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For Teachers Who Feel 'Caged in,' a New Course Gives Strategies on Busting Out

A new professional-learning curriculum seeks to help teachers break out of the "cage" of an endless stream of top-down policies, frustrations with administrators, and a lack of funding. 

The free online course was developed by Frederick M. Hess, the director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. The course accompanies Hess' 2015 book The Cage-Busting Teacher  and is meant to support teachers who want to create change in the profession through identifying problems, coming up with solutions, and creating a plan of action. (By way of disclosure, Hess also writes an opinion blog that is hosted on edweek.org.)

cage busting.pngThe online course has seven modules which offer questions for reflections and activities. For example, the second module is titled "Choose to Be a Problem Solver," and includes an activity on learning where a school's money goes. 

"It's not about one more thing for teachers to do," Hess said at a panel discussion on Thursday. "It's about, how do teachers bring their professional acumen so they can have the schools and systems that let them do their best work." 

Joshua Parker, an instructional coach and the 2012 Maryland Teacher of the Year, described the cage this way: "A lot of first-year teachers come in with these ideas about 'here's what I can do, I can conquer the world,' and then reality comes in. Reality is the students who are in front of them who may not share their affinity for long prose and poems, but also reality is that there are so many different mandates—district, state, local, school—that they have to juggle and manage while still [trying] to teach like they really want to teach." 

Cage-busters, Hess and the panelists said, can remain in the classroom to teach, but they're empowered to add their voices to policy discussions in their school, district, or even state. Teacher leadership has been an increasingly popular movement across the country in the past few years, partly due to teachers' growing frustration with education policy being driven by non-educators.

Wendy Uptain, the research and development lead of strategic initiatives for the nonprofit Hope Street Group, which hosts a teacher fellowship program, said she's noticed that career-changer teachers are less intimidated to go to the superintendent with a proposal or ask a legislator to come to the classroom. That's a mentality that more teachers should adopt, she said: "I would say teachers don't ask, just do. You have a lot of power." 

Hess and the panelists called for teacher-prep programs to tackle teacher leadership and authority. Most professional development, Hess said, doesn't address how teachers can come up with workable solutions or build working relationships with policymakers.

Parker stressed the importance of fellowships and professional communities that offer a space for teachers to talk about what they can do to break through the bureaucracy to feel empowered—and remember their love for teaching that can get buried under paperwork and mandated policies. 

Last May, a national survey found that only about half of teachers said their opinions were heard in decisions at the school level, and only 19 percent thought their voices were considered at the district level. Five percent or fewer of teachers felt their opinions were heard at the state or national levels.  

"As a guy who mostly writes about 'policy' and 'leadership,' I'm the first to admit that this stuff can feel pretty far removed from the critical work that happens every day in classroom," Hess wrote in an Education Week blog post. "That's a problem. It causes policymakers and system leaders to underestimate the distance between ambitious plans and their practical impact. And it can make educators feel powerless and like nobody cares what they think. The insight behind cage-busting is that we're all much, much better off when there is a healthy partnership between talkers and doers." 

Source: Image via The Cage-Busting Teacher curriculum

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