Back to the Future 1

Back to the Future 1 – personal reflections on my visit to Michaela Community School

What is a teacher from the north of England, living about as far from a free school as it’s possible to live, going to do when in London on a school day? Visit Michaela, of course. I wanted to see for myself what the fuss was about regarding the values and methods of this young school.

I’ve often said that I’d love to be starting my teaching career again. I’d make different choices, go down one of the newer routes that are available now to graduates looking for a career in secondary education. Yesterday, for the first time in a long time, I found myself wanting to turn the clock back further. If I could start year 7 all over again, (and had the option of doing it in Brent, which I would never even have heard of when I was an 11 year old in Lincolnshire…) I’d start it at Michaela Community School.

At 11, I needed and loved structure, organisation and order. I was the kid who ran her own bedroom library and issued books to dolls and teddies, complete with tickets, a membership log and a catalogue. It mattered to me that everything slotted into its proper place, at the proper time and for the right reasons. It all added up to a type of security that I valued and enjoyed – maybe not for everybody – and it’s the same sort of security at Michaela. Expectations are super clear. Time is used efficiently, every part of the day is a learning experience and the self-control and good manners that are perpetually encouraged in each individual serve to propel the whole school through the day in a positive frame of mind.

Routines at Michaela – a school still less than two years old, remember – are solidly embedded into the running order of the school day. These have been commented on elsewhere, so I’m not going to relay every detail. The important factor from my point of view was that the routines that were most visible were actually the most useful, and they were there to enhance learning. Some routines serve to pace an ‘admin’ activity, such as when gluing a sheet into an exercise book; some serve to signal transition points in lessons, or to ensure that a short discussion returned smoothly to the main topic. With many of these routines though, came gentle reminders, quiet prompts or a clear simple gesture. It wasn’t overbearing. It really wasn’t. It was efficient and made it clear what the children needed to be doing at that point.

Gaining factual knowledge, and remembering it, feature highly at Michaela. I’m one of those people who teaches things to kids. Often not even in my own class. In fact, I don’t even have to be in a school, let alone my own school. Give me a child, and we talk about stuff, and I see my role as an adult as being about helping them learn. That might be learning, experientially, in the moment – “what would happen if you tipped that into there?” – or it might be something away from the child’s direct realm of experience – “why do grown ups go to work?” – but whatever it is, I like the child to have grown in some way as a result. I probably will have done, too. At Michaela, I explained some of the poetry of G M Hopkins to my year 8 guide, and she questioned me about the context in which he had been writing. I discussed the use of animalistic similes in chapter one of Of Mice and Men with some year 7s, and encouraged them to remember the quotations we highlighted. It was great to be able to converse with children who held in their memories a tapestry of increasing complexity, colour and intricacy, representing some important cultural milestones.

Lunchtime conversation threaded through different topics, centring on the day’s theme of ‘rumours’. I listened as the children talked through various hypothetical situations. At the point where they seemed to need more of a framework to hang their thoughts on, I introduced the word ‘verify’ to them, leading into more talk about words sharing the same origins. The Michaela staff and pupils call this ‘family lunch’ and that’s how it felt. It was like a meal we’d have at home, with adults shaping and reinforcing where needed, and children chatting and exploring ideas, asking questions, finding exceptions and then moving into a new cycle of enquiry. Ours ended up with a discussion about rumours and truth, which led to truth and narrative, and whether narrative worlds could collide.

It was when a point of speculation was reached regarding a Harry Potter/Star Wars hybrid, that the dining hall was called to order, with a simple raised hand signal, and appreciations began. A handful of children were selected to offer a simple message of gratitude to another person or group in the school community. A swift double clap reflects the whole group’s acknowledgement, and off we were in to the next. With each child, something was happening beyond surface appearances. My table had also been discussing the appreciations they might offer as they’d been eating together. One boy supported another, helping him with the vocabulary he might use. Another encouraged a friend to speak a little more loudly so that people could hear him properly. Some of the children selected were ‘first timers’ in speaking to their whole year group and this development was recognised too.

Learning really matters at Michaela, and every single minute really matters for learning. We hear a lot these days about teaching to the point of liminality, of spacing and interleaving, of working memory and long-term memory – and we also hear about deep learning and analytical thinking and  independence. I saw all of these in the many lessons I observed, and not just in the content that was being delivered, but equally in the manner in which it was organised and presented. Many of the potential pitfalls that could occur are just eliminated from the teaching equation…kids don’t lose their places when reading, as they always keep a ruler under the words, and lines are numbered to enable reading to recommence after a quick question and answer session. These are simple shortcuts, the sort that a parent might use with their children, to keep to the family to deadlines and keep the clutter organised.

I saw plenty of lessons on my visit. I was allowed to go anywhere and everywhere – thanks to headmistress Ms Katharine Birbalsingh for this. I saw two maths, two English, two French, one history and one music lesson, lunch break time in the yard and a calm and friendly mealtime. I was due to be picked up at 2, but had I been able to stay longer, I’d have been on the brink of offering to take a class or some form tutor time.

If I ever go back, I will.

Teachers, sans frontieres

From January 2015

One profession. Together.

As teachers, we are many things to many people, and we do many things for many people: we’re lesson-planners, reference-writers, peace-keepers, attention-demanders, support-givers, peer-coaches, resource-creators, corridor-patrollers, skill-assessors, development-encouragers. We’re the devil’s advocate in that niggly departmental meeting, the arbitration service between testy parents, we’re life coaches for the angst-ridden and reality-checkers in the face of new management initiatives. Many of us, in addition to the satisfaction of watching the progress of our own pupils, contribute to the development of staff peers and gain enormous satisfaction from working in partnerships. Some teachers seem tireless in their enthusiasm to offer assistance, resources, time and emotional support to other teachers just because they are teachers. Because they care about teaching.

And yet the extent to which there is both the need for peer support, and personal investment in order to offer it, can sometimes be humbling. A couple of days ago, this appeal came through the twittersphere


…and a while ago I noticed this update, among others…


Here’s a situation where an acute shortage of teaching staff could seriously jeopardise children’s opportunities, and where busy, yet selfless, people with skill and compassion, have come together to chip away at a pressing problem.

In other circumstances, teachers are often pushed into defensive positions. PRP and the culture of punishing target-setting might cause us to shut down, guard our own ideas for fear they benefit someone else at our expense. League tables and local comparisons, fear for our reputations and competition for pupils, might lead each school’s teachers into territoriality and ivory towers. Yet time and again, we see commitment to Teachmeets, partnerships, alliances, subject groups or special interest Saturday conferences. Teachers are givers. Teachers say thank you. Teachers are committed to the collective improvement of learning and opportunity for the benefit of all young people in a community, not merely to their own status or results.

In recent years, education has become increasingly fragmented. Some schools are still schools, while some are colleges; some are academies, free-standing or chain-linked like daisies; some schools are ‘free’, some ‘controlled’; some aided and some independent. Some fell away from Local Authorities, some were pushed; some select few and some select all. It would be easy, given the numerous boundaries and barriers between us, to build up our guard, to resent the comments of those from different contexts or to reject offers of collaboration from those with different experiences.  It would be understandable to proclaim that we couldn’t come together to support each other’s different priorities. In the midst of the fragmentation of the system, is the teacher. Teaching itself, purpose-driven, lesson by lesson, pupil by pupil, binds us, sans frontiers.

Often at our individual best when we work together, often most productive when resources are limited, most ingenious when restrained, teachers create and inhabit their professionalism every day. Teaching is an art and an abstraction – it is based on fine relationships yet grounded in a reality of snot, red pen and exam results. Teaching is a partnership of differences with a central aim. Teaching is collegiate.

Maybe there is a need for one organisation – a College of Teaching – to be able to stand for us all, regardless of political, procedural or pedagogic divisions, to support us to nurture each other and encourage us all, in spite of conflicting claims on our time and attention, to keep the teaching at the heart of what we do.

One profession, together.


The Thing with a College of Teaching – Part One

It’s the teaching that’s the issue for me; the college must support the teaching; the teaching comes first

I’m wondering about people. People are precious, and teachers as people are even more precious because so much rests on their effectiveness. But teachers are fallible and can make mistakes; they’re less effective at some times than others and sometimes (I would argue throughout their careers) they need nurturing so that they can continue to develop. Very few, if any, teachers can be 100% effective 100% of the time. But many, hopefully most, make really positive contributions to the lives, learning and opportunities of young people.

A College of Teaching needs to be made up of teachers – real teachers. By this I mean teachers who teach regular timetabled lessons to classrooms of children, and who are deemed accountable for results. These are the teachers who understand what teaching is currently all about. Yes, there will be many others who will have a role, valuable roles, in an ‘associate’ capacity, but a College of Teaching for teachers, to teachers, by teachers, must be made up of teachers. At the level of the organisation of the Colleg, this in itself is going to need the cooperation of schools – secondments are likely to be needed to enable these teachers to take time to train, travel, attend meetings, visit other school, devise training events, generate communications, etc, etc. I’d love this sort of position – what a great job, and all that. But no. This sort of role shouldn’t be someone’s forever job. Real teachers are needed back in the classroom when they have done their College stint. And times change. The teacher who has remained in the classroom while I was out of it will now be in a better position to advise me – so we’d need to keep these positions fluid.

Currently the issue of teacher workload is, rightly, being debated at all levels. Real teachers do not, however, need to debate this – it’s a reality – and let’s face it, they probably don’t have the time. I’m a terrible advert for work-life balance…but out of choice because my teaching is effectively my hobby as well. No joke, I am a total education junkie/geek/whatever you will. I have looked up the term dates in other counties, and visited school when they’re open and we were on holiday. I am that school nerd. But I would not in a million years expect a normal real teacher to engage in this sort of craziness! It’s often said that ‘great’ teachers “go the extra mile”, putting on early morning, Saturday, after school and holiday classes. I take issue with this – the hours that we work are already open-ended and increasing – the expectation that it still isn’t enough actually offends me.

A College of Teaching needs to campaign for realistic workload. Most teachers, effective, hardworking real teachers, work about 60 hours a week. That’s a week and a half’s normal ‘work’. So for the 40 weeks or so of a school year (keeping the numbers rounded for ease, I admit) means we work about 60 weeks’ worth a year, and that’s with no holidays, bank Holidays, etc. Many teachers are permanently shattered. Family life does suffer. There are two or three main issues here. One is the ‘diktat’ issue – teachers having to repeatedly jump through new hoops because ‘somebody’ has decreed a new requirement. A second is contact hours, and linked to that pupil numbers – for every class, there is planning, resourcing etc, which takes time. Then there’s the marking and assessment time – x minutes per child, multiplied by the number of children in the group. You can tell me class size doesn’t affect pupil outcomes – try telling that to teachers of  GCSE English classes with 32 compared to a GCSE ‘option’ class with 16. Whose marking would you rather be doing? Is this teacher working twice as hard to ensure pupil outcomes? Is this right/fair/changeable? A College of Teaching needs to look at this.

Accountability and performance management are very real and very necessary parts of school life. A new teacher builds on observation feedback, develops their practice to new targets and steadily progresses up both the pay scale and the ladder of expertise. Focus on their development is fairly intense. Individual teachers, line managers, senior leaders all have a part to play and all have a stake in this teacher’s success. And then the input, in some schools, starts to fizzle out. Some schools or academies put a lot of thought into long-term teacher and teaching development. They use UPS status as a way of ensuring teaching discussion happens in school. They aim to keep things fresh without them becoming a treadmill.

A College of Teaching needs to investigate and coordinate the dissemination of best practice here. This needs to be thorough and wide-reaching. Training schools were excellent in developing great CPD schedules which impacted on learning, but they weren’t always the best in sharing this work, except among other Training Schools. Teaching Schools in more recent years have taken a step closer to engage in real partnerships, but are patchy in geographical terms. Then there are so many other systems happening – there’s ResearchEd and lesson study systems, there are teachmeets, commercial CPD providers, there’s Teacher Development Trust and many, many, many more – senior leaders’ and subject leaders’ networks, SLEs, National College projects, university research…. A College of Teaching needs to act as a hub, and perhaps a collator of all this work. We are all judged on the same Standards, so should all have access to the same routes to improvement.

Then there are schools. I can see a role for a College. I can see plenty of teachers wanting to be involved. What I’m not so sure about – perhaps because I’m not a senior – is how school organisation fits in. It’s another aspect of partnership that needs to be looked at. In places which set their own pay and conditions, can the recommendations of a College work in the same way as in any other school? A College of Teaching needs to be clear about what its power and remit can be, and will need to work WITH, but not be part of, government, unions, etc. Its aim must always be to protect the long-term interests and status of the teaching profession, while at the same time contributing to the quality and effectiveness of those teachers.

The challenges of the job itself are ever changing. Hardly a week goes by without a News feature beginning with “Schools should teach….” – usually something to do with gardening, pornography awareness, road safety – adding to the list of demands teachers and schools face. These tend to alternate with “Schools are failing to…” stories – and they focus on our performance in PISA rankings, or other perceived inadequacies. Encouraging negative public perceptions in this way does nothing for the morale of teachers who are already struggling to keep up with ongoing real demands such as changing curriculum planning and delivery, changing assessment characteristics and purposes, changing practices regarding children with different social or educational needs.  A College of Teaching needs to face the media and stand up for teachers who are being pulled in so many different directions, to focus on what pupils, and communities, actually need from teachers and schools, not just what is needed to make the world a better place.