Rick Hess has been busy promoting his book about Cage-Busting Teachers, and he reported ten lessons that he learned out on the circuit. As always I find Hess worth paying attention to because (unlike some of his reformy brethren) he's not sloppy or lazy in his thinking. So what did he learn (and, by extension, think the rest of us should get)?
1) Schools and leaders are hungry for teacher leadership. Well, they say they are. Which, of course, is often the problem. Most of us have had encounters with administrators who project a clear message of, "I would love to see some teachers step up and become leaders in pursuit of exactly what I tell them to pursue." This is a recurring issue that I have with Hess's cage-busting model. Sometimes the cages are built strong, wired with electricity, and coated in poisonous venom.
2) Advocates on all sides of the reform/public ed issue love the idea of cage busting teachers. I think that's probably true, but only if we get that there's a wide number of ideas about what a CBT is and what obstacles need to be busted.
3) Hess agrees. Everybody likes CBT, but nobody knows how to grow them. I have some thoughts. But Step One is for administrators to let go of the notion that teacher leadership has to look like they want it to and result in the outcomes they demand.
4) Reformers have focused too much on getting rid of bad teachers, while teachers have not focused on it enough, but everybody should focus more on giving great teachers what they need. Hess is landing near the Hero Teacher Fallacy here, but he's not completely wrong. Guys like Andy Cuomo who believe that there are a gazillion terrible teachers who just need to be found and jettisoned are wasting their time.
5) Veteran teachers are used to a culture that has no respect for excellence. Yes, I'd say that's true. And this:
I've been struck at how enthusiastically these educators describe the
lift provided by modest recognition, and how appreciative they are for
some of the perks that twenty-something policy types take for granted.
Yup. I've argued for years that money discussion would be less contentious at contract time if districts just offered to treat teachers like respected grown-ups. But they don't.
6) Teachers don't code switch. Sigh. I hate it, but I know he's right. Too many teachers don't get how to function in places that aren't their classroom, and are bad at the most essential part of dealing with people-- understanding what those peoples' priorities and foci are. The most cringeworthy argument I hear teachers make to advocate against a policy is offering some version of, "But this makes me sad.."
At the same time, it's hard not to resent the underlying power dynamic here-- to be heard, teachers have to learn to speak the language of policymakers and boardrooms and suits and even think tanks. Why is it that none of these people have bothered to try learning our language?
7) Reasonable and polite teachers should speak up. We know that Hess prefers his cage busters polite and genteel and not speaking up loudly, rudely or at inappropriate moments. This remains the weakest part of Hess's position-- he's concern trolling and tone police in one, worried that if teachers speak up too loudly or too rudely, gosh, they just won't be taken seriously by the People Who Matter. I won't deny that there are some teachers who are in a seemingly permanent state of High Dudgeon (and reformsters who are stuck in a state of Righteous Crusading Against Infidels). But I'm reminded of something I've said often-- if people don't believe they are being heard when they speak, they will keep raising their voice. If someone is yelling at me, nine times out of ten it's because they don't believe I hear them. If I don't like being yelled at, it is often within my power to stop it. It's not that I'll listen to them when they adopt a proper tone; it's that when they know I'm listening, they'll get quieter on their own. Just saying.
8) While Hess reminds us that reformsters by and large mean well, he reminds reformsters that teachers actually have to make all these bright ideas work.
That power and precision accorded to accountability systems, teacher evaluation systems, turnaround models, and the rest is sometimes disturbingly disconnected from an interest in how this affects the actual work of the teachers who are expected to make these deliver.
9) Teachers surprise Hess by actually being quite open to New Stuff. Well, yes. We're always looking at new stuff, trying new things, and experimenting like Doofenshmirtz hunting for a great new Teachinator. Reformsters have made this mistake over and over and over and over again, assuming that because we don't like their stupid new idea, we don't like any new ideas at all. Reformsters consistently fail to ask the question that teachers, experimenting in our classroom every day, always ask-- Does this actually work? Does this actually help me teach students?
10) Policymakers and Other Important People listen to teachers better when teachers provide concrete specific examples of what they're talking about. Fair enough.
My cage busting problem (and I freely confess that I have not yet read the book) is that Hess's whole model seems to assume a maintenance of a certain power status, with teachers on the bottom. In the wrong light, Hess starts to sound like a solicitous parent saying, "Of course, you can come sit at the grown-up table, just as soon as you act grown-up and show us that you can handle it."
What he says sounds reasonable, and it may in fact be a clear dose of Realpolitik, but to get at what troubles me, let me propose an alternative book. In this book Hess (or someone) says, "For too long we've been trying to keep teachers locked up and constrained, forcing them into the shape we demand of them. So let's release them from the cage we've built for them. Let's stop talking to them about how to do their job, shut our mouths, sit down and listen to the experts, the teachers who have devoted their lives to education. And maybe after we have listened and learned, we can prove to them that we deserve to be listened to and our ideas deserve to be considered. But first we need to free them to do the work they know." The author of this imaginary book could call it Cage-Busting Policymakers.
But that's not the book he wrote. And while teachers do need to step up and are (and have been) doing most of the heavy lifting of the teaching world, Hess's assumption that of course policymakers, whether elected or self-appointed, are rightfully in charge, and teachers are, by default, rightfully not.
Hess's best insight is that too many teachers are so used to being caged and powerless that they don't test the limits and they don't break through some bars that are weak and pointless and deserve to be busted. But he is disingenuous to avoid acknowledging where those cages came from in the first place, or the huge number of new cages that have been built in the last fifteen years.
Damn. I'm going to have to read his book.