Visiting Michaela

When I first visited Michaela, it was in July of 2015. What I saw on that day changed my view of education forever. I left the school in a daze, both dazzled by what was possible. Many of our recent recruits tell a similar story. Some applied for a post on a whim, not really sure what our school was about. The visit changed everything. Reading about our school is great. Seeing it in action is something else.

My visit proved the catalyst for my involvement with the Michaela project. Today, I still feel a little starstruck when I walk into Katharine’s office, or watch Olivia Dyer teaching, or hear Katie Ashford speaking. I feel so lucky and so proud to work at Michaela.

At our event in November to launch our book, people had come to us from so far away. Their joy was palpable, as they came up to various Michaela teachers. ‘We’ve been up since 5am! We’ve read so much! We’re so excited to be here!’ was something I heard so often, I had to pinch myself. I am so lucky to work at Michaela.

On Twitter we have said to people: ‘don’t believe us? Come and visit!’

And they do. We’ve had to organise new systems to deal with the massive influx of visitors. And we didn’t mind that, because so many people came, saw, and took back ideas and methods to use in their own schools. Countless visitors sent us glowing letters of thanks, praising our lovely school and, in particular, our lovely children. We framed the letters, and read them out in assemblies. The children glowed with pride: they felt so lucky, and so proud, of our school. And we were happy to spend the time to spread the ‘good word.’ Our pupils were so proud to show guests around, and explain everything they knew about their school.

Now, not all visitors were respectful. We’ve had visitors cancel at the last minute – the day before, or on the day, causing untold difficulties with the administration at our end. We’ve had visitors turn up with seven of their colleagues unannounced, expecting it wouldn’t matter how many of them there were. We’ve had visitors make dietary requests at lunch, as if we were a restaurant and not a school. We’ve had visitors become annoyed because their specified date or time was not available. We’ve had visitors email on Sundays, following up their Saturday email, asking why no one has got back to them yet, as if we were a business, and an eternally open one at that. We’ve had visitors demand to speak to various Heads of Department or Deputy Heads, as if those people didn’t have a school to run.

None of these demands are quite as disrespectful as what some visitors to our school have done. We have had visitors take away lesson materials, even out of pupils’ books. We have had visitors rifle around a teacher’s desk; even her drawers. Visitors have frequently interrupted a teacher while they are teaching, sometimes only to ask where the toilets are. We have had visitors filming our lessons without permission, or taking photographs of our children. We have had guests asking children what set they are in, even after being explicitly told to not mention setting to our pupils as we do not share this information with them. We have had visitors talk loudly to pupils who are desperately trying to concentrate on their silent practice, or their teacher’s instruction. We have had visitors hide in the toilets, making long phone calls, while their guides stood waiting for them, unsure of what to do when the guest asked for an extension on their thirty minute tour afterwards. We have had visitors talk to each other, loudly, in the back of the classroom, disturbing the learning of our children.

 So we have had to chase visitors down to delete images or wrestle our materials from them, and start reminding people before they visit of the etiquette of a school, and begin emailing out our prospective visitors with guidelines of how to behave, and what to do and what not to do.

And then there was worse. Much worse.

More recently, we have had hostile visitors. People who have come to our lovely school, only to look for what is wrong with it. Some have written blogs and Tweets, deliberately misrepresenting our school, and containing factual inaccuracies of things they have not understood, but have not bothered to ask for more information about. Visitors who have come with an agenda to destroy, not caring about who they are hurting in the process: the children.

We have had guests aggressively questioning the children taking them around – year 7, year 8, year 9 pupils. People, teachers, who have bombarded our children with leading questions, perplexing them and upsetting them: ‘aren’t the lessons boring? Do you hate this school? Do you think your teachers are too controlling? Do you feel oppressed? Isn’t this school much too strict?’ One visitor told a pupil over lunch: ‘your teachers aren’t teaching you Science properly. There is a much better way to do it,’ and proceeded to explain he could teach him science using football.

This week, over lunch, one of our pupils in our lowest attaining group, who is also a guide for visitors, sat with our Headmistress. Deeply shaken, she said: ‘Miss. They say our school is bad. I don’t know what to say to them. I love our school.’ She did not want to be rude to the guests, but she did not know what to say. Katharine, who had before wanted to open our school to those who wished to learn, began to question the wisdom of our approach.

Our concerns reached their apex this week, when one visitor, a non-teacher, raised a safeguarding concern with our Headmistress about the aggression the pupil guides were enduring from another visitor, a teacher, who was on the same tour. And of course, we take safeguarding concerns very seriously.

So it is with great sadness that we are closing our doors to guests for the moment. Although parents of pupils attending our school are always welcome at any time, we need to protect our children. We need to focus on educating them, and keeping them safe. We opened our doors to guests so we could share the love and the joy of what is happening here. Instead, our children have been compromised by the political blindness of some of our guests, who haven’t come to have their minds opened, but have instead come seeking confirmation of their prejudices, and have put vulnerable children at risk in order to do this.

We will still share through blogs, through Twitter, through images and videos we take, what we are doing at Michaela. And in the meantime, we will try to find a way that we can have visitors in without putting our children at risk. We do want to keep our doors open to teachers who are genuinely interested in what we are doing. The difficulty is distinguishing between those guests, and those who are putting our children at risk. We hope to have found a solution to this in early 2017.

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