Book Review of "The Cage-Busting Teacher" by Frederick M. Hess
Tuesday, November 17, 2015
Posted by: Christina Mimms
Reviewed by Leah Slawson, English Teacher, Trinity Presbyterian School, Montgomery, AL
At first glance, the value of Frederick Hess’ book, The Cage-Busting Teacher, for the independent school educator may not be as obvious as it should be. Though I agreed with his presuppositions that “routines, rules, and habits that exhaust teachers’ time and energy” become cages to keep us from having influence beyond the classroom, and that policy-makers, though well-intentioned, further create cages by often setting “inane demands” and rewarding “good work with more work,” I was initially distracted by the numerous examples from public education regarding the layers of administration and bureaucracy teachers must navigate to affect change. I found myself thinking how the lean model of independent school administration makes our job as teachers much easier and our opportunities for creativity, innovation, and leadership much greater.
But our jobs are not easy and we do need this book! We don’t all have the courage, freedom, resources, and strategies to lead beyond our classrooms. We, too, work in “cages,” often of tradition or lore and sometimes of our own making. Reading further and with an essential question of “What does this look like for me, a teacher in an independent school?” I became deeply interested and more enthusiastic about what he has to say. Hess offers some practical concrete strategies for how to fly out of that cage and lead in our schools for the good of our students.
Hess’ third chapter, Managing Up was among my favorites. Anyone with any business background will recognize the salesmanship and customer service techniques and will appreciate the two pages devoted to a bullet point summary of Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People. I found myself repeatedly annotating, scribbling the words empathy and coalition in the margins of this chapter. Perhaps my own upside-down experience of being a former board member at the school where I am now teaching has to do with why I found myself agreeing with Hess so much in this chapter, but the principles of asking how (not can) we solve problems, of finding consensus and then building coalitions to work together, and of having solutions to offer before one poses the questions to authority are all sound business practices that have a place in the role of a classroom teacher. Hess delves further into how to deal with policy makers in chapter 4, his most enticing subtitle being Policy Favors Those Who Are Prepared. My years on a school board taught me that institutional change is often like turning an aircraft carrier around — it doesn’t happen quickly; but when it happens, teachers should be ready to launch their initiatives — reiterating the importance of what Hess has said in chapter three.
Hess deals with teacher unions, which seem of little use to many independent school teachers, but taking a broad view, there is some solid advice and inspiration for us under the heading Contracts Can Be More Flexible Than You Think. Hess further proposes we “rethink the job” when it comes to traditional teaching if that model hinders excellence. Borrowing analogies from the medical field, he shows how specialization and creative use of volunteers can free up teachers to focus on their own areas of expertise. He also suggests “hybrid roles” which allow good teachers to remain in the classroom but take on new responsibilities as well. Many independent schools have long since figured this out, necessity being the mother of invention. What is beneficial in this part of the book is his citation of Public Impact’s Bryan Hassel, Emily Hassel, and Sharon Barrett’s Five New Models of the Teaching Job.
Finally, the eighth chapter is near the third in usefulness to the independent school teacher. Hess ends his book with perhaps what we most need to be good educators – inspiration to be courageous. He deals with the practical matters (and sometimes the fallout) of being passionate with patience, professional in the face of achievement and sometimes-ensuing jealousy from colleagues, and productive rather than pushing too far with the principal. He concludes this chapter with Ten Tips for Cage-Busters, a list worth returning to regularly for a shot of courage and a quick review of what you’ve read.
Hess’ book is arranged into eight chapters, each with five to 15 subheadings, making it easy to approach and pick up and put down, which is a plus for busy educators. Even better are the seven appendices, which elevate the book from a mere motivational and inspiring read to a resource book one will return to repeatedly. A quick summary of each chapter, a glossary of terms, a list of teacher voice organizations, a list of fellowships and leadership opportunities, resources for rethinking the professions and AFT and NEA initiatives, along with summary, commentary, and websites for each of these make the book a go-to long after the first read. The most impressive appendix is the last, which provides questions for further thought based on the content of the eight chapters. This could be an excellent professional development resource for an entire faculty if the book were used as a faculty summer read or semester read and groups could meet to discuss and explore the ideas together.
The Cage-Busting Teacher is an accessible, practical read. Despite the copious amount of examples from the public school system, with a little imagination and reflection, it’s not hard to see how applicable it can be to any educator looking for advice on how to lead beyond the classroom.
Leah Slawson teaches AP Language and Composition and serves as mentor teacher to new hires in the upper school at Trinity Presbyterian School in Montgomery, AL. Follow her on Twitter @lmslawson or read her blog.