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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

What Cage-Busters Believe

By Rick Hess — March 23, 2015 4 min read
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We’re just a few weeks away now from the April 15 launch of The Cage-Busting Teacher. The launch event will feature an intense discussion into the what, why, and how of cage-busting between the likes of former national teacher of the year and DCPS talent impresario Jason Kamras, teacher ambassador Maddie Fennell, Educators for Excellence co-founder Evan Stone, Gates Foundation teacher honcho Irvin Scott, and NEA prez Lily Eskelsen Garcia. Hope you’ll join us, in person or via the livestream. For more information, check out the invite here. Also, if you’re interested, here is a great one-stop resource for cage-busting articles, videos, resources, and more.

Meanwhile, as folks have heard about the book or read an excerpt, a number have been asking what a cage-busting teacher is—and whether I think this person or that person is a cage-buster. I always tell them that I think cage-busting is more about action than celebrity. I prefer to talk about what cage-busters believe. So, just what do cage-busters believe? Well, let’s see . . .

Cage-busters believe that actions change culture, and that talk does not. They heed the advice of Larry Bossidy, veteran CEO and coauthor of Execution: The Discipline of Getting Things Done, who says, “We don’t think ourselves into a new way of acting; we act ourselves into a new way of thinking.” They know that “culture change” can otherwise be short-lived.

Cage-busters believe that teachers can have enormous influence—but need to learn how to use their voice. Cage-busters recognize that earning influence and professional respect requires reshaping a profession that has accepted the comfortable routines of the 19th century schoolhouse for too long.

Cage-busters believe that management, not teachers, ought to be blamed if management fails to address mediocrity anywhere in a school system, but that teachers ought to insist that management do its duty. If teachers don’t do that, cage-busters understand that they’ll have trouble convincing observers of their professionalism and commitment to excellence.

Cage-busters believe that “teacher leadership” is a cheery, amorphous term that’s only meaningful when it gets concrete. Cage-busters are less interested in debating, “Who’s really for the kids?” than in asking, “What’s the problem we need to solve and how do we solve it?” They believe in the value of precision and clarity. They believe it’s better to say “an extra 45 minutes a day of instruction” than “extended learning time” and “an extra 30 minutes of computer-assisted tutoring” than “blended learning.”

Cage-busters believe that a focus on problem-solving, precision, and responsibility can enable teachers to create the schools and systems where they can do their best work. They don’t cage-bust instead of tending to curriculum and instruction. Rather, they cage-bust because they believe it will help forge schools and systems where their time, passion, and energy make the biggest difference for kids.

Cage-busters believe that the “lucky” get luckier. As I wrote this book, educators would sometimes ask me about it. After I’d share a story or two, most would half-sigh and say, “That’s interesting—but these are the exceptions.” They’d explain that these educators were teachers of the year, or National Board certified, or part of some privileged network, or blessed with a great principal. In other words: they were the lucky few. What’s easy to miss is how often these teachers make their own luck. Candice Willie-Lawes, a special education teacher in New York City, says, “I intentionally built a good relationship with my AP, who is now my principal. Currently, she’s assigned me a teaching schedule with an alternate population of 15 students and five wonderful para-professionals/teaching assistants. I can do my thing because I have that trust. I built it up over the past eight years. No one is going to respect you unless you’ve earned it. But once I earned it, it freed me to bust out of the cage.” Cage-busters identify problems, offer solutions, find strength in numbers, manage up, and—gosh—they keep getting lucky.

Finally, cage-busters don’t just believe—they know—that this stuff is hard and there will be plenty of missteps. But, because each win dismantles another piece of the cage, they also know that time is on the cage-buster’s side. Maddie Fennell, classroom veteran, former Nebraska teacher of the year, U.S. Teaching Ambassador, National Board certified teacher, chair of the NEA’s Commission on Effective Teachers and Teaching, RHSU fan favorite, and good friend, puts it well. Maddie has enjoyed enormous success—and she’s also had her share of setbacks. One was the time she was deposed as union president. She says, “I cried for two weeks. I didn’t want to get out of bed. Then I knew I had to get back into the classroom. I was back in my element. And, you know what? I was stronger for it.”

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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.