Cage-Busting 201: Case Study and Wrap-Up

May 19th, 2015

Category: News, Policy and Practice, Student-Centered Learning


Welcome back—today marks the thrilling conclusion of our cage-busting teacher series!

With the release of Rick Hess’ book The Cage-Busting Teacher in April, we’re in the midst of a series spotlighting Rodel Teacher Council members’ reactions to the book. Council members Robyn Howton and Tim Brewer joined me to chat about cage-busting and what they want Delaware teachers to know about Rick’s book. We asked Robyn and Tim to read chapter three of Rick’s book, titled “Managing Up,” and have a conversation with us about it. Today we’re sharing the third and final part of that conversation. Check here, here, and here for the earlier posts in this series.


Hess’ book features an anecdote from Tim Brewer, a member of the inaugural Rodel Teacher Council. The piece highlights how Tim got the principal on his side as he made the shift to a blended learning classroom. Here is the piece, and some comments from Robyn and Tim below.

“Timothy Brewer teaches high school at St. George’s Technical High School in Middletown, Delaware. For nearly two decades, Brewer has been frustrated by how little time science students spend actually doing science. He says, “A lot of science teaching is, ‘I’m going to stand up here and tell you stuff and every three weeks we’re going to do a lab.’ To master something, you have to practice it. I’d heard for years that kids can’t get density. Well, yeah, if they only do it once. They can if you do it fifteen times.” To free up time for lab work, Brewer restructured his course and moved routine instruction online. He says, “I told my principal that we’re working on twenty-first-century skills. She said, ‘Show me what the hell you think that means.’” He showed her what he had in mind. She told him, “Okay, as long as they’re learning academic content, I’m open to it.” So Brewer, “showed her the rubric, how it maps to the standards, the content kids would learn, the project requirements… Then she looked at me and said, ‘Go for it.’” The deal included the principal bending a firm rule and allowing Brewer’s students to listen to music in class. Brewer recalls the principal visiting his classroom, “And I saw the kids trying to pull the earbuds out of their ears without her seeing. She walked up to one kid and asked him, ‘Did Mr. Brewer say to put those on?’ The kid was scared and kind of nodded. She looked at him and said, ‘Then put them back in.’” In winning over the principal rather than working around her, Brewer made sure that his classroom culture would be reinforced by the school leadership.”

Robyn Howton: I enjoyed reading about Tim’s conversation with his principal. The music issue struck a real chord with me. We have a “no cell phones” policy—that is, “no cell phones except for education.” Since we “blend” all the time in my room, we can now use cell phones at will.

Rachel Wiggans Chan: Did you (either you personally or with other teachers in the building) have to push to get that policy changed, Robyn?

RH: Well, my normal mode is to do what is best for kids until someone tells me I can’t. When my admin questioned the cell phones, I grabbed a kid’s and showed him Schoology on it. I got a smile and “that’s great.” We’d made the allowance for educational purposes the year before so kids could look up words online. I just helped expand the idea of what types of educational activities are possible. Now the issue is more with teachers who don’t use any technology. Kids are so used to be able to look things up on their phones they don’t understand teachers who are unwilling to let them use that tool.

Tim Brewer: I had the same issue in my school and we had to change the policy. It got to be such an issue that I had to stand up in a faculty meeting and ask the teachers to raise their hands if they were on their phone during the meeting. I then reminded them that we are teaching people and technology is part of society, so we need to teach our students how to properly use that technology.

RWC: So Tim, what happened as a result of you standing up in that faculty meeting? How does the story end?

TB: Several of the other teachers showed their approval by standing up with me, so the admin implemented a pilot (test run at the end of the year). Ever since that point, students may use their cell phones for educational reasons in class.

* * *

Tim and Robyn had great perspectives on how using technology in their classrooms has required them to manage up with administrators in their buildings, as well as manage laterally to encourage their fellow teachers to try new things. To sum things up, we asked Robyn and Tim to share their advice with peers as a result of what they read in Hess’ book. Take a look at their responses:

Rachel Wiggans Chan: If you two could pass on a message to Delaware teachers who feel stuck in “the cage” what would you want to say to them, based on your experiences and your reading of this chapter? Is there anything you would want them to think about/be encouraged by, or advice you would give them?

Tim Brewer: I was just having this conversation today with some administrators about how much stuff is going on with education and how everyone seems to have a hand in it. We (teachers) who are on the front line need to stand up and be counted and weigh in on the major issues. Hess reinforces this throughout this chapter, and he does in a very low-key manner and I think that is the best part of this book.

Robyn Howton: You are only stuck if you let yourself be stuck. Within every building in every district are other educators who want to provide our students with the best possible education. If there is a policy that needs to be changed, a rule that needs to be rewritten, or an idea worthy of being tried, speak up! Find another teacher to bounce your ideas off of and then approach the most receptive administrator in your building. If you feel “the cage” in your district is too strong to do that, get involved in a larger network of teachers, like RTC, or volunteer for something like BRINC. The more you interact with other professionals, the easier it becomes to find support in breaking out of cages. For me, my network of RTC and BRINC teachers from other districts have provided motivation and a network of peers to imagine a better way of educating my students. I have then been able to find like-minded teachers in my building and start to create change.

TB: I think I would also tell them to realize being a teacher requires you to be many things and no one knows everything. So listen, ask questions, and observe as much as you can when starting out and throughout your career. Do not be afraid of being wrong, and realize the cage that you think is there is your own distorted reality, which you can change.

RH: Being an educator is much more than taking a curriculum and going to a classroom and shutting the door. Even teachers who don’t want to get involved in larger scale groups should take advantage of their PLC, grade level, or department group to think outside the box and find ways to provide our students with the power of being an educated citizen.

* * *

Thanks to Robyn and Tim for spending some time with me chatting about their experiences and what they have learned about cage-busting. Let us know what you think and how you have busted cages in your school in the comments!

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Rachel Wiggans Chan



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