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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

A Breakout Role for Teachers

By Rick Hess — March 11, 2015 2 min read
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My book The Cage-Busting Teacher is out from Harvard Ed Press next month. As I was working on it, I had the opportunity to interview hundreds of teacher leaders and speak with many more in focus groups, conferences, and whatnot. One of the striking things that I discuss at length in the book is how often even terrific teachers say they feel stymied and caged in. Yesterday, Education Next posted an excerpt that helps teachers think about a way out of that cage. (See “A Breakout Role for Teachers.”)

Teachers described feeling caught up by a combination of structure and culture: by school designs that give teachers little room to grow and cultures that lodge authority elsewhere. It’s both goofy and unfortunate that things have evolved this way—that we think of professional growth as teachers going into administration. (Plenty of teachers have told me about the frustrating notion that people think they’re showing a lack of ambition if they want to keep being “just a teacher"—as if we’d think it natural for a gifted cardiovascular surgeon to abandon the operating table in order to become a hospital bureaucrat. In medicine, we’d deem that crazy, but in schooling we view it as normal.)

At the same time, reimagining education requires lots of rethinking and creation, and I can’t think of anybody better suited to actually do that work than . . . educators. So, just as we need to make it easier for teachers to grow and flourish in schools and classrooms, it’d be nice if it were also normal and natural for teachers to step in and step out as they tackle different kinds of challenges when it comes to teaching and learning.

This is tough, because teachers not only feel like they get grief if they stay in the classroom, but many also confess feeling guilty about changing schools or changing roles. They shouldn’t. Cage-busters see the classroom as a place of possibility, not a prison. Sometimes the cage-buster’s best bet is to find a role in which he can do his best work. Elliot Sanchez founded Louisiana’s mSchool, a tech startup providing computer-assisted math tutoring, after he taught and tried his hand at district and state roles. After all that, he says, “I felt like if I wanted to do my best work and make a real difference, I had to do it outside of the state and district system.” Cage-busters celebrate those who choose to seek new possibilities, inside or outside of the classroom.

Sometimes cage-busters believe they can do their best work in their current school or system, and sometimes they feel like the better course is to launch a charter school, a new organization, an education tech venture, or something else. But this should be a choice and not an act of desperation. Cage-busters don’t just accept the world, complain about it, or retreat from it; they reshape it into a place where they and their colleagues can do their best work.

This all matters for a number of reasons. For one, it seems that talented teachers find it empowering to know that lots of possibilities actually exist—including those they may not have previously explored. For another, understanding that there are new possibilities can give teachers the confidence to demand that their schools and systems up their game and make better use of the talent they have. Most importantly, I think our ability to reimagine schooling will only proceed as far and as fast as educators are immersed in the work of reimagining their profession.

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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.