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Prepare Yourself for The Cage-Busting Teacher

Note: Raegen Miller, the vice president for research partnerships at Teach For America, is guest posting this week.

I'm not the only former teacher who still has teaching dreams come August. In my case, these dreams feature me, often underdressed, trying to teach integration by parts or some other math topic to an unruly group of students. A fair way to interpret such dreams is that I was not a cage-busting teacher, at least in the sense Rick Hess means in his latest book, expected early next year.

I've had the privilege of reading the manuscript, and like its forerunner, Cage-Busting Leadership, the new book is about mindsets, especially the mindset that much more is possible than is admitted in conventional wisdom. Hess offers a no-nonsense, tactical guide to building the mindset of a cage-buster. The book features perspectives from scores of teachers on the kinds of problems and dilemmas that teachers face every day. Readers should walk away sanguine about the idea that a critical mass of cage-busters can fortify classroom instruction against all manners of top-down, ill-conceived, or counter-productive meddling.

But it's safe to say that The Cage-Busting Teacher will not be the feel-good book of 2015. Readers will not be sporting the afterglow associated with reading a typical book on leadership in education, and that is a good thing. Cage-busting teachers identify specific, mundane, or otherwise un-sexy obstacles in their teaching landscape, and then they explain how to eliminate them, not how to get around them. The emphasis is on gritty, incremental actions, not epic accomplishments--think nixing low-priority, lesson-shattering public address announcements, not inner city chess team winning the national championship. But the book spares readers the fatigue that comes from continuously being in the trenches with a smart, thematic structure and Hess's trademark eloquent, if blunt, prose.

One theme handled in depth has to do with self-policing the teaching profession. Hess reminds us that the overwhelming majority of teachers favor a culture of self-policing, yet a cage-dwelling culture prevails in most schools because not enough teachers are willing to buck the formal rules and informal norms that sap their time and energy. The big point of The Cage-Busting Teacher is that it's up to teachers to create demand, through their actions, for changes to rules set down by statute, board policy, or contract. And traditional demand-side anemia matters tremendously if, as several of the book's informants assert, all roads leading to greater autonomy, prestige, and compensation for teachers must pass through self-policing.

I'd be surprised if Maddie Fennell, next week's guest blogger, cage-busting teacher, and member of the Commission on Effective Teachers and Teaching, didn't chime in on self-policing. After all, the Commission's report to the National Education Association is pretty clear that "effective teachers share in the responsibility for teacher selection, evaluation, and dismissal." It these activities aren't the core of self-policing, I don't know what is.

--Raegen Miller

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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.

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