So, speaking of ASCD's Educational Leadership, I happened to recently read an article written for The Principalship issue from April 2013. The article is titled, "Be a Cage-Buster." I had initially skipped over this article because I wasn't a great fan of the author, Frederick M. Hess. I honestly don't remember what it was that caused me to start skipping over articles by Hess in the first place. So, that statement is not a personal or professional judgement of Hess. I do not know him personally or professionally. (I'd love to meet him and pick his brain, though). I just wanted to give a bit of background as to why I am just now reading an article from 2013.
Anyway, I am glad that I decided to go back and reread this issue. I am also glad that I decided not to skip over this article this time. I am in a different place as a professional than I was almost four years ago, which definitely makes me more open to Hess' message of "cage-busting."
Here's a quick summary of the article:
Hess tells a story of working with educators on a problem-solving activity where the majority of participants focus on following the instructions rather than actually solving the problem. He talks about how occasionally a group will blast right past the instructions (routines, assumptions, etc.) to come up with an innovative solution.
He describes the two complementary roles of leadership: the coaching/mentoring role and the cage-busting role. Cage-busting is also a mind-set, which leaders cultivate. It is often hampered by colleagues who are used to being caged as well as experts who claim to already know what is needed. This mind-set requires approaching an idea with curiosity and an open mind. It requires avoiding three leadership traps:
The Platitudes Trap- sticking to trite generalities that promote bland thought processes, valuing things like consensus, coherence, and professional growth
The "Sucks Less" Trap- copying modestly better performers because they "suck less," following the tendency to mimic their moderate success rather than build upon it
The "More, Better" Trap- assuming that more things will lead to improvements, "the more the better" thinking
It is important to note that Hess does not discount the importance of valuing things like consensus, coherence, and professional growth. He contrasts these with the importance of things like competition and high expectations. Those things are important in many ways as well. He writes that all of these things can conflict in messy ways. He also notes the importance of studying modestly better performers and admits to the need for schools to have resources.
He writes about how excuses love ambiguity. Therefore, it is imperative that leaders know exactly what problems they are trying to solve and what success would look like. He says that the excuses we make for not achieving our goals shrink when we actually begin to scrutinize them.
This article is free on the ASCD website. I highly recommend you check it out.
Now, here are my thoughts:
After reading this article, I think I have a better idea of what Hess has been talking about when he writes about "cage-busting." I was under the impression at one point that this concept was about educators working miracles in the face of serious challenges, at all costs and without excuses. I really kind of thought it was reform-y, privatization-speak initially. So, the concept is a little about educators working miracles in the face of serious challenges, at all costs and without excuses. However, Hess isn't (at least in this specific article) advocating for funding cuts and doing all of these things without supports, wrap-around services, or other resources.
This article helped me understand "cage-busting" as a leadership mind-set. The concepts in the article about not getting trapped in the game by following the rules for the sake of following the rules really stand out to me. The rules ARE important, but I think leaders have to be able to critically think about their decisions. They have to burst out of the systemic cage by being innovative. I have been really giving a lot of consideration to what it means to work within a system but to also be innovative within that system. It might really be about making the system work for people and not the other way around. I like thinking about things like this. I'm sure this article will be on my mind for awhile as I continue to think about how the concept of "cage-busting" applies to what I do.
Here's my final thought on the article and the reason I wrote this post:
The arts are all about "cage-busting." Art teachers do this all of the time. Art teachers are artists and critical thinkers who are constantly reinventing processes based on reflection and feedback. We use this to design instruction, and we teach it to our students. Arts education is VALUABLE for this reason and many others. It is also worth noting that this is a major reason why art teachers make great leaders within their schools and systems. They emerge organically as leaders and also fill formal leadership roles. The "cage-busting" mindset is a natural part of an artist's way of thinking and is crucial to leadership. All organizations should embrace this, especially school organizations. The most successful ones most certainly do!
I cannot conclude this post without mentioning some work that I did with the Network for Public Education and the National Education Association. In 2014, I helped write a report for NEA called Changing the Story: Transformation toward Fair Accountability and Responsibility in Public Education. I went to Washington, D.C. to present this report to senior NEA staff. Then, I worked on a project with NPE where we explored Authentic Teacher Voice. I presented at the NPE Conference in 2015 in Chicago with a few other educators (Anthony Cody, Nancy Kunsman, Joy Peters, and Petra Schmid- Riggins, Ed D.)). Our presentation was called, Emerging from the Invisible Cage: Safeguarding Authentic Teacher Voice. I wore a shirt with birds emerging from a cage on it to the presentation. Then, in 2016, I helped develop and write another report for NPE called Teachers Talk Back: Educators on the Impact of Teacher Evaluation. We also started a Facebook group called Authentic Teacher Voice. You really should go join and contribute to that group. It is a place where educators can authentically discuss the field of education.
You wanna talk about bursting out of a cage? Teachers talking about what impacts their students and their profession. Teachers collaborating while being open, honest and transparent. THAT is cage-busting.
I am super proud to have been a part of these things. I hope this type of work is having a positive impact on the profession and the lives of students and teacher (all human beings to be exact). My friend, Anthony Cody, always reminds me of a saying that his mother taught him: "We have the strength of ten because our hearts are pure." I mentioned this because it is important to the concept of "cage-busting" and because I truly hope you will read these works. They are highly relevant to this profession. If we want to make a difference, we will consider these topics thoughtfully. We can always keep going in our work because our hearts are pure and our minds are engaged.
As always, I welcome comments. I value kindness in conversation and constructive feedback!
We have the strength of ten. We are making a difference. We matter!
Have a merry week my friends...and keep cage-busting you magnificent art teachers!