A guide to this blog


I’ve worked in education since 2010, as an English teacher, Head of Department and Assistant Head in four schools. I’m currently Head of English at Michaela Community School. I write about curriculum, teaching, leadership, English and reading. You can read about what education means to me and why I do what I do here.







Hillbilly Elegy

Like it or not, our society is fraught with class divisions. I was hooked from the first to J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy. Like Vance, I would now consider myself middle class – university educated, well-paid and a person with a gym membership I actually use. But it was not ever thus. Like Vance, my parents experienced extraordinarily different lives to my own: my Mum is one of seven, and with two unemployed parents the family of nine squashed themselves into the village council house I later grew up in (by which point it was immense for the three of us – Mum, Nan and me). She was the only one of the seven siblings to get into a grammar school (despite initially failing the eleven plus), and despite her promise, left school at sixteen to join the army, as did my Dad (who also failed the eleven plus), one of six. My children will have a very different childhood to my parents’, or even mine.

‘You’re reading about your people!’ mocked my other half (who is what we both jokingly refer to as ‘middling’). And in some ways I was, and in some ways I wasn’t. Our society is fraught with class divisions, and despite my roots, an assisted place to a private school largely took me out of my ‘natural’ world at an early age, just as my Mum’s grammar school had taken her from hers.

Hillbilly Elegy is Vance’s story of how he beat the odds of poor ‘white trash’ kids in the US and ‘got out.’ Fringe success stories are one thing, but how do we replicate that success for all children? I think there are some places this book helps us to understand, and other places where solutions are suggested.

In the Ohio of Vance’s experience, ‘the statistics tell you that kids like me face a grim future – that if they’re lucky, they’ll manage to avoid welfare; and if they’re unlucky, they’ll die of a heroin overdose.’ Poor and socially isolated, Vance describes poor whites in America as inhabiting a culture ‘that increasingly encourages social decay instead of counteracting it.’

He remembers a $13 an hour factory job he had in Ohio, one he explains is excellent pay for the area and for the requisite skills. He was shocked his boss found it hard to recruit, but could understand why. Vance refers to one employee with a pregnant girlfriend, who had ‘every reason’ to hold onto that job, who was chronically late, a poor worker, and would take 45 minute bathroom breaks. When he was inevitably fired, the worker railed against the boss for not understanding that he had to support a girlfriend and child, taking no responsibility for what had happened.

For hillbillies, the value of hard work is proclaimed but not enacted. Vance cites a neighbour who had received welfare (benefits) her entire life who would ‘blather on about the importance of industriousness’ and people who ‘abuse the system’: ‘this was the construct she’d built in her head: most of the beneficiaries of the system were extravagant moochers, but she – despite never having worked in her life – was an obvious exception.’ I remember teaching An Inspector Calls for the first time, and being shocked that in a school with over 70% pupil premium, 100% of my class were on the Birlings’ side, blaming Eva Smith for her plight. When we discussed benefits, more than one pupils angrily said the government shouldn’t be giving them to anyone except their own parents, who were an exception. Vance too tackles this cognitive dissonance: ‘we talk about the value of hard work but tell ourselves that the reason we’re not working is some perceived unfairness: Obama shut down the coal mines, or all the jobs went to the Chinese.’

The experience of the hard-working hillbilly seems to come into constant conflict with the others of the ‘same’ social class: working in a grocery store, Vance discovers how the welfare system is gamed: they’d buy two dozen-packs of soda with food stamps and then sell them at a discount for cash. They’d ring up their orders separately, buying food with food stamps, and beer, wine, and cigarettes with cash… I could never understand why our lives felt like a struggle while those living off government largesse enjoyed trinkets that I could only dream about.’ So why wasn’t Vance one of ‘them’?

This seems largely down to the influence of his ‘crazy’ grandmother, Mamaw, who early on in the book tells young Vance: ‘never be like these fucking losers who think the deck is stacked against them. You can do anything you want to.’

Throughout the book, Vance is struggling to explore where responsibility lies. He describes the decay of the town; the boarded up shops and houses where druggies lurk; jobs declining but federal programmes helping people to buy their homes trapping them with immense debt in areas where there are no jobs. He describes his mother’s spiralling drug addiction, noting how he scoffed when she came back from a Narcotics Anonymous meeting calling her addiction ‘a disease,’ finding this ‘patently absurd.’ Yet he also acknowledges that there is some research that supports such a view of abuse – the difficulty is that patients who believe their addiction is a disease find it far harder to get clean.

So often in this book, the statistics don’t answer the questions Vance is asking: ‘why didn’t our neighbour leave that abusive man? Why did she spend her money on drugs? Why couldn’t she see that her behaviour was destroying her daughter?’ The closest he can come is to tell stories which reveal the values of the people he grew up with. There are countless stories centred on loyalty, for example: the need to use violence to defend the honour of family members is cited on several occasions, and in one story his grandparents trash a store after an assistant is rude to young J.D. Vance. He writes of violence and shouting matches as the norm in relationships, and compares the unpredictability of his parents’ responses to ‘living among land mines’.

So the crucial question: how did Vance succeed against the odds?

  1. ‘Mamaw’

Vance’s grandmother is a pillar of predictability – even if she is predictably insane, her reactions are at least easy to predict. Vance hides out in her house when things get tough, and finds there somewhere quiet. In fact, he says he is a mediocre pupil until he moves in with her full time for the final three years of his education: ‘three years with Mamaw – uninterrupted and alone – saved me.’

Speaking to a teacher at his old high school, Vance says the teacher told him: ‘they want us to be shepherds to these kids. But no one wants to talk about the fact that many of them are raised by wolves.’ Interestingly, Vance never blames his ‘sub-par’ high school for his initial lack of academic success, instead expressing frequent gratitude for qualified teachers and a fully funded school building.

Mamaw has the right priorities – while Vance talks about the Hillbilly tendency to spend huge sums of money on Christmas, financed with credit cards or pay-day loans, Mamaw does not buy him ‘cell phones or nice clothes’ but when a teacher says he needs a $180 ‘graphing calculator’, she buys it for him, and uses the guilt over this expensive purchase to shame him into working harder at Maths.

  1. The Marines

The most revealing section of the book for me was this one, perhaps because both of my parents joined the army at age 15 and 17. For them, it was the key to a future: to travel, learn and be responsible members of society. I truly believe the army is strongly to be thanked for my own childhood: Mum may have held down two or three jobs at a time, and she may have raised me alone, but dinner was always on the table at 6pm, she was never even thirty seconds late for any of her jobs, and the house was always spotless. Routine is important for all of us, but especially for children.

Conversely, after a troubled and unpredictable childhood, Vance relates that ‘everything about the unstructured college experience terrified me.’ (As a sidenote, I do wonder if part of why poorer kids struggle in University is due to a lack of structure in earlier life – the middle class kids, in comparison, have had a lifetime of structure and so are not only able to structure their own lives independently, they also look forward to a little less structure at University.)

So instead of going straight to University, Vance joined the Marines. In his 13 weeks of bootcamp (where he was entirely cut off from home and family, with no phone calls allowed) he experiences harsh discipline. Taking a slice of cake on the first day, his drill instructor says: ‘you really need that cake, don’t you, fat-ass?’ as he smacks the cake out of his hands. Vance notes: ‘if you’d told me that I’d react to such an insult by cleaning up the cake and heading back to my seat, I’d never have believed you… I had underestimated myself.’ And this is the message of the Marines: Vance suddenly realises he has more self-control, more resilience, and more aptitude than he had ever thought possible: ‘what separates the successful from the unsuccessful are the expectations that they had for their own lives. Yet the message of the right is increasingly: it’s not your fault that you’re a loser; it’s the government’s fault.’

He experienced tough discipline, but also realised he was strong enough to take it:

‘Every time the drill instructor screamed at me and I stood proudly; every time I thought I’d fall behind during a run and kept up; every time I learned to do something I thought impossible, I came a little closer to believing in myself.’

In the Marines, a communal identity is forged: ‘from the day you arrive, no one calls you by your first name. You’re not allowed to say “I” because you’re taught to mistrust your own individuality.’ This fosters sense of belonging unlike any other. My Dad says the same of the British army – the drill sergeant’s job over new recruits is to ‘break them completely’; ‘make them hate you.’ He described to me how, thrown together with strangers, you quickly bonded over your mutual hatred of the drill sergeant. And, in my Dad’s words, ‘as the team bond develops, collective and individual performance improves, the drill sergeant reacts appropriately and the team’s respect for him/her increases. By the end of the process the team is a full functioning, well-oiled machine with pride in their own ability and level of performance that has full respect for a satisfied instructor who is the only one who really knows why.’

Moreover, the Marine Corps ‘assumes maximum ignorance from its enlisted folks. It assumes that no one taught you anything about physical fitness, personal hygiene, or personal finances.’ Vance was taught absolutely everything about these aspects of life, and then his drill instructor checked up on him: ‘in the civilian world, your boss wasn’t able to control your life after you left work. In the Marines, my boss didn’t just make sure I did a good job, he made sure I kept my room clean, kept my hair cut, and ironed my uniforms.’ To this day, my Father shines his shoes before leaving the house, and painstakingly irons every visible and invisible crease out of his clothes before putting them on, a hangover habit from a drill sergeant ‘complaining a perfectly pressed shirt wasn’t pressed enough.’

The Marines also gave Vance perspective. On spending time in Iraq, after giving a ‘two cent’ rubber to a boy who smiles like every Christmas has come at once and races to his family to show them, he muses: ‘for my entire life, I’d harboured resentment at the world. I was mad at my mother and father, mad that I rode the bus to school while other kids caught rides with friends, mad that my clothes didn’t come from Abercrombie, mad that my grandfather died, mad that we lived in a small house… but as I stood and surveyed the mass of children of a war-torn nation, their school without running water, and the overjoyed boy, I began to appreciate how lucky I was.’


One specific query with the content of this book was on education: I couldn’t quite square the fact that Vance says that school was a ‘haven’ for him, but his attendance was poor – something so many of us struggle with in schools. If home is hell, why don’t these kids want to be in school? The only thing I can think of is that in homes of such extremes, the kids in them are desperate for kindness. Perhaps pretending to be sick elicits kindness from the inconstant adults in their lives, and they stay home to enjoy these infrequent kindnesses when they come. I’ve also seen parents who desperately want their children to stay home with them as a comfort to themselves rather than for the benefit of the child. I approached Vance through Twitter, and he kindly responded, noting that his attendance was at its worst when he and his sister were living alone, without any adult supervision at all. This makes sense, and I’ve known this happen to many children in previous schools. He also emphasised that he did not approach school in a ‘rational’ way: ‘I hated school and hated home worse.’ The difficulty of pupil attendance defies logical explanation: Vance told me: ‘mostly, when things are so stressful, you don’t want to do anything.’ All of this is fairly bleak for schools.

‘Hillbilly Elegy’ leaves us with even more uneasy questions. Social mobility isn’t all positive; it’s also moving ‘away from something.’ My Mum certainly experienced that when she was at grammar school, and I felt something similar when I was the only cousin at a private school.

Another question is: how can we make success against the odds the norm? How can we replicate Mamaw or the Marines for kids who don’t have these?

I think schools can do a few things:

  1. Be a reliable presence

Schools can be predictable, reliable, calm and safe places for children to be in. Teachers need to be emotionally constant, so children can always predict how they will respond.

  1. Instil discipline

Self-discipline is the key to success. If schools are set up to do one thing well, it is to enforce discipline and instil self-discipline. A strong system of behaviour management, accepting no excuses or exceptions, can massively help children to see that their lives are self-directed, and they have responsibility for their actions.

  1. Push kids harder

Success is motivating; schools need to push kids who are furthest behind harder. Currently, we often treat these kids more softly. We need them to work harder and do more. If we can set up enough areas along the way for them to see their success, they can start to believe they can achieve no matter what their background is.


The Path to Wisdom

At the risk of opening with a lamentable cliché, the older I grow the less I know. More and more, I’m questioning old paradigms, not only in my work, education, but also in life.

Take, for example, the paradigm of sincerity. It is an accepted truism that we must be true to ourselves: old Polonius’ ‘to thine own self be true’ could hardly be more frequently quoted (and we conveniently forget the rest of his advice is brushed off as the witterings of an old ditherer). How about fixing our difficult relationships: we tend to want to have a heart-to-heart, ‘this changes everything’ conversation.

But what if there was a different way?

Michael Puett’s The Path: a new way to think about everything takes ancient Chinese wisdom and reveals its use in the modern world. He notes the ‘unhappiness, narcissism and anxiety surging in the developed world’ and suggests an Eastern alternative. Instead of prizing sincerity, Chinese philosophers emphasise: ‘honing our instincts, training our emotions, and engaging in a constant process of self-cultivation so eventually we would act in the right, ethical way.’ For them, artifice is crucial: we would not want to say everything that comes into our heads, and nor should we.

Puett talks about everyday rituals, such as the response to ‘how are you’ being ‘fine, how are you?’ This ritual is important: it establishes a connection quickly, and allows us to move on. We are learning to behave in a socially appropriate way all the time. The most notable example of this is the use of ‘please’ and ‘thank you.’ We first learn these words as a rote act, and they are largely meaningless to the toddlers who respond automatically to Mum’s ‘what do you say?’ But over time, this rote act evolves, and we come to genuinely feel grateful to others. Puett reminds us that we construct new realities with such white lies all the time: couples say ‘I love you’ when they don’t necessarily feel that loving nurtures the relationship and improves it, allowing their love to grow with this ritual.

Our lives are patterned by such rituals, and our behaviour is the inheritor of them. Instead of saying: ‘it’s just the way I am: I’m a very angry/emotional/sad person,’ you should recognise that you have slipped into ‘patterns of behaviour’ over time, and you have the power to change those patterns. Why do some of us revert to our teenage selves around our parents? Patterns of behaviour. But we can change ourselves and our relationships. How? By focusing on each daily moment. If we change how we ‘live our lives on a daily basis,’ we can alter our lives for good.

A large part of this is in staying in touch with our emotions, while not letting them rule us. Puett notes: ‘you will not mend a troubled relationship with your sister by sitting down for a single big breakthrough heart-to-heart talk. It will happen instead through the tiny decisions you make about how to behave and respond every time you talk.’ So, next time she pushes your buttons, instead of responding, think: ‘I’m feeling anger right now. But if I can put that emotion aside and respond in a kind way, I can change this interaction.’ We can even acknowledge our emotions in a heated exchange to help clarify what is going wrong: ‘I’m responding in an angry way because I’m feeling threatened by what you are saying. But you are not trying to threaten me, so let me understand what you mean.’ If we can take control of our emotions, and then our responses, we won’t be buffeted by the events of life to happiness and sadness, but can instead cultivate ‘balance and alignment, or an inner stability.’

Puett compares the Protestant world view, so pervasive today, that the world ultimately has order and sense with the philosopher Mencius’ view that the world is capricious: ‘hard work would not necessarily lead to prosperity. Bad deeds would not necessarily be punished.’ He believes that if we fail to respond to the changing world, we ‘die in shackles.’ Our reactions can’t be controlled by the things that happen to us. Again, a micro, daily focus is helpful here: instead of saying: ‘who am I?’, which is something always shifting and changing, or ‘how should I plan my life?’ which is open to similar flux, we need to move our focus to alter things on a small, interaction by interaction level.

And this is why artifice is intensely helpful. We get further in life by employing artifice. If you march into work, bringing your mood with you, you infect everyone you meet with your anger and upset. As adults, we have self-control, and we can grow our self control. As teachers, we are artificial ever single day, and many is the day I’ve woken up tired and grumpy, to plaster a smile on my face and ‘get through the day,’ only to end a teaching day feeling genuinely delighted. Pretending to be happy is the surest route to happy I know of. Similarly, the ‘deliberate training’ of a pianist, the artificial scales and arpeggios, is what leads to the ‘joyful freedom’ of the concert pianist.

This way of thinking is vital for schools: ‘our habits limit what we can see, access and know.’ Our children with least self-control must be taught self-control. They must be taught how to behave, and over time they will internalise it. Telling a child to say ‘thank you’ for a lesson might feel artificial, but over time gratitude grows from the external appearance of gratitude. Telling children to sit up straight and ‘track’ the speaker might feel horribly controlling, but over time this artificial habit becomes a real habit, and one that will stand them in excellent stead when they have marathon attention-spans that will enable them to argue at length in law courts, parliamentary debates, and focus throughout complex surgical procedures.

Puett writes: ‘in this fractured and fragmented world, it’s up to us to generate order.’ This is true of ourselves, and also true of our schools. The world is a messy place, and if our children are going to thrive in it, they need to understand how to control themselves and their emotions, and learn the habits that will allow them to succeed.


We Have Overcomplicated Teaching: Research Ed 2016

I was overjoyed to be asked to present at Research Ed’s national conference last Saturday.

We have massively overcomplicated teaching. In my talk, I explored how we have overcomplicated it, why, why we need to go simple and how that would work, using examples from Michaela Community School.

I began the session with a series of questions, which readers may wish to revisit:

  • How many activities do you need in a lesson?
  • How often do the activities change in a lesson?
  • How many different ‘starters’ do you create?
  • How many different ‘plenaries’ do you have?
  • How many variations on tasks do you have?
  • How many slides do you have on a powerpoint?
  • How many resources do you print for each lesson?
  • How many ways are you expected to differentiate for children?
  • How many pages does your scheme of work fill?
  • How often have you changed schemes of work?
  • How often have you taught the same curriculum two or more years in a row?
  • How many intervention sessions have you run after school? Weekends?
  • How much feedback do you give children?
  • How much data do you gather? Input? Use?
  • How many CPD sessions have explored new ways of teaching children?
  • How many targets do you have to meet for your performance appraisal?
  • How many trips do you take?
  • How many forms do you have to fill out to take a trip?
  • How many forms do you have to fill out to log a behaviour report?
  • How many external agencies are working with your young people?
  • How often do children miss your lessons for interventions?
  • How do you get children to turn up to detentions, and what happens when they don’t?
  • How many action plans have you written?

I spent four years teaching thirty slide powerpoint lessons. Life in a dark room, filled by clicks and mumbles, was uninspiring for both the children and me. The failures of the past, not purely powerpoint-related it must be conceded, have led to what I called ‘intervention hell’ in the present, something that will be kicking in soon for many teachers, if it hasn’t already. We are drowning in data we don’t use. External agencies are taking children out of the one thing that will change their life: lessons where they are learning.

Schools are no longer seen as places of learning – in the expectation that we will educate the whole child, prevent radicalisation, encourage healthy eating, and teach financial literacy (among other initiatives), we are missing the crucial thing: kids learning stuff, passing exams, having successful lives. In 2015, only 53% of kids in the country achieved the old benchmark of 5 A*-C including English and Maths. 47% of kids didn’t even get five Cs including English and Maths. Schools are categorically failing to teach all kids effectively. Our role has been massively overcomplicated.

But the over-complication is not only the state’s fault. We too must accept responsibility. In the ‘missionary teacher’ or ‘martyr teacher’ paradigm, too many of us have decided to ‘sacrifice our lives on the altar of pupil progress’, to borrow a phrase from Joe Kirby’s Michaela debate speech. Working fourteen hour days, working weekends, working holidays (as it seemed nearly the whole room was doing or had done at some point) is categorically not sustainable. Who can do that for thirty, forty years? Our martyrdom has spawned an arms race, where ambitious teachers strive to outcompete each other. Add to this soup flawed accountability measures, spurious research (learning styles, anyone?) and the ‘teacher as entertainer’ model pedalled by teacher training organisations and SLTs up and down the country, and you have a recipe for disastrous burnout, as evidenced by the 50,000 or so teachers leaving the classroom every year.

Why is simplicity better? Three reasons spring to mind: sustainability, consistency, retention. Sustainability for teachers: simpler teaching means we can have lives and carry on doing the job we love for the long-term. A career is a marathon, not a sprint. Consistency for children: teachers who stay massively impact on the children. Having the same teachers year in, year out, is undervalued at the moment. (In a later conversation, I mused about school improvement. I think a lot of mediocre schools who achieve great results do so by being strong on two fronts: behaviour, and teachers staying. Behaviour is obvious – better a calm than a chaotic school. But teachers staying, as long as they are middling to excellent and not diabolically harmful to children, has a massive impact on consistency within the school and consistency for children.) And retention: teachers who want to stay in the profession is of obvious benefit to schools who spent enormous sums of money and time on recruitment each year.

How do we simplify teaching? I explored three strands: curriculum, pedagogy and systems.

With the curriculum, I focused on within subject choices, rather than whole-school curriculum. When planning the curriculum, instead of fourteen page schemes of work that no child will ever see (or arguably benefit from), make unit packs. All ‘worksheets’ can be in the pack. No need for a powerpoint – everything is happier when your curtains are open in the classroom, and technology is an added stress teachers simply don’t need in their lives. At Michaela, we use packs to cut workload, but also to benefit kids: the text is central. Kids are reading a vast amount across subjects, not just in English. We add recap questions to strengthen pupil memory, resource comprehension and discussion questions to prevent teachers thinking these up on the spot or the night before, and prepare model exemplars to guide pupils to where we want them to end up.

With pedagogy, I foregrounded the three arms of practice at Michaela: direct instruction, questioning, and extended practice. There is a huge gap between our pupils and their wealthier counterparts, and the gap is partly knowledge and partly practice. To close the knowledge gap, we teach with urgency. We never ask pupils to guess, but instruct upfront by reading text and explaining. We then question to check understanding, and recap to aid memorisation. To close the practice gap, we make sure when we’re not questioning and teaching, the kids are reading and writing. Kids are generally great speakers, great debaters and especially great at arguing; that’s not where the gap is. Our kids need more reading and more writing, so we make sure they do lots of that. We need to teach with urgency all the way through school – from reception to year 10, we teach like every second is vital (because it is). Hopefully that way we can prevent the intervention hell that is year 11.

I showed some clips of what direct instruction looks like, as it can sound massively off-putting:


Notice how interactive these lessons are. It’s certainly not a case of teachers lecturing at bored children. We can’t just talk at children – that much is true. We have to constantly question and check they have understood and remembered what we have taught.

Finally, I explored three systems to simplify teaching: behaviour, homework and feedback. Currently, I would imagine the majority of schools ‘allow’ teachers to set their own detentions. This is great for building teacher-pupil relationships, but I would argue the drawbacks outweigh this benefit. Teachers set detentions of any length they choose, so children can judge different teachers to be stricter or ‘easier.’ If a pupil doesn’t turn up, individual teachers have to hunt the child down. Too often, teachers end up chasing detentions that are multiplying, constantly trying to remember who has and has not turned up, and liaising with form tutors and parents to cajole the children into serving their time. Long-term, many teachers give up. I don’t blame them. The administration involved in setting, sitting, chasing detentions is too much. So teachers stop bothering.

Similarly with homework – and homework isn’t just challenging in terms of sanctioning non-completion. Teachers are desperately trying to think up new and different homework tasks, setting it, and then marking it. Again, all this administration is overburdening and discourages pupil completion (‘son, what’s your science homework?’ ‘No idea. Something about research? It might be due next Tuesday? Dunno.’) At Michaela, all teachers set the same homework on a rigid timetable. All kids are revising their subjects for the same length of time in the same way. Absolutely no confusion over what they need to do or when; no excuses. (We use knowledge organisers to set this revision.)

Finally feedback – I’ve written at length on this before, so I would encourage you to revisit my lengthier piece if you’re interested. The long and the short of it: don’t do it.

I ended with some advice for leaders. When you have a shining star working 14 hour days, it is tempting to let them get on with it. But that sets unrealistic expectations for others, and could set up unfair comparisons between them and other teachers. They are also too often using their time pointlessly: extra marking, making transient displays, or forty five slide PowerPoints with the requisite resources. Instead, have the conversation with them: could every teacher do what you are doing? Do you want a family one day? Will you be able to do this when you do? When you lead a department, would you want every teacher doing this? Thousands of teachers leave the profession every year – how do we make this a school where people want to stay? What is the impact of your excessive workload on others in the department?

Leaders need to lead by example, teaching rigorous content, actually teaching, limiting their activities, resources and feedback (I suggested teachers carry a red pen around with you when kids are writing, and use icons to set targets instead of laborious written comments). Leaders need to mitigate the impact of school systems on teachers: if you lead a department, you set a centralised detention for that department if your school will not (show the SLT it works).

There were a number of questions and comments following the talk. One common thread in these questions was: where is the room for teacher creativity with such a rigid system? I guess we don’t really value creativity as highly as consistency and workload at Michaela. Although there is plenty of space for creativity in delivery (see: Jonny Porter jousting, above), we don’t let teachers make whizzy jazzy PowerPoints or decide to teach their own thing in their own way. Michaela is not for everyone.

But I would challenge questioners: sometimes what we enjoy doing most is not the best thing for the kids. And sometimes what we enjoy doing in our own classroom, going above and beyond for our kids, has an adverse impact on the others around us, not to mention our own workload. And finally, great content is exciting in and of itself! I wouldn’t choose to teach Julius Caesar – it’s not my favourite Shakespeare play. But I absolutely loved teaching it, because it’s Shakespeare! Same with Coleridge’s ‘Kubla Khan’ – not my favourite poem, but again, it is a great one, and so great to teach.

I was heartened by the people I met afterwards: it was especially lovely to hear teachers say to me: ‘I’ve done this for years and always been told I was wrong!’ What I’ve said is not revolutionary: many, many teachers have always known this. I hope Michaela can shine a light on what works for kids and teachers and allow these brilliant professionals to just teach, and then have a life. Some of what I said was not appreciated by some members of the audience; I had reports of some eye-rolling and tutting as I was speaking. I’d like to say: thank you. Thank you for coming to hear me speak, thank you for not walking out, thank you for taking the time to be challenged. Next time: ask a question, get in touch, tell me what you don’t like. It is wonderful to debate these ideas. I really think that in sacrificing some individuality and creativity we can deliver amazing results for pupils, and amazing work-life balance for teachers.

Review of the year

In September 2015, I did not envision where I would be by July 2016. I had just joined a big academy as an Assistant Head. I hoped I would have made some positive changes, changed some minds, and have settled into my job happily. In reality, I left that school after one short (but very happy) term, because I realised that if I missed the chance to join Michaela Community School in its early stages, I would massively regret it for the rest of my life.

Do I regret it? Not a jot. But when I think back on this year, the high points are very very different from what I thought they would be.

A major high-point has been reading. At Michaela, I get to read constantly. With my classes, I have read Romantic and Victorian poetry, The Aeneid, Julius Caesar, Medea, Macbeth, Frankenstein and Northanger Abbey since January, along with other non-fiction and short extracts. With my tutor group, I’ve read Dracula, Wonder, Gulliver’s Travels, Boy, The Three Musketeers (very much abridged!), and Gombrich’s A History of the World. Then with reading group, I’ve read The Secret Garden, Farenheit 451, Matilda, Roll of Thunder Hear my Cry, Educating Rita, An Inspector Calls and Pride and Prejudice. I spend the last hour of my day reading with children. There is nothing better in the world. I’ve also found more and more time to read myself, in the evenings and on weekends. Gone are the weekends and evenings of frantic work. Some weekends, I have spent the whole time just reading novel after novel after novel – my idea of paradise!

My tutor group have been an absolute highlight. When I was first told I would have a one, I was secretly disappointed. I’d always found it hard to manage a group of children I saw for 15 minutes a day. But having tutor time for 20 minutes in the morning and 30 minutes in the afternoon, coupled with the reading programme, has meant that I have really been able to bond with mine, and after a half term or holiday, it is their faces I long to see on the first day back. They were in terrible habits when I picked them up (and at Michaela, that means they tended to look over their shoulders a lot and whisper when they thought I wasn’t looking – we are very strict!), but they have really settled into a lovely group of young people who can have a laugh and ‘Slant’ the next second (‘slant’ is our acronym to remind pupils to sit up straight and track the speaker).

I’ve improved my teaching immeasurably. I’ve had constant feedback throughout the year. We don’t have strict structures of feedback, so I’ve had feedback from deputy headteachers, other heads of department, teachers and teacher fellows. In a place of no egos, you take advice from everyone, and it makes everyone better at their jobs. I’ve not had a formal observation since joining Michaela, but I (along with every member of staff, including the kitchen and office staff) have had a sit down (with biscuits) with the Headmistress, Katharine, who spent much of the time asking me what she could do to better support me, and if I was happy.

I can’t express how amazing it has been to work with the best minds in our profession: I can’t begin to list the things I have learned from my colleagues, in particular Katharine, Katie, Joe, and Jonny. Our debate at City Hall created conversations and challenges, exactly as hoped. We are all writing a book together about the ideas of Michaela, and I’m so proud to be a part of that (do come to our event in November when we launch it!). What feels like hundreds of visitors have come into my classroom since January, some respected colleagues from Twitter, and hearing their comments and challenges has been really helpful for me in thinking over what we do and why. I’ve also had some brilliant exchanges with people on Twitter. Challenge allows me to clarify my thinking, and often to hone and improve what I do. It feels like it is an exciting time to be in education, and Michaela is an exciting place to be.

Of course, it has not all been rainbows and sunshine. I’ve lost out on being part of an exciting turn-around school, and I’ve let down the colleagues, and even friends, I made there. I can guarantee I will never be welcome to work for one particular academy chain again. The guilt of that decision has not yet begun to fade. But we can’t expect to make everyone happy when we make a difficult choice. There are new vistas, new horizons, before us, and we’re only at the very beginning.

Michaela front of school

Teaching Vocabulary


If this blog had themes, I’m sure one fairly major one would be ‘Changing my Mind.’ And lest readers consider me a fully paid up zealot of the ‘Knowledge Devotees,’ let me tell you that I have only recently changed my mind about teaching vocabulary.

When I began teaching at Michaela, I picked up someone else’s timetable; someone else’s classes. I was totally at the mercy of those who had begun their learning, and it was my job to learn how to teach in the ‘Michaela Way.’ I knew what I was getting myself into, and bit my tongue when one particular sheet came my way. It was a sheet listing 45 difficult words, split into three columns of 15, each with a one (or very few) word synonym.

‘What do I do with this?’ I asked.

‘They learn one column a week – meaning and spelling – and then you test it,’ replied Joe Kirby.

Not wanting to be that challenging complainer on day one, I said nothing. But I thought: ‘no way will this work.’ Everything I’d read, everything I believed, told me that rote learning vocabulary was a bad idea. It was far, far preferable to read widely, flag up new words, and allow children to just absorb them.

The first week, almost every child in the class scored zero out of fifteen on the words. (Here is the test: Me: ‘what’s a better word for determined beginning with “t”?’ Kids: ‘….’ [Meant to write down: ‘tenacious.’) Part of me felt vindicated – this was too hard, and totally pointless. But I trusted Joe, and I’d been wrong before. I was prepared to find out if this was partly my fault.

‘Didn’t you test them orally first?’ asked Joe. I had not. ‘Did you do a few every day at the beginning and end of lessons?’ I had not. ‘Did you give them time to green pen afterwards, looking at a few they had got wrong to really work on them?’ I had not.

I drilled them the whole next week, and tested them again. Half of them achieved 5 out of 15. The other half achieved zero.

Was the idea rubbish? Was I rubbish? Were the kids rubbish?

With lots to do, I had no time to rethink the Michaela vocabulary strategy, not halfway through the year with already boggled children. I kept going.

And as the weeks went by something started to click. It wasn’t just that the kids were starting to achieve 10, 11, even 15 out of 15 – and they were. (I had even taken out my letter cues, saying: ‘what’s a better word for determined?’ ‘Tenacious,’ they would write, spelling it correctly.) It was their paragraphs that showed the impact. They were astonishing. And that’s when I realised that while part of writing an analytical paragraph is knowing about character, plot, quotation, technique and context and combining all of that knowledge to write about it; the other part is having the words in the first place. The good words.

One of my year 7 classes learned the vocabulary. Inexplicably, I didn’t teach the other class the words. The gap between their paragraphs has grown and grown. The difference? Vocabulary. I am teaching the same lesson to each class – usually one straight after the other – the same concepts and ideas. They are reading the same thing, and I am saying the same thing to them. But class 2’s paragraphs contain mediocre vocabulary.

And vocabulary loves vocabulary, like all knowledge loves knowledge. Class 1 are always on the look-out for new words. Supported by their extraordinary form tutor, Ms Clear, who notes down key vocabulary from their class reading (done in tutor time in the afternoon) and tests them on it, Class 1 have actually started teaching me words (not sure yet if this is a low or a high point of my teaching career).

Yes, the kids really struggled with this at first. And they still get it wrong in context – one said recently: ‘The Arctic is the zenith and the Antarctic is the nadir of planet earth.’ Obviously wrong. But the list isn’t everything – it is the beginning of their accurate use of these words. Having this list committed to memory means the kid can say the above sentence, be corrected in front of their peers, and learn more about the correct context for these words.

I used to believe that kids could absorb vocabulary. On some level, I still believe this – if kids read widely enough, their vocabulary will inevitably be better than their non-reading peers. But it isn’t enough, not for any kid, to rely on this. They need to learn words by rote. The more they learn, the more they use these words, and the better their vocabulary becomes. I was absolutely wrong and Joe Kirby was absolutely right – a common theme in my teaching career.

Here is a paragraph from a year 7 exam, done on Julius Caesar and entirely from memory.


I’ve typed out what it says below, and made bold any words this pupil has learned by heart through our vocabulary programme, or through other knowledge organisers he has had this year:

Moreover, Antony develops as the play reaches its crescendo into a choleric, manipulative and sophistical character. After the death of Caesar, Antony calls him a ‘bleeding piece of earth.’ He uses personification fused with the striking word ‘bleeding’ to display his sorrow but also his anger. Shakespeare now makes Antony speak his mind after Caesar’s death to portray Antony’s true character, a manipulative, magnanimous and mendacious individual. Antony then goes on to deliver an oration to the crowd by starting with the lines ‘friends, Romans, countrymen: lend me your ears.’ By combining the tricolon of ‘friends, Romans, countrymen’ and the metaphor ‘lend me your ears,’ Antony creates a false sense of camaraderie between himself and the crowd. By doing so, he achieves the attention of the crowd, proving that he is manipulative. Antony uses sophistry to prove to the audience that Caesar was not a tyrant.

This pattern was replicated throughout the essays I was reading. The difference between the great and the good was often the words they had in their memories to use.

There are two changes I would make to the Michaela Vocabulary Strategy for next year. The first is chunking: I’ll be setting five words a week for the first few weeks. Success builds motivation, and those first weeks were depressing for pupils and me alike. We can build up to 10 and 15 words as the year goes on. The second change is to make sure that every single class learns these words. As Wittgenstein says, ‘the limits of language mean the limits of my world.’ With every word learned, those limits expand just a little bit more.

Here is a grid for year 7, with thanks to Joe for letting me share it.

Vocabulary Y7

A Michaela Feedback Lesson

At Michaela, we have two exam sessions each year: in February and the end of June. Nonetheless, when completing a unit we do sometimes give pupils an assessment to see what they can do. Recently, our year 8s finished learning about Romantic Poetry. To really stretch them, we decided to give them a poem they had not seen before, and ask them to write on it. The responses were phenomenal, and you can read some below. But today, I want to focus on how we give feedback following such an assessment, using a specific example.

I visited Joe Kirby’s year 8 lesson, just at the moment he was testing them on the words they had misspelled. He tested them on the spellings (in the same way as I have written about previously here) and then went on to look at what else the pupils needed to do to improve their essays.

He began by looking at grammar, a key aspect of our English curriculum at Michaela. At Michaela, we focus on memory and automaticity, and we know pupils need to overlearn each aspect of writing in order to improve. If a couple of pupils are misusing the apostrophe, we know all pupils will benefit from overlearning this key ingredient of accuracy. Joe has written three sentences on the board which come from different pupils’ essays, and he asks them to write them correctly in the back of their books. He then goes over this as a whole class, leading pupils to articulate why each apostrophe is needed:



Following the focus on spelling and grammar, Joe goes into what not to do, using examples again lifted from the pupils’ essays, and helps them to see how to improve these by explaining from the front of the class:

Here are some more examples of ‘vague’ sentences, with Joe explaining what pupils need to do better:

He then goes on to explain what precision means, and gives concrete examples of how to be precise:



Joe then leads pupils through some of the most impressive insights from their essays. This was my favourite bit of the lesson, and something I tried with my own year 8 classes the following day. When reading their books, you put a tick in the margin of a sentence you found especially impressive, and note their name and a trigger word on your feedback sheet. You can then say, ‘Elena, can you read your sentence on alliteration?’ It is lovely to celebrate the impressive responses of pupils, while also helping others see what they ought to be writing about:

Following this, pupils read one of their classmate’s essays, again focusing on what precisely made it so effective:

Hosna example parag

After this, pupils re-wrote a paragraph in their books.

The above approach is simple, and requires no marking. The teacher reads the essays, noting down examples of great work and ‘non-examples’, or examples of what not to do. The teacher then structures the feedback in a clear way, for us beginning with accuracy, moving on to ‘non-examples,’ and finishing with exemplars.

Here are some further examples of the pupils’ writing. Remember, this was analysis of John Keats’ ‘This Living Hand,’ a poem they had never encountered before. Some sophisticated insights they have written include:

‘Keats keeps the poem following free verse and no rhyme scheme to perhaps inform readers that the possibilities and powers of the ambiguities, hidden meanings and unknown capabilities are not so easily understood and that the power is so strong that it breaks all form of rhythm and pattern.’

‘This poem could be about the relationship between the poet and poem and the emotion it gives the reader. Keats could be saying that poetry is capable of inflicting an outburst of emotion, which is recollected in “tranquillity.”’

‘At the beginning of the poem, “now warm and capable” is used combining life and death imagery to describe the transience of life in the present.’

‘The poet does not refer to an actual living hand in his poem, instead it is used to symbolise the poem itself, personifying it. He does this to illustrate that life may be transient however this poem shall be transcendent, otherwise “haunt” our “days” and “chill” our “dreaming nights.”’

Keisi parag


Maryam parag

What can schools learn from successful communities?

Amy Chua (of ‘Tiger Mother’ fame) and Jed Rubenfeld have analysed outlier communities in the USA and distilled what they have learned into a readable tome called ‘Triple Package: what really determines success.’ The book provides a fascinating insight into what makes particular communities successful, but I think it can also lend its insights to schools. After all, every school is a community: how can we create the conditions within our schools to leverage the success in our community felt by those outlier groups in society?

The three conditions found across a variety of outlier groups are:

  1. A superiority complex (‘a deeply internalised belief in your group’s specialness, exceptionality, or superiority’)
  2. Insecurity (‘The paradoxical premise of this book is that successful people tend to feel simultaneously inadequate and superior.’)
  3. Impulse control (or ‘the ability to resist temptation’)

One example group given are the Mormons: this group represent 1.7% of the US population, but are dominate in politics and business, with a few representatives breaking through in the creative arts (such as Stephanie Meyer of ‘Twilight’ fame). The roll call of successful Mormons is quite extraordinary, and Chua and Rubenfeld explain it in their possession of the ‘Triple Package’: while Mormons consider themselves a ‘chosen people’, they are also broadly rejected, ridiculed and side-lined by society (see: ‘The Book of Mormon’). Their church also inculcates a deeply ingrained work ethic, among other ways, by a two-year ‘mission’: ‘While other American eighteen-year-olds are enjoying the binge-drinking culture widespread on college campuses, Mormons are working six days a week, ten to fourteen hours a day, dressed in white shirt and tie or neat skirt, knocking on doors, repeatedly being rejected and often ridiculed.’ Other successful groups explored in depth in the text include Indian, Iranian, Nigerian, Cuban and Lebanese immigrant groups.

Here are some ways schools could harness each ‘Triple Package’ element for the benefit of their pupils:


Like Mormons, ‘Jewish children were raised hearing… that they were God’s chosen people’. Their ‘outsider’ status (of which more below) instils a ‘chip on the shoulder;’ an ‘I’ll show them’ mentality. Although ‘superiority complexes are hard to maintain… All the forces of assimilation work against it,’ nonetheless it is worth cultivating a superiority complex in our schools. How do we do this?

We could repeatedly tell our kids they are special; different. In every school I’ve worked at teachers give pupils this message in a variety of ways – the most successful schools get their pupils to feel a sense of huge pride that they wear their school’s uniform, and not, for example, the school across the road. In my first school there was always a sense that you were different to others in the community because you went to our school. It helped that the school was massively oversubscribed, Ofsted Outstanding, with amazing results at GCSE and A-level. Other schools may have to try different methods to achieve similar results. At Michaela, we overtly tell our pupils: ‘you are not normal. You are Michaela.’ We want them to feel like the chosen people: by virtue of the school they attend, they are different, and destined for greatness.



The tension of the ‘Triple Package’ comes in ensuring superiority and insecurity are present; for the Jews, the obvious motivator of centuries-old anti-Semitism comes into play massively, as Chua and Rubenfeld refer to the ‘fear for their survival’ playing into a drive to do well. Another wildly successful group of over-achievers are Asian Americans, who ‘regularly report low self-esteem despite their academic achievements. Indeed, across America, they report the lowest self-esteem of any racial group even as they rack up the highest grades’ (the authors share one anecdote that: ‘Conversations at the dinner table read like status updates of outstanding Asian kids our family know. So-and-so’s son just got into Stanford…’).

Conversely, ‘Children brought up in self-esteem centred schools and families are not taught to endure hardship or to persevere in the face of failure. They’re sheltered from disappointment and rejection by devoted, exhausted parents who monitor their every move, desperate to make their kids feel “special”.’

What, as a school community, can we do to mimic this insecurity? In some ways, this is an easier feat for schools who are not Ofsted Outstanding, or who do not have the results to back up their superiority message. Such schools are the ultimate underdogs, seeking entry to the mainstream with the proof of their results.

At Michaela, we remind pupils that they have a long way to go. We are honest with them: pupils at private schools have parents who are paying up to £30,000 a year for their education: you can bet they will come out with some terrific results, and statistically they do. If our pupils slack or misbehave, we remind them of the consequences; when they don’t do their homework we tell them about their boarding school peers who simply do not have an opportunity to not do homework. Even within class, we can drive pupil insecurity by pointing out the gap between their effort and their more successful peers. Pupils need to be afraid: someone, somewhere else, is doing better than them. They need to raise their game.


Impulse Control

Most educators are familiar with the ‘Marshmallow Experiment’: children are told they can eat the marshmallow now, or wait and be rewarded with two. The children who are patient, who have ‘impulse control’, ‘go on to get better grades; spend less time in prison; have fewer teenage pregnancies; get better jobs; and have higher incomes.’ Interestingly, this test was re-run in 2012, with an addition: some pupils experienced an unreliable interaction with an adult prior to the test; so an adult told them they would bring them crayons to play with but didn’t follow through. Those children were then much more likely to eat the marshmallow straight away, not trusting that the adult would follow through on their ‘two marshmallows’ promise.

This is of interest because our pupils from poorer backgrounds have come to distrust the system, and ‘if people don’t trust the system, if they think society is lying when it tells them that discipline and hard work will be rewarded – if they don’t think that people like them can really make it – they have no incentive to engage in impulse control, sacrificing present satisfaction in hopes of future gain.’ In many schools, we are battling with an ingrained distrust of the values and possibilities we present to parents.

Yet we know from many studied that ‘willpower and grit prove to be better predictors of grades and future success than did IQ or SAT scores;’ and that ‘IQ is not a complete predictor of success. IQ without motivation lies fallow.’ The authors remind us that ‘impulse control is like stamina. If you ran five miles every few days for several months, you’d build up stamina, which would allow you not only to run farther, but to perform all sorts of unrelated physical tasks better than you could before… If people are made to do any impulse-controlling task – even as simple as getting themselves to sit up straight – on a regular basis for even a few weeks, their overall willpower increases.’

At Michaela, our pupils are instructed to sit up straight in every lesson, and can be issued with demerits for turning around or slouching in their seats. The impulse control ingrained through this one simple policy is extraordinary: visit our school, and you will see 100% of pupils sitting up straight for six solid hours a day, facing the front, rarely speaking, listening to their teachers and writing. Hands are raised to contribute to the lesson, but a pupil may speak only twice in an hour’s lesson; perhaps less in some (though much more in others). Despite this, pupils wait patiently with hands raised to speak, and calling out is prohibited. Homework and holiday homework is set through centralised systems which ensure very nearly 100% compliance and 100% of non-compliant children being issues with a sanction. Firm consequences reinforce positive habits and develop our pupils’ impulse control.


If we can harness each of these elements, superiority, insecurity and impulse control, we create pupils who know they are special, need to prove themselves, and develop the will-power and dedication to persevere despite difficulties. Such pupils, I believe, will become the outlier overachievers of our school system. But perhaps, after all, it is better to steer clear of the extremes set out in this survey, and rather focus on their calmer, simpler cousins: quiet confidence, humility and work ethic.