking. I reflected on a few of these for an address a few weeks back to the National Network of State Teachers of the Year, and I thought it may be worth sharing them here. Here they are, in no particular order:

1] Almost every school or system leader I talk to says some version of, “We’re hungry for teacher leadership. We love our cage-busting teachers, when they’re constructive and engaged in the way you’re talking about.” But that message easily gets lost in the day-to-day challenges of the district bureaucracy or school management.

2] Advocates (“pro-reform” or “anti-reform”) love the notion of cage-busting teachers. They’re hungry for savvy teacher leadership that stretches beyond the classroom. But most have very particular ideas of what these teachers are supposed to be fighting for. To them, it’s not about addressing practical challenges in schools—it’s about helping to promote their agenda. Advocates are generally more interested in having teachers amplify their message than in hearing what teachers have to say.

3] Everyone pretty much seems to like the idea of cage-busting teachers. But no one really has a clear idea of how to cultivate those skills and encourage that disposition. We know it doesn’t happen in districts or schools of education today.

4] Over the past decade, reformers have come to focus so aggressively on getting rid of lousy teachers that some think that even shifting more attention to cultivating terrific teachers signals a worrisome retreat. Moreover, simply acknowledging legitimate teacher concerns with evaluation or policy seems, to some, to be a kind of surrender. I argue in the book that professions are only as strong as their weakest link, and that’s why teachers should be as concerned as anyone about addressing mediocrity (and that teachers have fallen short on this count). But our obsessive focus on the mediocre has come at the expense of our attention to what terrific teachers—or even average ones—need to do their best work.

5] Accomplished, veteran teachers have grown used to a culture in which little or no respect is accorded for excellence. I’ve been struck at how enthusiastically these educators describe the lift provided by modest recognition, and how appreciative they are for some of the perks that twenty-something policy types take for granted.

6] At the same time, it’s clear that teachers suffer from their lack of familiarity with all of this. Many teachers aren’t very good at code-switching when they’re in rooms with policymakers and advocates. For instance, in rooms where ten-second self-introductions are the norm, teachers can easily take three or four minutes—which can wreak havoc with a scheduled 60-minute meeting where a bunch of participants have to scramble off to another one. Learning this kind of code-switching will serve teachers well.

7] Teachers are generally unaware of how easily their measured views can be drowned out by the venomous, vitriolic views of a small number of teachers. Teachers also don’t seem to understand that, unless they speak up, many observers will presume that the loudest and most rabid voices are representative of what most teachers think.

8] While I take pains in the book to remind teachers that advocates and policymakers almost invariably mean well and ought to be approached accordingly, I’ve been surprised by how many of my reform friends seem to have forgotten that it’s educators who actually educate kids—and that the rest of us would be well-served to keep that in mind. That power and precision accorded to accountability systems, teacher evaluation systems, turnaround models, and the rest is sometimes disturbingly disconnected from an interest in how this affects the actual work of the teachers who are expected to make these deliver.

9] More teachers are more open to the possibilities of new school models and entrepreneurial opportunities than I might have thought. When we talk about technology, choice, and new opportunities as a way to let educators, families, and entrepreneurs find more promising approaches to teaching and learning, teachers are more interested in the possibilities than our battle lines often suggest.

10] Business leaders, CEOs, and other private sector executives are much more sympathetic to teachers when they hear concrete stories about teachers struggling with bureaucracy while trying to solve concrete problems for kids. Private sector leaders recognize this from their own experience. When teachers show that they’re trying to step up and are being held back by rules, regulations, or routines, they may discover new and unexpected allies.

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The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up 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.