Cage-Busting 201: Classroom Observation Case Study

May 12th, 2015

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


Welcome back to 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 part three of the series. Check here and here for part 1 and part 2 in this series.


In The Cage-Busting Teacher, Hess recaps one of his 2013 conversations with the Rodel Teacher Council, and how in his mind, they proved themselves to be cage-busters.

Here’s the story, and some thoughts from Robyn and Tim below:

In Delaware, the Rodel Teacher Council had raised questions about the state’s new teacher evaluation system, asking whether administrators overwhelmed by mandated observations and removed from the classroom would provide the most informed or useful feedback. Several council members had asked school or system leaders about the idea of teachers doing some of the observations. They were told that the state only allowed administrators to do observations or that it would be an onerous process to get a teacher certified as an observer.

Then the teachers had a chance to sit down with Christopher Ruszkowski, head of the Teacher Leader Effectiveness Unit at the Delaware Department of Education. Ruszkowski recalls visiting with them: “When they started saying, ‘I wish, I wish, I wish,” I jumped up and said, ‘You can!’ We’d heard feedback that teachers wanted peer observers. They wanted some of their observations done by people who knew their content and classrooms better than the administrators did.” Seeing this as a good idea, the state board of education approved a pathway to allow for credentialed observers who are not administrators.

Ruszkowski says, “All you need to do is have the district submit your name and then complete six one-hour online modules to become familiar with the system. You can do them in an afternoon with a book open on your lap. Then the teacher does a training workshop on the teacher evaluation and—voila!—you’d be good to go. And this is for the formal state observations. For informal observations, they don’t need anything at all.” The council’s coordinator recalls that the reaction among the teachers was, “Whoa, we didn’t know that!”

… All along, these Delaware teachers had the power they sought. They just didn’t know it. That’s why you need to look around for that curtain and then give it a good, hard tug. What you decide to do after that is up to you.

Let’s hear what Robyn and Tim had to say about the Rodel Teacher Council’s conversation with Christopher Ruszkowski.

Robyn Howton: The greatest need for cage-busting in education may be within our faculties. I mentioned to a few teachers in various settings that we can do peer observations and have been surprised by their responses. Younger teachers were on board and excited about having some of the veteran teachers observe them. The teachers from about 10 years experience and up were generally suspicious and pushed back.

Tim Brewer: That’s interesting, because when I asked my department about starting informal walkthroughs, they said they wouldn’t mind another teacher coming through on the condition that they would get feedback from it.

RH: The teachers who seemed opposed are teachers I think are uncomfortable with opening their doors and coming out of their rooms so to speak… They are comfortable in “the cage” and don’t want to test the bars.

Rachel Wiggans Chan: So how has your experience with walkthroughs gone, Tim? Have people been receptive to having you conduct their walkthroughs?

TB: The walkthroughs are really going well, I am able to talk with department members about specific things they are doing and go further in depth around the science concept the teacher is trying to teach. I am really interested in applying for the formal observation certification Christopher told us about.

RH: Tim, I think your personality and people skills would play a role in your department’s willingness to have you walk through. You are trusted and will give excellent feedback. Unfortunately, that isn’t always the case.

TB: Thanks, Robyn. But you do make a good point—the people who do these walkthroughs really need to know their role and content. I think the best people would be those with a coach’s philosophy: “I am talking to you as an individual, but I am doing this for the sake of the entire team of teachers.”

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Have you had a similar experience of not realizing that all along you had the power/ability to bring about the change you were seeking? Or have you ever felt so comfortable in “the cage” that stepping outside it was daunting? Let us know in the comments!

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Rachel Wiggans Chan