NB: I’ve been away for about a month. Now I’m back to continue exploring the crabs-in-the-cage phenomenon in our schools. Join the conversation. 


Sometimes, when I reflect on the crabs-in-a-cage phenomenon, I understand why we teachers stay there, as we face constant public scrutiny and criticism. Everyone, it seems, has opinions about teaching. When the economy tanks, we are often blamed, but when it thrives we remain invisible. When budgets tighten, we suffer. When state test scores drop, we hear criticism. When parents see problems, they talk as if they know how to fix us; after all, they attended school and believe they know everything about education. And if an administrator does not like what we do, he can make life miserable to the point where we want to quit, and we sometimes do. We find it frustrating when others do not appreciate the complexities of what we do every day. Sticking together helps to assure survival.

In the end, however, this mentality fails to serve us—and ultimately our students. If the accepted culture in a school, for example, advocates that teachers lecture and give quizzes, tests, and papers as the primary assessments, those who want to teach differently will feel resistance. Traditional teachers may express displeasure by calling alternative methods “progressive” or risky. Good students may resist because they do not want to change how they do school, as they have mastered earning As by memorizing for tests and writing thoughtless formulaic essays. This mediocrity helps explain why colleges have remedial reading and writing centers. And, it confirms why many students become bored and drop out.

Principals who taught as sages-on-the-stage prefer quiet, orderly classrooms with teachers in front. They also prefer to establish good relationships throughout the building and not to rock the boat. By staying out of classrooms, except for the required scheduled observations and evaluations (which everyone knows are dog-and-pony shows) many principals unwittingly support the crabs-in-the-cage-mentality.

Some principals, however, challenge restrictive school cultures and union contracts. They advocate, for example, walkthroughs, learning walks, or mini-observations—somewhat analogous to hospital grand rounds—where principals and teachers make quick visits to classrooms and provide feedback. These approaches offer promise for breaking through the closed culture of isolated classrooms. In schools using walkthroughs, teachers appreciate the feedback once they trust its intentions. And principals appreciate it, as well, as they learn what actually happens in classrooms.

Ultimately, this crabs-in-the-cage mentality puts a stranglehold on improving teaching. We need to take responsibility, instead, for teaching at our best. We need to remember, too, we are the single most important factor for improving instruction. If we decide to stay on the floor of the cage and agree to conform, we will be committing malpractice.

As author Steven Pressfield writes, “The highest treason that a crab can commit is to make a leap for the rim of the bucket.” We need to make this leap every day.

For more on this crucial issue see Chapter 12 “Abandon the Crabs in the Cage” in Teaching from the Middle of the Room: Inviting students to Learn from Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Teaching-Middle-Room-Frank-Thoms/dp/0615358918.