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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.

Curriculum

Teaching

Leadership 

English

Reading

 

PowerPoint

Before training as a teacher, I’m genuinely not even sure I was aware of the existence of PowerPoint. I’d certainly never used it, nor was it installed on my computer. I’d never encountered it as a pupil in school or a student in university (although I do recall images being used in lectures, which could easily have been delivered through a PowerPoint format).

It was in my second week of teacher training, in what is called a ‘Second School Experience,’ I first was made aware of the programme. Preparing to teach a lesson for the first time, I met with the class’s usual teacher whose opening words were, ‘here’s my log-in so you can make a PowerPoint. Obviously you’ll want to make a PowerPoint.’ It didn’t seem too obvious to me then. I spent an hour or so painfully working out how to use the programme, painstakingly copying and pasting images I found at random using clipart (I hadn’t yet understood how to get images from the internet onto a slide), and changing the fonts at random. During the lesson, which was obviously a disaster for far wider ranging reasons than the existence of PowerPoint, I remember finding the slides a hindrance rather than a help, as I awkwardly pointed to a slide from time to time, only really to justify the time that had been poured into making it.

Looking back on my first term of teaching, my early PowerPoints were four slide affairs. They had a title, a learning objective (it was 2010), and then a series of questions for kids to answer, split into different slides which vaguely corresponded to different parts of the text we were learning (normally, the heading was a page number, the bullet points questions).

But I learned fast. My PowerPoints soon exploded into twenty, even thirty slide affairs for a single 50 minute lesson, packed with animations, images and coloured backgrounds as standard. At peak-PowerPoint, I could knock one of these out in under ten minutes.

But I’ve since reneged, and I’ve come to believe the use of PowerPoint is misguided. Why?

  1. Life in a dark room

The first time I visited a school, after 6 interim years of work and study, my first thought was how dark it was. It was the end of the year, and so bright and beautiful outside, but in classroom after classroom it was beyond winter. It was hellishly dark, and with the blinds drawn the classrooms were sweltering. I wondered how the kids could even see what they were reading or writing. Much like modern family life, everyone seemed orientated towards the bright screen at the front. It’s depressing.

  1. Split focus

PowerPoint splits kids’ focus. You want them to focus on you, and your instruction – but instead, they are focused on the screen that bears the remnants of that instruction. You want them to focus on the text and what they are learning, but instead they have to keep looking up to find out what the question is before they write again.

  1. It stops teachers teaching

Even ten minutes to bosh out a PowerPoint is a waste of time. But more than that, it actively impedes my preparation. I’m thinking about slides instead of thinking about content. I might put twenty questions on a PowerPoint, but actually I need to be thinking about a hundred questions to ask pupils. At Michaela, we ask each of the 32 pupils in our classes at least three, and often more, questions in a single lesson. I need to spend my time planning those micro-questions as well, not just the few ‘big questions’ they might answer at length in discussion or writing.

  1. Technology fails you

If I haven’t persuaded you with the preceding arguments, perhaps I will have more luck here! Hands up who has ever had technology fail them in the classroom? That’ll be every teacher ever.

And it’s awful. You stand there at the front. You have nothing. You could write your questions on the tiny actual whiteboard that is awkwardly positioned so not all kids can even read it, but then you’d have your back to the children and we all know how that pans out. Plus, what if half your questions are about the gorgeous images you’ve meticulously selected? You’ve got nothing. You do a little dance. You pray you can contain them.

We teach a poem in year 7 by William Carlos Williams called ‘Landscape with the Fall of Icarus.’ It’s a poem about a painting by Pieter Brueghel, so obviously I felt I needed to show the kids the image in order for them to understand the significance of the poem. It was in my early days at Michaela, and I was already nervous as a visitor I knew vaguely from the world outside Michaela would be in my classroom. (I think we’re all desensitised to visitors now, as we have about five a day wander in.) I cued the image up ready. And then it transpired that my board was not connected to my computer. I absolutely panicked.

Back-up could not arrive in time, so I taught that lesson without my picture. I just explained the picture, and why it was important. The kids got it, wrote about the poem; happy days. It was fine. But by the afternoon my board was fixed. So, the second time I taught the lesson to the other year 7 class I taught, I had the image ready to go.

And it was a much weaker lesson. Because we had split attention. We had a request to pull the blinds down so they could ‘see it properly.’ They were confused by other aspects of the picture I didn’t want them to focus on. It was, all in all, a massive distraction.

  1. Work less, achieve more

Why have a resource and a PowerPoint? It’s the same argument I used to make against lesson plans – why do I need one when my PowerPoint shows my planning? Well now – why do I need a PowerPoint when my resource – poem, novel, play – shows my planning and thoughts about how I will teach these children?

At Michaela, all children have the same resource, and so does the teacher. The teacher’s is annotated with questions and key aspects to bring out in instruction. What more do we need?

A caveat

Ok – I actually do use PowerPoint. One slide, one lesson a week, for ten minutes. It is for our weekly quiz. We put the questions on a single PowerPoint slide, and the kids write their answers on paper. We then sort the papers using comparative judgement.

We’ve tried to come up with ways to avoid this, but so far everything considered has meant considerably more work for teachers than just sticking the questions up. We’re still brainstorming how to eradicate this last remaining slide. One PowerPoint slide one lesson a week. I look on that slide as a necessary evil.

Michaela Librarian

At Michaela, reading is at the heart of everything we do. We read in every single lesson – not just English lessons, and yes, including Art, Music and Maths lessons. Every pupils reads for twenty minutes with their tutor at the end of the day. Pupils read at lunchtime and after school in the library. The weakest readers read for an additional thirty minutes every day in our reading club. Our culture and habit of reading means that if we ever have ideas we want to communicate with kids, we tend to write them down, and read them with the children: our PSHE offer is a booklet the children read and discuss with form tutors on Wednesdays – we call it ‘Wednesday Wisdom.’ 

Given this culture, coordinating all the reading that happens at Michaela has become a full-time job – just one that has been split between multiple people. The organisation and administration of the tutor-time reading programme, or the library, are huge projects, and while much of the ‘set-up’ has been done, we have so much more to do.

That’s why we are looking to appoint a Librarian and Literacy Coordinator who will champion reading in the school. They will not be a teacher, but they will have constant contact with every single child in the school – all of whom visit the library at least every two weeks to renew or change their books. They will inherit a school library that is packed to the rafters with classic children’s and adult’s books, and free of some of the usual fare school libraries provide (as Katie Ashford has spoken about so eloquently at our conference).

We believe that reading is the number one way to change a child’s destiny, and we want to hire someone who shares that belief, and has the capacity and tenacity to make it happen.

Apply here!

Teaching English at Michaela

When I joined Michaela, I was excruciatingly ambitious, and not a little arrogant. Within a week, I felt that if I remained an English teacher at Michaela until the end of my working days, I would be content.

For someone who loves books, loves reading, and loves kids, it is the perfect job. Our classrooms are peaceful places, where children read loads and where discussions are enthusiastic, and often insightful. Even teaching year 7 and 8 last year, I would frequently be made to pause, sit back, and say: ‘hm. I hadn’t thought of it like that!’

It is, in short, the dream.

Of course, not everyone feels like this. The list of what we don’t do at Michaela is significantly longer than the list of what we do. We don’t do card sorts, group work, pair discussion, drawing, mind maps, or any tasks asking children to guess. Our knowledge-based curriculum is 100% fully resourced for teachers, so teachers never have to photocopy a single worksheet or create a single PowerPoint slide. They never have to decide what to teach, or in what order. They never have to guess what prior knowledge their kids might have – they simply look at the fully resourced curriculum for the lower year groups.

That said, not everyone wants this.

Many teachers love to create their own resources, and plan their own lessons. But we at Michaela would rather our English teachers focused on how to teach instead of what to teach. All teachers plan their lessons, in the sense that they read and annotate their booklets prior to teaching, ensuring that they know the best way to deliver new concepts to pupils. We meet together as a department once a week to add to these annotations, and to improve our alignment. It’s not good having one teacher decide to teach the term ‘hypophora’; far better if we all agree to teach the term and agree the best way to teach it.  If one teacher’s class are struggling to use apostrophes accurately, we all work together to decide on the best way to ensure the children really understand it.

At Michaela, we think that team beats individual. Our English department works together to ensure that every single pupil in our school gets the very best education possible – not just the kids happening to benefit from what one individual teacher happens to know and think to share with them.

The results? Happy kids, learning loads. Their writing is beyond joyous – it is certainly unlike anything I have ever encountered in any of my three previous schools. In my first term, my year 8s essays on Macbeth far outshone those of the year 13 pupils I had taught the text to last.

If this sounds great, then you’ll be excited to hear that we’re hiring, and we’d love to hear from you!

Tutor Time at Michaela

A number of people have expressed an interest in how tutor time works at Michaela, and given that we have nearly an hour of tutor time every day, it is probably worth explaining our system.

We have tutor time in the mornings for twenty minutes, which is often stretched to twenty-five minutes, as we love to get the kids into the nice warm building, especially in the winter months. Two mornings a week, the children have assembly. Then, we have tutor time every afternoon for thirty minutes.

The tutor at Michaela is absolutely central: they have the strongest relationship with their tutor group, and we work the timetable to ensure tutors also teach their tutor groups. Although our tutor groups are large, the amount of time spent together, combined with excellent behaviour, means that tutors can really get to know each of their tutees.

On an assembly day, the tutors are responsible for lining their group up and leading them into the assembly hall. Occasionally, one tutor will decide to become competitive about which tutor group boasts the neatest, strongest line, and we’ll make this into a silly competition. (In my experience, tutors are generally just slightly more competitive than the kids on this one!)

Once in the assembly hall, tutors stay with their groups, reciting poetry together, rolling numbers together and singing together before assembly begins, and giving merits to members of their form who are doing a great job. Again, we will occasionally make this into a little inter-form competition. Tutors stay for assembly, making sure their tutees are behaving, and also absorbing the key messages of the assembly we want to be reiterating with the children in form time. Our assemblies are built around our school motto: ‘Work Hard, Be Kind,’ and will normally fall into one of those two categories.

On mornings with no assembly, the kids file into their form rooms, and take out their reading books. The tutor completes the register, before doing a quick equipment check. We have a standard expectation of the equipment every child must have, and the tutor ensures that every pupil has this equipment at the start of the day. This is to ensure no time in lessons is wasted with children not having a pen, or a ruler, or any other vital piece of stationery that could stop them learning. Some tutors check this during silent reading time, and others get the kids to hold up their equipment, issuing merits for the swiftest rows with the most professional attitude.

Our pupils are set online Maths homework every day, and morning tutor time is a good opportunity to show the kids who has done the most questions, or who has spent the most time on the Maths programme. Tutors can celebrate this with their tutees, and remind those who aren’t putting in the effort to do so in future. These pep talks are invaluable, as we find now that we often have our weakest pupils making the top ten for Maths prep, and so making huge progress from their starting points.

Before the tutees leave, the tutor gives a swift pep talk for the day, reminding their form of any key expectations they feel they are forgetting (my form last year were in the habit of slouching, so I would take a minute to explain why sitting up straight would help them to focus in lessons), before sending them off for the day.

At break time, tutors are timetabled to be with their form groups for at least ten minutes of that time, so they are able to circulate and speak with individuals, or so that individuals can find their form tutor and speak to them. The same happens at lunch break, when tutors often play table-tennis or basketball with their tutees, and chat and laugh together. Tutors also eat lunch with members of their form each day at family lunch. All of this provides an opportunity for any pupils having a tough time, or seeking reassurance, or struggling academically to find their tutor and express their concerns. It also allows the tutor to seek out pupils who are doing well to congratulate and encourage them, or, if they have a new pupil in their tutor group, to answer their questions and allay their concerns. All of this ‘down time’ together means tutors can really get to know their tutees as individuals, not just as learners.

At the end of the school day, following the final period, the tutor group comes back to their tutor room. After the register, they read their class reader together. Any English teacher knows the joy of sharing a story with a class; at Michaela, all tutors have this same joy. The tutor displays the merits and demerits for the day, week, term or year, congratulating those at the top, having conversations with those who are struggling, and asking those at the top of the chart to explain what they are doing to achieve their merits, to inspire their peers to emulate them.

 

The afternoon is also our time for one-to-one conversations, where co-tutors take out individuals who are struggling academically or with their behaviour. Wander down any Michaela corridor at the end of the day, and it is a hum of urgent, whispered chats between co-tutor and pupil, with our toughest kids having the most support. Co-tutors like Ms Cheng use a little book to set goals for the day – how many merits they wanted to have achieved, homework that needs to be completed, extra revision that is needed – and follow up on these goals.

 

 

Finally, the afternoon is a perfect time for notices and announcements. Tutors also read out the detention list, and can reiterate the teacher’s message of what has gone wrong, and what needs to happen in the future.

Some extra things tutors do:

  • Once or twice a term, give their tutees postcards to express their gratitude to members of teaching staff or support staff.
  • Discuss attendance weekly with tutees, congratulating those on 100% and having discussions with those who have missed a day or two of school.
  • Displaying the number of books each tutee has read weekly and encouraging them to read more.
  • Giving postcards to their tutees: anyone who has been especially kind, worked especially hard is awarded a postcard. This happens at least once a week. Some tutors do a ‘Michaela drum roll’ (like a regular drum roll on the table, but they SLANT as soon as they are asked) to introduce this and build anticipation.

Like everything we do, we are constantly evolving how we do tutor time. We’d love to hear of what other schools find successful, as we are constantly learning from others around the country to improve what we do. In addition, tutors are constantly innovating and trying new things with their tutees. Things individual tutors do are videoed and emailed out to all staff, so that we can learn from each other and do our best by our wonderful children.

 

Fifth year (or: how university should be)

Of all the years at university, the fifth year was the best. Why did I decide to do a Masters when I had found my undergraduate so difficult? And why in History, a subject I hadn’t even studied at A-level?

The summer after fourth year, I found out I had not got a first. I was absolutely crushed, but given the amount of time I had spent in work or in the newspaper office, I had no right to be. There was one thing I knew: I was done with English Literature. I had presented a possible PhD thesis to a tutor in my final year – a psychological study of Milton’s Satan entitled ‘What’s the problem, Satan?’ – only to be laughed out of the room (or actually, the opposite of laughing – ‘you can’t make a joke on your PhD proposal’).

I loved my job at the theatre. I’d been promoted, so I had more responsibilities and more money than I had ever had before. I ate proper meals and was genuinely happy.

I decided I wanted to really challenge myself. In my final year, I had chosen courses I knew I would do well at, but now I wanted to do something I was unsure of. Having spent four years in Ireland, blissfully ignorant of the country’s history, I would spend a year immersed in ‘Modern Irish history.’

To prepare, the summer before I began I read tome after tome on Irish history. I asked everyone I knew who had done a history degree for recommendations. I went from knowing nothing at all to having a very shaky grasp of the chronology on the first day of the course. But I loved learning something new. And I loved reading something different. I read not a single novel for two years after my final year of university. At the time I thought I might never read a novel again. I was done with literature, and literature was done with me. I had never seemed to understand it, and the less I succeeded, the more I grew to despise what I had once most loved.

The Masters was blissful. There might have been 12 or 15 of us taking it, so we all knew each other. We were all total geeks. For once, I totally fitted in. We went for lunch and talked about history. We went to optional seminars just because we wanted to. It was absolutely joyous. I was totally out of my depth, but almost no-one had studied Irish History before, even if they had studied history. I also came to the course without arrogance – I knew I knew nothing. Unlike literature, which I felt so confident about, only to have my ignorance painfully revealed, here I merrily accepted how much I had to learn. My undergraduate degree had knocked humility into me.

And History suited me. Instead of synthesising abstract theories, I was plugging away in the archives, reading documents and letters written hundreds of years before. In History, the long hours spent reading endlessly were rewarded with high marks. I seemed to be doing better at something I had never studied before than I had for my entire first degree.

I grew in confidence. In the second term, I was the only person who chose to take a course which was fiendishly challenging that had hundreds of pages of assigned reading every week, along with plenty of statistics. Now I had a degree, I was paid more to teach drama at the weekends, and I also marked essays for a correspondence course. I invigilated exams for undergraduates. I had worked at the theatre for so long I could choose shifts around archive times and seminars.

Instead of queuing for the library, I swiped into the 24-hour graduate reading room any time I wanted; a beautiful and old room where there was always a place to sit and where you could bring your coffee without anyone seeing you and telling you hot drinks were for outside the library. The 24-hour reading room was full of geeks just like me. I knew few of their names, but all of them to smile and nod at. There is a warm community in the geek world. Now, lecturers wanted to talk to me. I would turn up to their offices and we could talk about the essays I had written or the documents I had found in archives. They would share their research, and point me in the direction of a new cache of papers.

As the year drew to a close, I submitted my PhD thesis proposal again – on nineteenth century Irish history this time. It was well received, and although I didn’t get funding for it, there was the strong suggestion I would if I reapplied the following year.

It would have been lovely to do a PhD. I finally had a lovely, lovely life; super friends and the best part-time jobs ever. But university had made me tougher. I wanted to take the difficult route. I had heard that Teach First was tough, so I decided to do that instead.

 

Summing up

After five years of university, I had not had a full week off. I had barely had a full two-days off. I had counted every penny for five years. I had been genuinely hungry many times. I would not do those five years again for any money. They were difficult years.

But I did not hate university, and I do not hate university.

University killed my arrogance – eventually. It taught me humility would be a surer route to learning. It taught me that work can be the highlight of your day – and that is ok. When I had failed in seminars and failed in the library, I could still turn up and do a good shift at work. We should never despair, because we can always do some good.

And however disappointed I was to not achieve a first, I did not fail. I did not drop out. I finished, despite how difficult it was.

In the amazing musical In the Heights, one of the characters struggles to find her place at university, far from her multicultural home, and wonders what her life would have been like ‘if my parents had stayed in Puerto Rico.’ University is such an immense culture shock, it is tempting during the experience to imagine: what might have been if I had stayed where I was ‘meant’ to stay? If I lived the life my background wanted me to live, instead of living this alien life, this life of literature and theatre and Waitrose?

I have so much to be grateful for: university taught me the value of a good day’s work; it taught me that I was strong enough to withstand slurs and smears and stay standing; it taught me that I could choose the tougher option and succeed in that option. A quote I read recently in The Count of Monte Cristo really resonated with me on this: ‘those who are born with a silver spoon, those who have never needed anything, do not understand what happiness is.’

University was not like I imagined it would be when I read those 1920s novels. Nor was it anything like the experience of some of my closest friends, who describe it as three years of fun and parties. University was a struggle, but the struggle was brilliant.

 

You can also read about my first, second, third and fourth years at university.

Fourth Year (or: I had to pass)

Fourth year started. I was feeling happy. I had good hours working a job I loved that paid well and also enabled me to study while working. I worked on the newspaper stand in Freshers Week when I wasn’t working, encouraging new first years to join us. I had a group of people I loved working with at university, and a group of people I loved working with at the theatre.

But it was also time to get serious. I may have neglected my studies in third year, but I wanted to get a first. I needed to get a first. I was the first person in my family to go to university, and I wanted to show I had thrived there.

At the end of third year I had signed up to do a course in the modern novel and a course in Jane Austen. I had done all the required reading. I had even, possibly for the first time since Atonement in Freshers’ Week, enjoyed it.

But I needed a first. And one of the course leaders had given me a low 2.1 in first year; the other a low 2.1 in second year. I needed to be strategic. I swapped onto two courses with course leaders I’d never had before, but which were topics I had got firsts in previously – Shakespeare, and Old English. And I really did love those courses. We had optional essays for the Shakespeare course, one a week; I completed every single one and got a first for all of them. None of the marks counted towards my final year marks, but it seemed like a good trajectory.

I was balancing three jobs now: the theatre most of the time, teaching weekly drama and creative writing classes, and occasional waitressing at a sports stadium. I was also balancing my commitments to the newspaper and other university societies. I put everything into everything. I studied between customers at the theatre, where I worked with some of my favourite people I had yet met in Dublin. I ran between lectures and the newspaper office. I burned the midnight oil in the library. I was working so much I didn’t need money for anything but three meals a day; for lunches I could finally afford a proper sandwich with any filling I chose. Life was glorious.

There were low points. If you throw yourself into ‘public’ life (or, the public life of the amateur stage that is university), you are a target to be shot at. Plenty of people wrote letters to the editor about how awful my writing was. One person took umbrage at a column I’d written about life after university, alleging I’d been born ‘with a silver spoon’ in my mouth and ‘could rely on Mummy and Daddy’ to bail me out after my degree, which could not have been further from the truth. One person stood up at a society AGM and called me a fraud and a hypocrite. One person stood up at another society AGM and said I had abused society funds for my own personal advancement, when of course I had done no such thing. An email was circulated to the whole English class about me, the content deeply personal and clearly vindictive. When I complained to the university officials, they said they would investigate it if I halted an ongoing newspaper investigation into dodgy aspects of the university administration they did not want being made public. It was my first experience of officials using their position so dishonestly. I refused to pull the investigation, and the writer of the malicious email went unpunished.

I remember the day results came out. I had arranged for the day off work so I could prepare myself. I longed for a first.

Use the links to read about my first, secondthird and fifth years of university.

Third Year (or: I stopped going to lectures)

After the blow of not winning a scholarship, I felt resentment building up about English Literature. I had read everything, and worked so hard, but it had not been enough. Not knowing anything about Dweck and ‘Growth Mindset,’ I declared that English was ‘not my thing,’ and proceeded to throw myself into other aspects of university life.

And third year was in some ways a really wonderful year. I worked for the university newspaper, and for the first time my work felt purposeful. I wasn’t serving drinks to make a pittance, and I wasn’t slaving over books to fail to win a scholarship. I was writing, writing, writing and copy editing; spending whole days and whole nights in the newspaper office over a production weekend, and making actual friends who also got a kick out of working insane hours to produce something concrete at the end of two weeks. I absolutely loved it.

Getting involved in university also had other perks. I found out that there were events that had free drinks, if you only knew the right people, and suddenly I had something of a social life. I worked in a shop, not a bar, so I had evenings free and could actually socialise the way other people did.

The downside of my shop job was, after Christmas (when they had employed a huge amount of extra staff to deal with the massive Christmas bonanza), they kept on far too many of us, which meant there weren’t enough hours to go around. I went from working twenty-five hours a week in term time to being rota-ed for about ten. It was not even enough to pay my rent.

But others who worked in the shop were sometimes flaky. Although my availability for hours was weekends and times when I did not have lectures or seminars, I would often get a call: ‘can you come in for six hours? Someone hasn’t shown up.’ And I would go in.

Third year was the year I started skipping lectures. I didn’t make a habit of it; except that I did, because they always called to offer me hours, and I always said yes. I didn’t want to miss classes, but I did.

When I turned up to the classes, I had done the basic reading but nothing more. I had stopped reading anything to accompany the texts. When I knew I would miss the lecture or the tutorial I didn’t read the text either. I was scraping 2.1s on my essays, which I would painstakingly draft and re-draft in the hum of the newspaper office in between churning out articles and re-writing other people’s. In the newspaper office, I learned the difference between a dash and a hyphen, and when to use a semi-colon. I learned how to check sources and get quotes and find stories. But I did not learn much about English Literature in my third year.

Before exams, the hours had dwindled ever more. Others were feeling the pinch; for some, this was their full time job, and they were working less than 20 hours a week. I resigned just before exams, hoping others could take my hours. I went for a newspaper-related scholarship. After all, I had given up evenings and weekends (in between shifts) to the newspaper. I thought I stood a good chance.

The end of third year brought both good and bad news. I did not win the newspaper scholarship. It turned out, being involved in university societies meant you made enemies as well as friends.

The good news was that I had a new job. I was working in a theatre, selling tickets. It was a different world. For one thing, I got to sit down all day for the first time in three years. For another, they were willing to give me ten-hour shifts six days a week during my university’s summer holiday (on the seventh day, I worked as a teaching assistant at a weekend programme for young people; soon, I was a drama and creative writing teacher there). And finally, when the phone wasn’t ringing or customers weren’t queuing, I could read. It was the perfect solution to my problems. No longer exhausted and run off my feet earning minimum wage, suddenly I could draw the wages of a king (€10.50 an hour!) for sitting and reading. I saw Riverdance five times, and loved it each time more than the last.

In the summer, I looked up my exam results online. 66%. I’d got a 2.1. In fact, I had dropped only one per cent from my first and second year results. The difference in not attending lectures and not spending 8 hours a day in the library was one per cent.

Next week, I will write about my final year of university.

You can read about my first year here, my second year here, my fourth year here and my fifth year here.