I can honestly say I did not foresee 2015. For me, 2015 was a year of dramatic changes, both personal and professional. In 2015, I saw things differently, and it was really, really hard.
Could it be a product of turning 30? Could my willingness to move away from what I had always taken to be a given have been signaled by my growing awareness of the brevity of life? Have I, in plain terms, had a mid-life crisis?
It is possible. I’m going to talk about one of the big, controversial choices I made in 2015 and why I made it.
In September, I took on a post as Assistant Principal for Curriculum Design at a large academy. I couldn’t believe it: my dream job in my dream school. It was everything I had wanted: a big promotion, whole-school responsibility, and an opportunity to change the minds and practices of every teacher in a big academy. When I started in September, it was even better than I had hoped. People listened, engaged, argued, and, swiftly, started to get on board. Change was, in many ways, rapid. I realised straight away I was working with some phenomenal people: an understanding line manager who ‘got it’ on every level; a Head of English and Head of Communications who were not only smart but massively fun to hang out with in the office we all shared, and a core group of individuals I ‘clicked’ with. Then there were the children: they were something else. Despite coming in massively far behind, despite every conceivable deprivation and difficulty, they were joyous. Within days, children I didn’t teach were greeting me politely; classes at first a little wild soon accustomed themselves to my preference for silence and made ridiculously good progress, and I was even beginning to enjoy the challenge of teaching, for the first time, out of my specialism. I could see myself building my career here.
So why on earth would I leave such a job?
I met Joe Kirby, Katie Ashford and Bodil Isaksen for the first time in January 2013. Between the three of them, they changed the way I thought about everything in education. They presented a radical departure from the norm to me, and although I held firm for a long time, eventually truth and research won me over. I could argue no more: there was a better way of doing what I did. I had to kill my darlings: group work, student-led activities, student research, and skills-led lessons. In the summer of 2013, when Joe, Katie and Bodil were about to found what would become Michaela Community School, I thought briefly about trying to join them. I dismissed the idea almost immediately. Why would I join something so untested? How did they know these ideas would work in practice? Then there was my own career trajectory – I was about to become Head of English; my next career move would be Assistant Head, not Head of Department again.
Then I visited. I saw what they had created, and I was awestruck. Here the ideas were, in their purest form. The children were amazing; so engaged; their progress more rapid than I could even have imagined. The curriculum was inspirational – the very best texts, the most important ideas, carefully organised for maximum student learning. And I met, for the first time, Katharine Birbalsingh, who in 20 minutes of discussion taught me more than I’d ever learned in such a short time about leadership, and what it meant to be a brave and bold leader.
But I was on the cusp of my next job, the job I’d always wanted; the trajectory I had so desired. Why would I leave that? Again, the job advert had come at the wrong time. Taking a step ‘back’ to be Head of Department again is hard on the ego. It is hard when you think about perceptions, and what others will think. ‘Oh, she couldn’t hack it at a tough school.’ ‘She wasn’t ready to be a senior leader.’ ‘It was too hard for her.’
Let them think that. I could have impact in my school in my context as Assistant Head. But as part of the Michaela team, we have the potential to change the whole education paradigm. If the ideas work, and it is a big if, predicated on massive amounts of work and effort, when the school is to scale, it could be the exemplar that moves leaders in education around the country to change what and how children are taught, and to avoid teacher burnout on a massive scale. I don’t want to stand by and watch as my closest friends change the world. I want to be part of that team.
So I have, after a short term, left my dream job. I have defied my own expectations for what a career progression should look like. I have let down colleagues and children at a school I promised to be a part of for long-term change. All of this is true.
And yet, I am hopeful. I am hopeful that, at Michaela, I can build an English curriculum that will endure for twenty years or more. I am hopeful that, at Michaela, I can learn from some of the best professionals in the country. I am hopeful that, at Michaela, we can destroy all the remaining doubts that ‘children like these’ can achieve at the highest levels in the hardest subjects. I am hopeful that, at Michaela, I can be a part of a school that will change the way children are taught and the way our profession is run.