A Breakout Role for Teachers

Excerpts from The Cage-Busting Teacher

By 03/10/2015

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In Cage-Busting Leadership, I argued that K–12 leaders have much more power than they think to create great schools and systems. The problem is that they are routinely trapped in “cages” of their own design. They’re blocked by urban legends, timidity, a failure of imagination, or not knowing what they’re already free to do.

ednext_mar15_hess_coverIn my new book, The Cage-Busting Teacher, I explore the reality that teachers inhabit a “cage” of their own—but a very different one from that which ensnares school or system administrators. The teacher cage is all the routines, rules, and habits that exhaust teachers’ time and energy. Breaking free means being eager to champion excellence, identify important problems, offer concrete solutions, and bring those solutions to life.

It is true that teachers lack the ready access to organizational authority that school and system leaders can use to bust free. They have less control over budgets and staffing. What teachers have, though, is the ability to tap the authority of expertise and to summon moral authority. Cage-busting teachers find ways, inside or outside their classrooms, to bring all of their ideas and experience to bear.

Cage-Busting Teachers

Cage-busters know that more is possible than teachers may imagine. As Bill Raabe, a veteran educator and the NEA’s longtime authority on collective bargaining, says, “Teachers can usually do a lot more than they think. Teachers often start from a deficit model. They assume, ‘There’s nothing we can do—because of the contract or because of policy.’ They should be asking, ‘What do we want to do?’ and then figuring out how to make that happen.”

Jacob Pactor, a high school English teacher at Speedway High School in Indianapolis, Indiana, was charged with improving support for failing students. His plan involved having teachers report student data monthly, rather than waiting for quarterly intervals. This would help teachers catch problems early. Teachers were on board but, after a while, says Pactor, “The principal didn’t like seeing all of the Fs. And he wasn’t willing to let us follow through on any of our proposed consequences—stuff like after-school detention where students would have to do their homework. So he cut the practice off.” Pactor explored his options. He asked the school secretary if there was a way to update the online gradebook in real time. She said it was just an easy technological change—meaning teachers could now get updates every day, instead of every nine weeks. Pactor went to the principal with the idea, and the principal told him, “Sure.” Pactor reflects, “Without having to institute a formal policy, teachers now knew how students were doing in each other’s classes. They could plan interventions accordingly.”

Brent Maddin, provost at the Relay Graduate School of Education, recalls teaching in Franklin, Louisiana, where, he says, “Our school had this policy that students had to be in the top of the class to take the ACT. The guidance counselor would not give other kids an ACT packet. The philosophy was, if other kids took the test, their scores would make the school look bad. I called ACT and got some packets myself. I started dealing them from my back porch, like I was trafficking in something illegal, not ACT materials. The guidance counselor was furious. She said, ‘I work with the ACT.’ Ultimately, though, the principal said, ‘If you’re going to hand out packets, then you need to do prep.’ So we began running after-school and Saturday prep. By the end of the year, once they thought about it, the administration was on board. After all, that’s why we were all there. But, if we were doing it, they wanted the school to look good. Two years later, we’d added an official ACT prep course.”

Candice Willie-Lawes, a New York City special education teacher, describes herself as “a big believer in positive reinforcement and encouragement.” When she found herself in a school that was “rigid and unforgiving,” she “subtly suggested” changes. She says, “We didn’t have recess, so I suggested we give recess at the end of a week to kids who’d been on exceptionally good behavior. We didn’t do field trips, so I suggested we do a trip for students who’d read a certain amount of books as part of a reading program. I just suggested little things here and there. Even though I wanted to, I never stormed into my principal’s office to say, ‘You don’t know what’s good for kids!’ But bit by bit I chipped away. By June, I felt like our students were getting a normal childhood experience.” Willie-Lawes didn’t pick fights. She changed things one subtle step at a time.

But cage-busters know that they sometimes need to step out of their schools or classrooms to do their best work. Cage-busters wonder whether being a teacher should necessarily mean spending six hours a day in a classroom with 20 or 30 kids. They ask hard questions about what teachers do and how schools and systems can help them do it better. The mark of the cage-buster is not a particular stance on things like career ladders or differentiated pay but the belief that educators should have much more leeway to create great schools and systems.

Cage-Busting Beyond the Classroom

Sometimes cage-busters believe they can do their best work in their current school or system, and sometimes they feel like the better course is to launch a charter school, a new organization, an education tech venture, or something else. But this should be a choice and not an act of desperation. Cage-busters don’t just accept the world, complain about it, or retreat from it; they reshape it into a place where they and their colleagues can do their best work.

Many teachers confess feeling guilty about changing schools or changing roles. They shouldn’t. Cage-busters see the classroom as a place of possibility, not a prison. Sometimes the cage-buster’s best bet is to find a role in which he can do his best work. Elliot Sanchez founded Louisiana’s mSchool, a tech startup providing computer-assisted math tutoring, after he taught and tried his hand at district and state roles. After all that, he says, “I felt like if I wanted to do my best work and make a real difference, I had to do it outside of the state and district system.” Cage-busters celebrate those who choose to seek new possibilities, inside or outside of the classroom.

Jason Kamras, chief of human capital for the DC Public Schools, started out teaching middle school math and in 2005 was named the National Teacher of the Year. What prompted him to leave the classroom? Kamras says, “I was able to do some very exciting things with 150 kids every year. But, as a classroom teacher, there’s a fairly finite impact you can have even when you’re really trying to innovate. There were things I wanted to change that I couldn’t from Room 112. So when a couple of cage-busting district leaders asked me to join them, I went for it.” Because they think in terms of possibilities, cage-busters are open to new opportunities when they arise.

EMERGE: Solving the “Getting Kids to College” Problem

As a fifth-grade teacher in Houston, Rick Cruz never intended to launch an initiative to help at-risk kids go to great colleges. But, as he watched his fifth graders enter middle school, he saw that he “had talented students who lacked the means or social capital to advance.” Cruz had gone to Yale and recalled talking to a colleague about what it had been like to be a minority student at an elite college. During their chat, he floated the idea of a program that “would identify students with stellar academic potential and prepare them to successfully apply to and persist in selective colleges.”

My mentor was the district’s chief academic officer [CAO]. I told him, “I have this idea of creating a program that would mirror what private consultants do for wealthy high achievers.” He set me up with a principal at a high school where I could run the program…Just being able to say, “The district’s CAO stands behind this,” opened doors. The principal was receptive, but told me he doubted we’d get 10 kids who were interested. Turns out we had 125 kids apply. When the principal saw that, he asked, “What’d you promise them?”

We selected 14 students for that first group. We started by introducing them to the schools out there. We explained to them that these schools have generous financial aid policies—that students can go if they get in, and that it’s usually cheaper to go to these private schools, with need-based aid, than to community college. Then something clicked.

EMERGE begins each year with a boot camp on how to write a personal statement and submit a strong college application. Students are mentored by graduates of selective schools and receive intensive SAT and ACT prep, visit college campuses, and get a feel for college life. The program starts with local colleges but, says Cruz, “We take students up to the Northeast, where they travel through Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Providence, and New Haven. They stay in the dorms at Columbia and Tufts and interact with students and professors at Harvard and Yale.” Within a year, Cruz’s initiative caught the eye of Houston superintendent Terry Grier (see “Still Reforming after All These Years,” interview, Fall 2014) who offered Cruz the chance to take the program districtwide.

Grier promoted Cruz to assistant superintendent for college readiness, allowing him to shift from a small nonprofit effort at a couple of schools to a role where he could help more than 200,000 students across 300 schools. At first, Cruz hesitated. “I was nervous about the internal politics. I knew I’d be really young and would be perceived as inexperienced. I also didn’t know whether I’d be able to operate as effectively within the constraints of a large bureaucracy.” Cruz told Grier his concerns. As Grier tells it, “I promised he’d have 100 percent support. I told him he’d have all the authority he’d need, with no boundaries, no bureaucracies. I said he wouldn’t hear the word ‘no.’” (Note that Cruz got this assurance before taking the job, when he still had leverage.)

Early on Cruz faced a massive bottleneck. He reported to a senior district official who was blowing him off. This went on for months, until Cruz bumped into Grier in a hallway and the superintendent asked how things were going. Grier told Cruz that, effective immediately, he’d be reporting directly to him and that there were no “noes.” Grier says, “The guy above Cruz was frustrated and jealous. Rick’s only mistake was to keep trying to work through channels rather than coming to me right away.” Then there is the seniority thing. Cruz wasn’t yet 30 when he was promoted. That can be a recipe for resentment. But, as Cruz says, “in a lot of professions you’re up or out before 30. A lawyer can be a partner in a big firm by 30.” The cages wrought by hierarchy and seniority are a mind-set, not an inevitability.

Cruz says, “We started off with just volunteers. Now we have five full-time program managers and are working in 14 high schools. We’ll be adding schools and students in the years to come. We’ve partnered with Yale for a summer EMERGE program.” In 2014 EMERGE graduated 63 seniors, each of whom was admitted to a school ranked in the top 100 nationally by U.S. News & World Report, and almost all were accepted by institutions promising to meet 100 percent of their financial need. EMERGE alums were accepted at Brown, Columbia, Harvard, Princeton, MIT, Stanford, and Yale, among others. Backed by Cruz’s team, the graduating class received over $250 million in scholarship and financial aid offers—a district record and an increase of more than $60 million from the year before.

LearnZillion: Solving the Teacher Isolation Problem

Eric Westendorf started teaching in Indonesia. On returning to the United States, he taught in New York and then North Carolina. After graduating from Stanford Business School, he served for five years as assistant principal, principal, and then CAO at E. L. Haynes, a Washington, D.C., charter school. Westendorf says, “We got to a place where we were doing all the things people write about. We were recruiting fantastic teachers. We had a culture of no excuses and high performance. We were collaborating outside of regular school hours. We were doing data-driven instruction. We were letting go those people who weren’t performing. But I still felt like we were a long way off. It came down to the fact that teachers, even in this collaborative environment, were mostly working in isolation.”

He tells of a terrific sixth-grade teacher who had a great technique for teaching division of fractions. As principal, he had time to see it, but his teachers didn’t. He says, “We paid lip service to observing one another, but we all had crazy schedules. So there was no way to really spread pedagogical content knowledge or routinely see the practice of colleagues. That’s where LearnZillion came from. The idea was to solve a problem. The problem was how teachers could more readily learn from their colleagues. I started by asking, ‘What if we could capture teacher expertise and share it with others in a simple way, where teachers don’t have to leave their classroom to see it?’”

With a former Stanford classmate, Westendorf built a Web portal where teachers could share materials, resources, and instructional videos for math and English language arts instruction in grades 2–12. He says, “We’d cobbled together Google Docs and YouTube videos so teachers could use that in their classrooms. What made the difference was that we had a minimally viable product. We won $250,000 from the Next Generation Learning Challenges and got started.” Today, LearnZillion offers thousands of Common Core–aligned lessons, along with instructional resources, “director’s cut” videos explaining the lessons, customizable materials, and more—all of which allow teachers to borrow and learn from talented colleagues.

Westendorf advises, “Don’t spend all your time dreaming up something ideal. Just try your idea. As soon as you do, you start learning stuff. I thought, at first, once I had teachers create a few lessons, it ought to be easy for them to churn out new ones. But no one created new lessons for a week. When I asked about it, they responded, ‘Of course, we didn’t. It’s because we’re ridiculously busy.’ It was helpful that I tried, failed, and learned that early on.”

In 2011 LearnZillion launched its first Dream Team. Each year LearnZillion selects 200 accomplished teachers to gather for TeachFest, three days of intense, collaborative lesson planning. The idea is to provide outstanding educators a chance to work with grade-level and content-area peers from across the nation, putting their best work together. Westendorf says, “What’s interesting is how many people came to us after the experience and said, ‘Oh, my God, it totally changed the way I think about myself as a teacher. The frustration was getting to me, but now, for the first time, I can really think of myself as a leader.’ These are people who are used to not getting recognized. One of our California teachers got tapped for the state commission on implementing the Common Core because she was on the Dream Team. One thing leads to another once you’re proactive. It starts with baby steps, but then it’s a bigger step and a bigger one.”

Westendorf says one of LearnZillion’s goals is to remind teachers that they’re professionals and should expect to be treated accordingly. With TeachFest, “we want it to be full of delight. We have them fill out a survey before they arrive, and we study those. While they’re in line at registration, we can approach them and say, ‘You must be Henry. That story you filled out about when you were six years old; that was amazing.’ It’s hard work, but it’s fun. We offered teachers the night off for a Ferris Bueller’s Day Off experience in Atlanta, but 60 chose to stay down in the basement room we had reserved to work on their lessons. It’s engaging, empowering work. When we wrap up, people are really jazzed. There are tears, even singing, and teachers saying, ‘This changed my life.’” This was a model that allowed great teachers to grow, connect, and have a national impact—all while remaining firmly planted in their classrooms.

Sure, Westendorf has left the classroom to tackle this problem. But a cage-buster would have a hard time suggesting that he’s left schools, teachers, or students behind.

Enriched: Solving the Substitute Teacher Problem

Andre Feigler recalls that she liked teaching in Louisiana’s St. Bernard Parish. “My administration was generally pretty supportive, though I never really felt like they were interested in my ideas about systematic changes.” One of these ideas was her belief that substitute teaching was a mess and could be dramatically improved. She says, “The substitute issue is something every teacher dreads. You worry that your class will be a [mess] when you get back. I’d spend so much time planning lessons, writing letters to my kids on the board. And then I’d still wind up leaving a movie and a busywork packet. They don’t get anybody until the last minute, so the subs weren’t prepared and they wouldn’t care.”

Feigler muses, “I never really said, ‘Let’s go to the principal and propose another system.’ Maybe I should have. But I never felt like she was looking for ideas or inviting discussion from teachers. I wish that part of our PD had been them asking, ‘What are the worst parts of your job? Why aren’t the kids learning? Bring two or three ideas next week about what we can do.’ But that wasn’t the approach my administration took.”

She admits that she “didn’t fully realize how the substitute system works. The secretary has this yellow pad, starts calling names, and gets someone to show up. It’s a scramble every morning.” She started just trying to learn more about how it worked in different systems. “I asked everyone I could find, ‘How does it work in your school? What’s the worst part about this for you?’ I talked to finance managers, operations people, HR directors, instructional coaches…As long as I approached it like, ‘I want to learn from you, because here’s something that might make life better for everybody,’ people were pretty willing to share.” Along the way, Feigler learned that the problem was even more significant than she’d known—that schools spend $4 billion a year on subs.

She says, “I talked to a teacher at KIPP who told me that the hardest thing was having to cover someone else’s class once a week. They rely on internal coverage at a lot of the charter schools. It was his number one frustration. He’d told KIPP he was thinking of leaving if they didn’t figure that out, that teachers were burning out. He invited me to meet with his administration. I probably said 10 words at that meeting, because he was making the case for me.”

She launched a venture called Enriched. The first step was figuring out exactly what her solution was. She says the key was getting concrete: “Who’s the user here? Is it the teacher or the office manager? How much will they pay for this? It helped me turn it into a workable model.” When meeting with schools, “I usually don’t need to tell them a lot. Schools already know how much of a headache this is, so what’s most effective is when I say, ‘I have a hunch you have this problem,’ and then they jump in to say, ‘Yes, we really do,’ and ‘Can you help?’”

Enriched provides carefully vetted, trained subs who can teach well or who offer a unique experience. Feigler says, “We have accomplished local poets, artists, and authors. Our pool is 75 percent African-American. So we offer something special. The proof is really in the pudding for the schools, but what makes us distinct is recruitment. We target presence. We want subs who can walk in and own the room. That’s the main thing. But we also seek teaching experience and people native to the community. Then we work on preparation and training, take feedback seriously, and try to take care of our network of educators.” Feigler’s tale is a nice case of looking with fresh eyes at an old problem that often gets taken for granted, and then devising a solution to suit.

There is much that teachers can do right now, today. But there are also real limits to what teachers can do in roles, classrooms, and schools designed for the world of a century ago. These structures can limit the ability of teachers to make the best use of their talents or to reimagine stifling routines.

If changes are called for, they can be difficult to pursue within an isolated classroom, or even within an existing school or system. That’s why cage-busters sometimes push beyond those four walls. Following such a course should be neither a first choice nor a last resort. As always, it should be a question of a teacher pursuing the path that she thinks will yield the kinds of schools and classrooms equal to their own ambitions.

Frederick M. Hess is director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute and author of The Cage-Busting Teacher (Harvard Education Press, April 2015). 

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