Rick Hess does something well in The Cage-Busting Teacher that many people in education are fond of doing badly: he points out problems. But he does something even better in this book: he notes the bad things that actually matter, rather than just “things that aren’t perfect”. Better still, he makes practical suggestions for how to fix them.
The “cage”, as Hess sees it, is the “routines, rules and habits that exhaust teachers’ time and energy, leading educators to close their classroom door and just try to teach their hearts out”. As a teacher of 12 years, I identified so much with this statement that I felt I’d written it myself.
Every time someone sees a weakness in the system, they consider ways in which to remedy it; this usually involves new guidelines, new instructions, more things to do. But the rain of prescription can drown educators in ever-increasing layers of work and bureaucracy, until they are crushed into fossil fuel. Hess hits the bullseye on this, and then splits his first arrow with a second: everyone and no one is to blame for this. The system is so large and diverse, the prescriptions, paperwork and accountability so diffuse, that the culture – or, to be fashionable, the mindset – needs to be ripped open.
How to do it? Hess advocates specific, manageable steps. First, he suggests cage-busters need to understand that they’re in a cage, and that they have the right to bust out of it. He is hard on teachers who shirk this responsibility.
This kind of tough-talking doesn’t often go down well with teachers who expect to be treated as if they are a blend of saint and war hero. Hess even dismantles this notion: “These platitudes are the fluff of political speeches and celebrity profiles. You don’t [say that to] people you really respect.” If you really respect a professional, you back off and trust them to do the job, not harrow them with administrative tasks.
The next few chapters are all about managing up: how teachers can speak up, make their cases within the hierarchies of their institutions, and talk to the people who decide things or hold budgets. Interestingly, Hess also focuses on the perspectives of the people on the other side of the cage, which elevates this beyond a polemic and turns it into a book about relationships. After all, he reminds us, policymakers and senior leaders are usually people just like you: they care, they have their own problems to solve, they also want the best for the children.
This book needed to be written. We can see internationally how a desire to improve education has led to fruits and weeds in equal measure. The key voice that has been forgotten in all this has been the not-so-humble educator. I can’t agree with Hess enough: we need to stop waiting for Superman to come and fix everything, and start thinking about how we can fix things from the bottom up and inside out. Maybe then we can call ourselves a profession again.
The Cage-Busting Teacher by Frederick M Hess is published by Harvard Education Press.