Rick Hess: Cage Busting Teachers

Apr 13, 2015 by

The Cage-Busting Teacher

An Interview with Rick Hess: Cage Busting Teachers

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

  1. Rick, I understand that you have written yet another book- this on “Cage Busting Teachers”. What brought this about?

Hey Michael – so very much appreciate you wanting to chat with me about all of this! The last book I wrote was Cage-Busting Leadership, a book geared towards principals, superintendents, and district administrators. I’d spent so many years talking to those folks, hearing so many things they wanted to do but didn’t think they were allowed to do… so I wanted to write a book to tell them that they actually have a whole lot more power than they might think!

When I was going around talking about this book, I wasn’t sure what teachers would think… after all I was telling the folks managing them that they can get more aggressive. But when I talked to teachers, what I actually heard was “Rick, we love the spirit of what you’re saying – but none of what you’re saying to do applies to us.”

As one teacher told me, with admirable frankness, “My problem isn’t how do I free up Title II funds… my problem is that my principal is a knucklehead, my union is out in left field, and my school board doesn’t care what I think about anything… what advice to you have for me?”

I realized that I didn’t have any – but thought it would be a great project to figure out how to help teachers who want to take a step forward really bust of their cage and assert more ownership and authority over their school and system.

  1. We have all heard about some teachers who are dynamic, energetic and enthusiastic. Do you consider these “cage busting teachers” ? Or what exactly is your definition ?

I try to think about cage-busting more as a mentality than a label… so I’ll try to explain the mentality a bit more. The stuff that goes on inside the classroom – where these dynamic, energetic, and enthusiastic teachers really wow kids – that’s less the stuff I’m talking about when I talk about cage-busting.

There are plenty of books that try to help teachers with what happens inside the classroom. This book tries to help them navigate the world outside of their classroom. So, a cage-busting teacher is someone who is ready to identify a problem outside the four walls of her classroom, can think up concrete, precise, and practical steps toward a solution, and knows the best way to enlist support and persuade the key people she needs to persuade. A cage-buster is in many ways a common-sense problem solver… a teacher who is ready to look past her classroom to make her school the place where she wants to teach.

  1. Some teachers teach dynamically during the school day and then coach for 2-3 hours after school. Do these teachers fit into your “cage busting model”?

Maybe – but maybe not. One thing I realized when I talked to teachers is that some of the best ones really burn the fire at both ends. That’s admirable… but sometimes I worry they are on track to burn themselves out. If these teachers have really thought through all of the possibilities in front of them and have decided that the 2-3 hours of coaching after the school is truly the best and most productive way for them to make an impact, then I’m all for calling them cage-busters.

But it could well be, to take this example, that some of these teachers maybe should be coaching more teachers in a more formal capacity, and that working with their principal to figure out a way to modify their role to build in some of that time during the day might be the best outcome for their school. Cage-busters don’t take what’s usually done for granted – they are always prepared to ask “why” and rethink routines.

  1. And some teachers seem to miraculously increase test scores and grades on those standardized tests. They seem to have a bag of tricks up their sleeves. Are these “cage busting” professionals?

They’re certainly great teachers – but what goes on inside the classroom and what goes on outside of it are two things. Some of this stuff that these miracle teachers do, you just can’t teach.

But a lot of this stuff they really could teach. If a teacher is sticking to their classroom when they really could be helping other teachers succeed like them, then they’re probably not cage-busters. But, if they’re killing it inside their classroom and helping the teachers around them do better, then I’d bet that they are.

  1. Now, there are other teachers that seem to bring about reform, renewal and change within their schools. Do you have a name for these individuals and what do you see them doing?

These are the cage-busters! They do all sorts of stuff… they refuse to take rules and regulations that don’t make sense for granted. When they have an idea, they try to think strategically about the best way to put it forward such that it will be implemented. When they talk to administrators and policymakers, they try to talk in their language and make their ideas a value proposition, rather than a complaint or a request for a favor.

  1. Martin Haberman used to write about teachers that were very good at working in inner city schools with children of poverty stricken homes. Do you see a difference in the “skill set” of those “cage busters” in the inner city versus rural farm agrarian areas?

Yes and no. There are different stresses and pressures in different environments, to be sure. And sometimes environments can get so chaotic that it’s hard enough just to keep your door shut in order to teach the kids well… and supremely difficult to try to change anything outside of what’s directly in front of you.

But at the end of the day, cage-busting is problem-solving mentality that tries to define the problem clearly and put forth concrete, precise, and practical solutions…. and that transcends location.  

  1. I often hear about some teacher who wrote a grant for $50,000 or some ridiculous amount of money – and wonder who trained them, and where they got the skills and initiative to pursue grants. Any insights?

Sometimes these teachers are part of networks, like Educators 4 Excellence, VIVA Teachers, or Teach Plus. Often they are just standalone go-getters. I think a lot of these go-getters, and people who want to be go-getters but don’t know how to get started, could really benefit by looking into teacher groups like E4E, VIVA, and Teach Plus.

  1. Tell us about your book and where interested folks can get a copy?

It will be available on Amazon on April 15th!

  1. What have I neglected to ask?  

Nothing – this has been a pretty thorough interview. Thanks so much, Michael!!

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