Reach 2017

On Monday 23rd October, the first day of the October half term, hundreds of keen educators made their way to Feltham for Reach’s annual conference. The standard is always high, but I felt this year was a particular cracker.

 

NYC after No Excuses: Taylor Delhagen and Mark Lehain

There were two ‘no excuses’ sessions in the first slot: one from Peter Jones, the head of Paddington Academy, on how employing no excuses discipline turned behaviour around in his school, and the other from Delhagen on how he turned his back on no excuses towards a more restorative approach. My overwhelming take away from this was Lehain’s respectful challenge to some of Delhagen’s remarks. Delhagen was a Teach for America whiz kid who was made a Head early on, but grew disenchanted with ‘no excuses’ after seeing the number of children ‘lost’ by that system. Delhagen is a man with a clear mission and morality: he repeatedly asked us ‘where do those children go?’ and reminded us that ‘those children are someone’s problem.’ I don’t think any proponents of ‘no excuses’ discipline I know would disagree. He described as ‘utilitarian’ the challenge that if you do not exclude one child for bringing in a weapon to school, other children will receive the message that this is acceptable, and shared the story of one child at his school, who, after bringing in a weapon, was subject to restorative justice. The child, her parents, parents from the community and other children sat in a circle, and the child could hear the impact her actions had on others. Following this, the child remained in school and succeeded in attending a top university.

A lovely story, of course. And of course schools should not be blindly excluding children. But I don’t think they are. Exclusion is always a difficult call, and the schools that I know do everything they can to ensure all children are included in their communities. But there have to be red lines, and I suspect even Delhagen has them. The child in the story brought in a weapon for her own safety; had she used it on a pupil or member of staff, I suspect the ending would have been very different.

Exclusion does not exclude the possibility of the child understanding the impact their actions have had, and tough sanctions do not prevent conversations and explanations of why their behaviour is unacceptable.

 

The School Improvement Conundrum: Chris Fairbairn, Lydia Cuddy-Gibbs and Clare Sealy

I am ever in awe of Headteachers, and this panel was simply 45 minutes of inspiration. Chris spoke of his experience at Burlington Danes in West London, detailing how seeing first hand the extraordinary transformation executed by Dame Sally Coates had made him believe that ‘change is possible.’ He also spoke of working in two schools prior to headship as helping him to be able to work out what his values were: at Burlington Danes, they did not just focus on results, but also serving the community and creating a great culture for children to learn in. He spoke of challenging entrenched low expectations at his school, Totteridge Academy, a theme he picked up in more depth in his later session.

I had never heard Clare Sealy speak, but her honesty and no-nonsense approach immediately endeared her to me. She outlined being ‘thrown into headship’ with humility, playing down her personal strengths and insisting people liked her ‘because the head before had been mad.’ She was honest about her evolution, saying she had been a phonics sceptic before visiting another school and seeing the impact, and subsequently changing her mind, and suggested that the best headteachers are open-minded to change.

Lydia agreed with Clare, and said the best CPD she had organised was to take a bus-load of her MAT’s headteachers to an excellent school so everyone could see first hand what was possible. She spoke about school improvement ‘beginning and ending with the head’, who needs a strong vision shared by the whole team – including the children.

 

Reach Academy’s First GCSE results – Rebecca Cramer

I always love hearing Rebecca speak – she is the epitome of honesty and humility. This summer, the education world watched in awe as Reach’s first class received extraordinary results, with all but one child achieving a 4 or above in English and Maths. They prioritise academic subjects: 95% of children were entered for the EBacc. Yet Cramer’s speech was focused almost entirely on the mistakes they had made, and what Reach had learned from those mistakes – there is no room for complacency here. Rebecca noted that the new exams had been an advantage, as teachers avoided complacency: they knew it would be tougher, and so did the children. Reach’s small cohort lends itself to mixed ability teaching, and the team are focused on how to stretch top achievers as a result, laying on ‘master classes’ (‘dine for a nine’) and working on injecting more challenge into their Key Stage 3 curriculum (‘teaching excellence beats teaching to the test’).

It is hard to pick out the most useful advice without running to a thousand words on this talk alone, so I will briefly summarise some key take-aways:

  • Don’t run revision until January of Year 11, after their mocks have scared them into working harder. Otherwise, they will burn out and so will you
  • Set grade boundaries in mock exams higher than you think to avoid complacency
  • Relationships are the most important thing – invest in those
  • Focus on every child – not just the loud ones

I loved the idea of a parent and child assembly after the mock exams, after which children are handed their results in an envelope and they ‘feel really sad.’ What Reach do with parents is unparalleled in the state sector, and I look forward to hearing more about how they have engaged them so effectively.

 

In at the deep end: Chris Fairbairn

I was lucky enough to visit Chris at Totteridge Academy in Barnet before half term. It was the day after open evening, and most staff had been at the school late. Yet that morning there was a feeling of elation in the school. As Chris took me around, teachers would stop him to gush: ‘that was the best open evening ever. I can’t believe how different the school is.’ This is after only one year in post. In 2016, 50 parents attended their open evening. This year, it was 450. News is spreading, and a huge amount is down to Chris’s leadership. The school’s progress 8 score improved from -0.45 to +0.32 this year, and the old measure of 5 A*-C including English and Maths was up by 27%.

Chris said the turn-around was down to three main aspects: the power of high expectations, building a reputation, and hard work. He spoke of a staff turnover of 43% and 13 fixed term exclusions in the first week as really setting the tone for higher expectations for both staff and students, all set in the context of a school that had significantly underperformed for decades in the community. The quotation: ‘worry about your character, not your reputation. Character is who your are, and your reputation is who people think you are’ spoke to the core of what Chris does: he draws on deep integrity to make people follow him into battle. This sense of moral purpose is combined with savvy know-how, as he shared some top tips for maximising results with his first year 11 cohort, as he knew they would be a big driver of the school’s success. Chris mentioned two pieces advice from his aforementioned mentor, Dame Sally Coates, which are well worth repeating: ‘surround yourself with amazing people’ (he has done) and, when tough choices need to be made, ‘always go back to what is best for the children.’ I can’t wait to see what happens at Totteridge next.

 

How we approach primary curriculum design – Jon Brunskill

I always love hearing Jon speak – he is full of self-deprecating humour and intelligence in almost equal measure. For every unit at Reach primary, teachers must think: ‘what do I want every single child to know by the end of the unit?’ I can think of no better place to start. Jon says this normally consists of a timeline, key tier 3 vocabulary and key concepts. A guiding principle is also ‘what would I expect intelligent adults to know?’ He uses this to create knowledge organisers that the children quiz on.

Jon drew on Kirschner’s work on long term memory, along with Hirsch’s assertion that background knowledge is the key to reading comprehension, to make a forthright argument about a knowledge-rich primary curriculum that is, frankly, inspirational. Noting that it was impossible to expect primary teachers to be experts in every subject, he recommended the Civitas books as a good place to start, along with the advice that primary teachers be honest about their subject knowledge, and read books to improve it.

Touching briefly on pedagogy, he noted: ‘we don’t do the carousel thing’ (where children teach each other in small groups having been given resources) – ‘if they don’t need a teacher to learn, what are they learning?’ All children end the unit by writing an end of unit essay, and the year 2 work Jon shared was really extraordinary. I can’t wait to see what the children taught his curriculum can do by the end of key stage 2.

 

What can the UK education system learn from other countries? – Lucy Crehan, Alex Beard, Taylor Delhagen, John Rendel

I charged my phone during the last two sessions, so my notes are far more limited. Overall, the message from this panel seemed to be: depressingly little. The consensus was that countries were more different than the same, and that politicians needed to be wary of bringing over whole-sale practices from other countries.

Lucy Crehan spoke of timetabling to allow teachers to specialise in particular year groups and to reduce workload, which I partially agree with – though I think, in the absence of a KS3 curriculum, if you don’t know where they need to be by A-levels or GCSEs this may be sub-optimal for pupils. She noted that part of a practice’s success or failure was also down to implementation, meaning we ought not to dismiss an idea which works well in another country just because we have failed to do it very well ourselves.

There seemed to be some concern about exporting ideas from the UK and USA to other countries for fear of ‘cultural imperialism.’ PISA was seen as a good measurement in general, but policy makers were criticised for over-extrapolating from PISA and using that data to sanction rather than support school systems. John Rendell, speaking about the unions, made the point that the public perception is that they put teachers before students: ‘teachers won’t be respected until they are seen as the protector of student learning and not teacher rights.’

 

New schools – success and failure – Oli de Botton, Max Haimendorf, Rebecca Cramer, Jenny Thompson, Charlie Kennard

As the leaders of these new schools stressed the challenges they had faced along with the successes they had enjoyed, I was amazed by the variation between schools even within one city. Rebecca spoke about undervaluing ‘operations’ early on, and recognising now how vital it is that, for example, the school photocopier works smoothly.

Listening to Max speak was a particular highlight. KSA opened in 2009, and it really was on its own then, doing something completely different. Max travelled to the US for inspiration, stealing the best of what he saw in Uncommon Schools and KIPP. He has stuck with his school for eight years, and despite consistently excellent results was keen to stress the mistakes he felt he had made. (‘Don’t start a school day at 7:55 and end it at 5pm. Some people will burn out.’) His reflections on staff wellbeing and retention, and his honesty in sharing with the room where he had got it wrong, was really extraordinary.

Rebecca started on the original KSA team, but decided for Reach to ‘go it alone’ without a Multi-Academy Trust to back them, and shared the benefits and the challenges this had brought, while Jenny Thompson talked about recruitment issues in Bradford and having to grow staff.

 

Coupled with these incredible talks were plenty of opportunities to catch up with education folk and meet new people. I’m not sure this short post can do the day justice – I will be thinking about what I learned at Reach for a long time to come.

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What Makes Us Happy

At Michaela, we aren’t only focused on our kids working hard, learning loads and achieving great grades. We also want them to be happy. We think long and hard about how we can foster our kids’ happiness, and, having read wisdom literature, there are three strands to building a happier life that we focus on: gratitude, personal responsibility and duty.

Gratitude

In a TED talk, David Steindel-Rast says: ‘It is not happiness that makes us grateful. It’s gratefulness that makes us happy.’ As adults, we have come to find that it is better to give than to receive. Wisdom literature tells us that the more grateful we are, the happier we are; that is why all religions set aside prayers to thank God for what we are given. In secular life, we know that counting our blessings helps us to focus on what we have rather than what we lack, something an increasingly materialistic society wishes us to dwell on.

At Michaela, we know that kids are not naturally grateful – in fact, it is often the opposite. They are surrounded by images of acquisition with constant advertising and MTV-style programmes of the rich and famous, not to mention social media allowing the kids to see the extraordinarily luxurious lives of their idols.

To foster gratitude, we have daily appreciations at lunchtime. The kids take it in turns to say who they are grateful to that day, and for what. We choose ten to twenty children each day to stand up and say, in front of the whole lunchroom (some 180 children and adults) who they are grateful to and why. You can see an example of this in action in this video at around 1:20.

A couple of times a term, tutors also allow pupils the opportunity to write postcards. The pupils are encouraged to write their thanks to a teacher or member of staff who has really helped them. For teachers, there is nothing better than finding a handful of postcards in our pigeon holes with messages of gratitude. We teachers also remember to be grateful to our wonderful kids: every week, every teacher writes three to ten postcards to members of their classes who have made a real effort or really impressed us that week.

 

Personal responsibility

When we believe events to be outside our control, we find life endlessly frustrating. We are stymied in our efforts by continually thinking: if only this wasn’t the case! If only this had happened instead! It is a frustrating way to live, because we cannot control the actions of others. If we focus on how others behave, we will often find ourselves at a dead end, unable to reach our goals.

If, on the other hand, we focus on our own locus of control, we feel much more content. If we are unhappy with how something has gone, instead of blaming the wider world, we instead focus our attention on the things we could have done differently.

So, for example, if a pupil finds themself in a detention they perceive as unfair, we have a conversation with them to talk them through to taking responsibility.

‘But I was whispering because the boy next to me was whispering to me first! Why did I get the detention but he didn’t?’ This reaction leads to anger and resentment. The children feel unhappy that a punishment seems to have been given unfairly. It is hard for kids to understand that teachers are never omniscient, and we can’t catch every infraction. We turn this conversation around by first emphasising that we have strict rules and detentions so that the children can have a peaceful and calm environment to learn in. We then refocus the child on what they can do differently. What can they do next time to change their consequences? Not talk back. If someone whispers to them, they cannot control that person’s actions but they can control their own, and how they respond. Taking responsibility is always better than blaming others. As adults, we know that the best people take the blame and are honest when they get something wrong. As adults, we feel happier when we know we can change things for the future. We want our kids to learn that lesson too.

 

Duty

Modern Western society encourages us to think about our dreams: what do we dream of doing with our lives? What do we dream of achieving? What do we dream of having? Yet focusing on ourselves and what we hope to get, acquire, achieve is not the route to happiness. Inevitably, things will happen in all of our lives to prevent us from ever enjoying the ideal life.

If, instead, we focus on our duty, we can find a surer route to happiness. Duty means finding your contribution. It is not what you can get from society that we should focus on, but what you can give to society.

This was a lesson I learned over many years. I was always very ambitious and very self-focused, never satisfied with what I was achieving, and never just enjoying life for what it was. In taking a demotion to join Michaela, I hugely struggled with my ambitious side. Yet over time I realised that if I focused on my duty instead of my ego, I would be happier. My ego wanted to feel important; but my duty was to contribute to what I firmly believe is a ground-breaking, paradigm-shifting school. To focus on position is frustrating; to focus on what you can contribute to a movement is exciting.

Similarly, we often talk to our kids about legacy: what legacy do you want to leave in the world? What will your contribution be? It can’t be about how much money they want to earn, or how many accolades they wish to be given. Instead, if they focus on what they can give and contribute they will lead happier, more fulfilling lives.

Teach Knowledge

What can you do when you inherit a clueless year 10 or 11 class? Teach them the test. It’s something that teachers who join struggling schools know well. Principals who are drafted in to turn around failing schools are not fools to throw their resources at year 11 intervention, a.k.a., teaching to the test. What is the alternative?

But kids at private schools and grammar schools don’t do better on these tests because they were drilled better in exam technique. They don’t even do better because their teachers are better paid, or better qualified, or their schools have bigger, better buildings. They do better on the tests because they have deep subject knowledge, built up incrementally over a great number of years, often beginning in the cradle with a loving parent’s reading aloud each night.

In state schools, we have, for too long, been teaching skills and neglecting knowledge. In English, we have taught any novel, or any poem, thinking that the thing that is important is the ‘skill’: of reading, of inferring, of analysing. And yet, novel finished, what have the children learned? Daniel Willingham says that memory is ‘the residue of thought.’ The problem with skills-based lessons is that they don’t require thinking about anything you can commit to memory. Nothing is learned because nothing is being remembered. Over years and years of skills-based teaching, children aren’t actually learning anything. They are simply practising some skills in a near vacuum.

And yet, when it comes to the exams, we all know what to do: we teach them the test. We don’t like knowledge, but we’ll drill children in quotations and PEE and techniques used in key poems. We’ll drill kids in how long to spend on each question and how many marks are available. We’ll drill kids on the key words in each question (‘bafflingly, when AQA says “structure”, what they actually mean is…’). And then we will complain that we have to teach to the test.

I say ‘we,’ because I am equally culpable. Before joining Michaela, I could not see an alternative way of teaching English. Surely it was all about the skills! Who cared when Oliver Twist was written or what the characters’ names were? The kids could look that stuff up! What mattered was their ideas about the text!

We hugely underestimate how vital knowledge is. Skills-teachers across the land cannot work out why their kids cannot improve their inferences, cannot improve their analysis. Why can’t their ideas about the text just be a bit, well, better?

The kids’ ideas can’t be better because they don’t know enough. We don’t think it matters whether they learn chronology, but we forget that it is not obvious to children that Dickens is a Victorian. It is not obvious to children that Shakespeare is an Elizabethan. It is not obvious to children that the Elizabethans pre-date the Victorians. They simply do not know this.

The children who grow up being taught facts and knowledge will thrive in their national exams. They will use all their background knowledge and cultural literacy to deliver deft insights in glorious prose, and sweep up the top grades with ease. The children taught through skills will improve slowly, painfully, and nowhere near fast enough to compete. They will endure two years of teaching to the test and lose any love of learning they might have gleaned in the previous years.

Is there another way? Of course: teach a knowledge-based curriculum from the very start. Stop giving the rich kids a head start.

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.