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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

 

Assessment in a Knowledge Curriculum

I have written and spoken at length about simplification. In short, I have come to believe that a knowledge curriculum simplifies everything we do as teachers. Rather than considering engagement, entertainment, or pupil interest, a knowledge curriculum relentlessly and ruthlessly prioritises kids learning stuff in the most effective way: that is, reading it, writing about it, and being quizzed on it.

In my past life, here are some ways I assessed pupil learning:

  • Painstakingly marked their books with lengthy written targets for improvement that pupils responded to
  • As above, but for essays and assessments
  • Used spurious National Curriculum levels to denote the level the child appeared to be writing at
  • Developed an assessment ladder based on vague descriptors provided by GCSE exam boards to denote how far a child was from the GCSE expectations
  • Had pupils complete multiple choice exams which, having sweated over making, I would then have to mark
  • Had pupils swap books with one another to write insightful comments such as: ‘good work. Next time, write more’
  • Asked pupils to tell their partner what they know about a topic
  • Asked pupils to write a mind-map of what they know about a topic
  • Asked pupils to make a presentation of what they know about a topic

Not only are the above techniques unnecessarily complicated, they almost never gave me any useful information about what my kids could do.

At Michaela, we ask the kids questions constantly. Every lesson begins with two to five practice drills. In English, this would consist of two or more of the following:

  • A spelling test
  • A vocabulary test
  • A grammar drill
  • A gap-fill on a poem the pupils are memorizing
  • Knowledge questions on a previous unit
  • Knowledge questions on the current unit

We then read some material, and ask the pupils questions to ensure they have understood. The pupils then answer some questions about the material. We then go over the questions as a whole class, and pupils edit their responses using the whole-class feedback. For a lengthier piece of writing, I would use a half-page of feedback as outlined in my post ‘Giving Feedback the Michaela Way.’

For our bi-annual exams, pupils write an essay or, in subjects like Science or Maths, complete an exam paper that tests their ability to apply their knowledge. They also complete two to five ‘knowledge exams,’ which are simply open answer questions about everything they have learned that year. (Example questions from English could be: ‘What is a simile? When did Queen Elizabeth die? When was Macbeth first performed and where?’) We don’t painstakingly mark every paper – instead we sort them swiftly into three piles: A, B and C. A quick glance can tell us how a pupil has done – lots of gaps is a C, a sample glance at a number of correct answers and all questions attempted with a well-worked extension an A; everything in the middle a B.

The reason we can assess so simply is that in a knowledge curriculum there is a correct answer. There are, though we love to deny it, right and wrong things to say about literature. At Michaela, we are explicit about this. When I asked for pupil inferences about Curley’s wife in Of Mice and Men in my previous school, I remember asking them what the colour red could symbolise. Their answer, ‘jam,’ was simply wrong. What we do at Michaela is to codify the knowledge we want the pupils to learn, teach that knowledge, and then relentlessly test that knowledge.

Simple.

Warm – strict  

I have written previously about Teach Like a Champion, a book I feel to be the most important contribution to pedagogy advice I have read. Although it is nearly impossible to pick which of the important techniques are the most vital, ‘warm strict’ is definitely up there: in fact, it may even be the foundation of a successful education.

The thinking behind ‘warm strict’ is that you should not be either the warm, friendly, kind teacher or the strict teacher: you need to be both. And not one after the other – it’s not Jekyll and Hyde – but both, at the precise same time.

So ‘warm’ and ‘strict’ are not mutually exclusive. In fact, at Michaela, we have found that the more strict we want to be, the more warm we have to be.

Anyone who has visited Michaela is immediately struck by the behaviour of the pupils. It is unusual, they say, to find classroom after classroom where 100% of pupils are focused for 100% of the time. Row upon row of eyes are fixed on their teacher, or on their exercise books. There is no staring out the window, no fiddling with a pen, no hanging back on their chairs.

But this does not happen by magic. Watch any Michaela lesson, and teachers are constantly issuing corrections to pupils. These can take the form of reminders or demerits, and are swift and public. ‘Kevon, remember to keep those eyes glued to your page,’ might be issued to a year 7 who is still in terrible habits from primary school, who desperately wants to focus on his work but just isn’t quite in the habit of it. ‘Shyma, that’s a demerit: if you focus 100% on your paragraph you know it will be the best you can do,’ might address a year 9 who is knowingly letting their eyes wander because they are seeking to distract others or themselves. It’s a judgement call, and one we don’t all always get right, but in general Michaela teachers are incredibly consistent in the messages they give the children. (We achieve that consistency through frequent observations – the topic of a future post.)

In my previous schools, I was also issuing constant corrections; the difference was my stress level. With a tough class, counting up those three warnings before issuing a sanction would lead to me delivering corrections with an emotional tone, conveying the stress I was feeling. Because the bar for behaviour is set so ludicrously high at Michaela, and pupils are never doing anything worse in lessons than turning around, whispering or fiddling with a pen, we can all take the time to explain every correction we give throughout the lesson. And we give corrections, reminders, demerits and even detentions with care and love: ‘that’s your second demerit, which is a detention – this will help you to remember to keep your focus so you will achieve your full potential.’

Not only within lessons, but also between lessons, Michaela teachers are seeking out opportunities for warm interactions with pupils. At break time, tutors circulate the hall their year group is based in, shaking hands, chatting about their weekend or their interests; we even have footage of pupils teaching their tutors how to dance. At lunchtime, we eat with our pupils; teachers will seek out kids they have had to sanction or have a difficult conversation with, and use that friendly interaction to reset the relationship in a more positive tone.

Because we are so strict, it is vital that every teacher greets every child with a smile and happy ‘good morning!’ prior to each lesson. Because we are so strict, we must smile and chat with the pupils on the playground, in the lunch hall, and even at the bus stop. Because we are so strict, we need to let our love show.

All truly excellent teachers love their pupils – that seems obvious to me. But if you want to be really, really strict you need to show them that love in every smiling interaction.

Stoicism, humility, space: how Michaela changes the people who work there

One of the things I hear a lot from my colleagues at Michaela is that working at the school has made them better people. Why is it that so many of us feel we have improved as humans through our collective endeavour to teach children? 

Stoicism

‘I’d never heard of stoicism before I worked here. Now I’m reading Epictetus with eleven year olds. It’s mad!’ (Michaela teacher)

We explicitly teach stoicism to the kids from day one of Bootcamp in Year 7. We teach them that adversity is there to test them, and the true test of character is how they choose to respond. They will, like everyone, experience difficulties in their lives: stoicism gives them tools to rise to those challenges.

By continually reminding pupils to ‘stay stoical’ – when they get a detention, when they cut their finger, when they have a cold, when they’re finding a topic or idea difficult, when they have six hours of exams a day in exam week – we are also internalising that message ourselves. It is really quite extraordinary how high staff attendance is at Michaela.

Stoicism is a life-changing philosophy. I’ve recently started reading The Daily Stoic, which is like a Bible for perseverance and perspective. When difficult things used to happen in my life, I would go to pieces. I would cry, or feel anger, or feel that it just wasn’t fair. But now, I remember what we teach our kids: Nelson Mandela spent 27 years wrongfully imprisoned; Victor Frankl endured the miseries of a concentration camp. Nothing that can happen in my life will come close to the suffering they endured, but through our own endurance we can set examples for others.

In August, for example, I slipped a disc in my neck. I was in absolute agony for months, and felt very sorry for myself continually. But when I was tempted to indulge in considering how ‘unfair’ my lot was, I had only to look at the shining example of my step-mother, whose M.S. may make her daily life incredibly difficult, but will not take the smile and positivity from her. She is a force of nature, and a wonderful human to be around. She is an example for me to live up to: if I feel pain, it is nothing compared to what she feels every day; if she can endure it, I can follow her example.

 

Humility

Before I worked at Michaela, I loved being told I was great, and hated being told how to improve. I was, in short, pretty arrogant. But through our culture of candour, and through a culture of continual improvement and continual feedback, through working at Michaela you become more humble. We are all always improving, and come to actually look forward to our candid conversations as we know they will genuinely help us improve.

It is great to work somewhere free of blame. In about my first month of working at Michaela, Katharine asked me to present something at a staff meeting. I came up with a handout I know would have worked well at any of my previous schools and talked people through it. It didn’t seem to go as well as I had anticipated, and I wasn’t sure why.

The next day, Katharine asked me to see her. ‘It didn’t work,’ she said. ‘You’re telling people “why,” but they know why – they need to know “how.”’ Does that sound harsh? It wasn’t harsh in the delivery – it was delivered without blame, without recrimination, in the spirit of sharing information: this didn’t work, so next time do this.

Being humble means you learn more: you don’t write off the first year teacher’s advice because you are more experienced, you don’t discount the ideas of others in the school because of any misguided notion of ‘rank.’ You listen to everyone, and you learn more than you could have ever expected.

 

Space

I do wonder if all schools could be like Michaela in terms of the ethos and atmosphere for staff. Certainly, our workload is very intense – days are packed from 7:30am to 4pm – but we also have evenings and weekends and holidays free to see friends, to see family; to read, to write, to think. I’ve never had so many colleagues go to the theatre mid-week, or go away for the entirety of a half term or long holiday without the slightest qualms.

And every day is zen: silent corridors, quiet classrooms, children behaving beautifully is all conducive to feeling happy to take on difficult advice, and finding it easier to deal with emotional or physical problems. In times of crisis, Michaela is a really lovely place to be.

In my previous jobs, I absolutely loved what I was doing, but I was often exhausted: I would cancel plans at the last minute because I could not bear to leave the sofa at the weekend, I wouldn’t see close friends for months on end, I wouldn’t book long holidays because I knew I would find the workload unmanageable when I returned.

Now, I still love what I’m doing, but it’s not all of my life – it’s part of my life. But that part of my life impacts on everything else, and I find my friendships deepen, and my relationships with my family soften, because I see them more often, and I am more present with them.

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.