Top reads of 2016

Education reads:

Doug Lemov: Reading Reconsidered

I wrote at length about Lemov’s book – safe to say, it will revolutionise your teaching. Everyone should read this – not just English teachers. Lemov deeply considers the best way to read with classes, but also how to blend fiction and non-fiction for optimal understanding.

Amy Chua: Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother

I also wrote at length about Chua’s book, which we now all read at Michaela for our staff CPD. Chua’s book is wildly funny, but also exposes a totally different paradigm for thinking about kids and discipline.

Roger Scruton: Culture Counts

My whole way through university, I thought I was stupid. I didn’t ‘get’ post-structuralism, post-colonialism, Foucault or Derrida. It turns out, there is an alternative way of viewing culture. Reading Scruton felt like a warm blanket. For others, this book might feel like more of a scratchy towel in its challenge. Whatever your values, this is a must-read for anyone interested in curriculum.

Michael Puett: The Path

This book is eminently useful for the way it showcases the Eastern paradigm. I stole an example from it in my speech at the Michaela book launch, with the toddler who says ‘thank you’ mindlessly, growing into the adult who can use the word with thought and understanding, to challenge the idea that explicitly teaching children (knowledge or behaviour) does not lead to adults who flail without the structures of a school.

J.D. Vance: Hillbilly Elegy

Vance’s tome details his life and upbringing, and interweaves through this narrative some fascinating statistics. It gives educators pause for thought on what is really needed to ensure poor kids succeed, and triumph against not only poverty, but the ideas and values that keep poor kids poor.

E.D. Hirsch: Why Knowledge Matters

This is the best of Hirsch’s books yet – a lucid and compelling case for knowledge. It is the number one book to read if you’re interested in the knowledge debate, or if you’re still not sure that teaching knowledge is the best way to raise academic standards for all children.

 

Other non-fiction:

Charlotte Gordon: Romantic outlaws: the extraordinary lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley

If you love the Romantics, and you especially love the Romantic ladies, this is a must-read. An eye-opening lens on Shelley’s life and her mother’s influence on it, with the male poets an intriguing sub-plot (for once).

Howard C. Cutler: The Art of Happiness

This was the year I decided to try to calm my mind and quell my anxiety. Spoiler: I have not succeeded (yet). But this was one of the most helpful books in providing a different perspective on happiness, with some genuinely excellent advice to be mindful of in a modern world obsessed with acquisition and status.

Jon Ronson: So You’ve Been Publically Shamed

I read this book in the summer (and if you know anything about Michaela you probably don’t need me to explain why) and found it both hilarious (in its tone and humorous examples) and troubling. Why do we feel like we can hurl insults at people on the internet in a way we never would in real life? Anyone interested in this should also watch the latest series of Black Mirror on Netflix.

Simon Sebag Montefiore: The Romanovs

Undeniably the most fascinating royal family in the history of the world, Montefiore’s tome explores the very beginning of their dynasty right through to the bloody and harrowing ending. This historian’s gift is to render those of the past in a convincingly human light, with details and insights from correspondence carefully chosen to humanise the fated monarchs. 

Fiction:

Margaret Drabble: The Millstone

Drabble’s central character in this little book defies every expectation of her society. A virgin when everyone around her is experimenting, then rapidly reversing to become an unwed mother who keeps her child against all the advice. The heroine will fill you with hope and admiration at her calm perseverance.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: Americanah

This book deftly interweaves ideas about race, class, history and geopolitics. The central character’s experience of moving from Nigeria to America and back again, with all the cross-cultural difficulties anyone who has lived overseas can empathise with, is intertwined with a quite beautiful love story. The shifting lens of the story is beautifully crafted, as we follow the heroine, who tells much of her lengthy tale to us at the salon, revealing her hopes, dreams, and fears in the most beautiful prose I read all year.

Elizabeth Jane Howard: The Light Years

This is the first of a long series of novels that document the lives and loves of a family living just before the Second World War. The cast of characters is large, but through different chapters you slowly begin to sense them knitting together, as they negotiate the start of the greatest upheaval of modern times.

 Elizabeth Von Arnim: The Enchanted April

I bought this book on an absolute whim, loving the idea of four strangers on holiday in a castle in Italy. A wonderful period piece, the whimsical nature of the chief perspective lends a childish delight and joy to all she sees. A life-affirming read. 

Zadie Smith: NW

This is my favourite of Smith’s novels yet. I loved the setting – near my school, I felt this gave an insight on the area I’m starting to get to know – and the relationships between the characters. At the centre is a strange relationship between two schoolgirls who have grown into very different adults, and surrounding them a cast of eternally intriguing others.

Joanne Harris: Different Class

This is a fantastically fun read, with a twist mid-way through that led me to frantically re-reading the first half of the novel to work out how I could have possibly missed it. Set in a traditional private school with a relentlessly modernising Headteacher, this novel also contains pertinent insights on education! 

Agatha Christie: Murder on the Orient Express

Despite my shameless love of murder mysteries, I had never read a single Agatha Christie novel before this year. A summer holiday to Devon changed all that. (Prior to reading ‘Murder on the Orient Express,’ my other choice for this slot was ‘Gone Girl,’ which is great by the way.) Christie is the absolute master of this genre. I’m now totally addicted to her novels. 

Anne Bronte: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall

I’ve spent a lot of this year working on (and teaching) nineteenth century fiction, and I’ve come to enjoy it more than I could have possibly anticipated. Anne Bronte is the lesser read of the sisters, and this novel is disconcertingly modern: dealing with a painful, disastrous marriage, and forbidden love, you quickly forget that this is a novel not set in our own time. I would only caution do not read the blurb of the book which will absolutely ruin the plot twist. 

William Boyd: Any Human Heart

The wonderful Liz Cowley gave me this book, and it is now one of my all-time favourites. We follow the central protagonist through his journals, experiencing his life and all its adventures, longings, desires, failures. Deeply moving.

Advertisements

Thoughts on ‘Cleverlands’ by Lucy Crehan

I have been excited about Lucy Crehan’s book for what seems like eons, and it does not disappoint. Unlike Amanda Ripley’s (also excellent) The Smartest Kids in the World, Crehan’s book has real direction and pulls together helpful strands, always with a focus on what we in the UK (or in the USA, as she makes frequent allusions to both countries) might learn from these successful systems. Crehan’s style also fuses strong, robust research with anecdote, all told in a witty and engaging style evoking a sense of a travelogue. 

Early on Crehan refers to her research as a ‘geeky gap year.’ Many teachers would surely envy her travels, but she does not shy away from evoking some of the tougher aspects of travelling from place to place, spending around a month in each country, teaching, observing, helping and discussing education.

There is much to be learned from almost all of the countries explored by Crehan, and I was pleasantly surprised by which I learned the most from in reading Cleverlands.

As a former ‘progressive’ teacher, I used to hold up Finland as an example of all that progressive education could accomplish: comprehensive, child-centred, homework-less. But as its PISA results have flagged, and my own pedagogical values have shifted, I have increasingly turned my back on this previous analysis, listening instead to those who claim Finland’s previous results were down to its earlier, more traditional methods.

And yet I learned much from Crehan’s chapters on Finland; perhaps more so than any of the other chapters. She points out that in 2012, Finland was still the highest scoring non-Asian country. Her analysis ranges over the late school start – age 7 – and the counter-intuitive ‘learn through playing’ ideology that pervades these early years. But the focus in those years is on making children school ready, and Crehan cites extensive research showing that it makes no difference if children begin school early or late.

In fact, trying to teach very young children difficult skills may even prove counter productive: ‘like scattering seeds on a path, trying to teach children to read aged one or two will be unproductive, as they don’t have the skills, the language abilities or the cognitive capacity to be able to do it yet.’ Moreover, such a focus could ‘detract from the time they could be using to develop the knowledge and skills that are needed’ to be ready to learn to read.

Crehan considers the success of Finland’s comprehensive system to be due to its slow lead-in time, extensive training, and oversight and inspection of teachers and schools until its full establishment. And Finland is fully comprehensive, down to mixed ability classes, which make a number of appearances in the book. The focus for the Finnish teachers is on the weakest kids: one teacher opines ‘the brightest kids, they’ll learn anyway, whatever you do with them.’ This equity is also reflected in school structures; only the Headteacher is different in the hierarchy. There are no department heads, or senior teachers. There is no performance related pay.

Teachers are continuously developing their own practice independently, genuinely engaging with research and education and cultural writing, and there is a palpable culture of believing this makes them better at their jobs. Crehan warns, though, that this is only possible with a highly motivated workforce.

Of the often celebrated ‘teacher autonomy’ of Finland, Crehan has much to challenge, beginning with a 1996 report on Finnish schools which found: ‘whole classes following line by line what is written in the textbook, at a pace determined by the teacher… you could have swapped the teachers over and the children would never have noticed the difference.’ From Crehan’s observations, she notes a ‘consistently traditional approach’ in classrooms, with lessons ‘led by the teacher, but with substantial whole-class interaction.’ High quality textbooks are ubiquitous. Teachers are not forced to use these, but she points out it would be foolish not to. As Finland has no official exams until age 18, these textbooks are not focused on drilling to a test, but instead on promoting ‘engagement and deep understanding’ of the topics.

Where Finland’s values are reflected in each of its schools, Japan’s system seemed the least coherent. Whereas middle schools invoke military discipline to toughen kids up for high school (Crehan includes one of many brilliant details in outlining the lightweight uniform being entirely useless in winter, but due to layers and coats being forbidden the children ‘buy self-heating pads, which they put in their socks and stick to their backs on the really cold days’), the primary schools are almost completely devoid of any behaviour system, with teachers relying on the children to discipline each other using peer pressure. Teachers are graded A to E, but never know their grade, and they are moved from school to school as their district sees fit. The families in Japan demonstrate strong support for education, with mothers expected to ‘retire’ when pregnant and devote their lives to raising kids, and the school constantly admonishing parents for not supervising children’s homework if it is not done.

More positive aspects include the curriculum: in Japan it is, according to Crehan, narrow but deep. Teachers share planning, and all teach the same lessons. They support struggling pupils outside lesson time.

A large proportion of Crehan’s discussion on Singapore schools pertains to selection, which occurs throughout the system, with streaming beginning early, and schools sorted into more and less academic. Personal responsibility is strong in the chapters on Singapore, and Crehan cites former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew saying: ‘nobody owes you a living.’ The schools are extremely competitive, and private tuition is big business: kids are often being tutored until 10pm or even later, as the exams increase in difficulty every year. The ‘disparity between what is taught at school and what is in the exams puts further pressure on parents to fund private tuition,’ which Crehan dubs a ‘shadow education system.’

The results of this highly competitive system are indisputably impressive: even the poorest pupils in Singapore are far ahead of their Western counterparts. Yet here, Crehan challenges her reader to think more carefully about what equality looks like. Because although the poorest echelons and weakest performers in Singapore are far ahead of other countries, ‘it doesn’t mean they have better academic opportunities, as their advantaged peers in their own country are still ahead of them, filling the places in the junior colleges and forcing them onto less academic courses.’

In Shanghai, the overriding message was that a Chinese value is that everyone is capable of learning. Success was not considered to result from innate ability, but effort. All work is given to all children, meaning the work is pitched to the top: weak pupils are ‘given challenges rather than concessions, and were expected and supported to rise to them.’

Interestingly, the parents in China ‘tend to play down their children’s successes, because they see it as their role to promote effort in their children… when parents from Eastern cultures point out a child’s failings or mistakes, its whole purpose is to allow the child to grow and improve.’ This puts the writings of Amy Chua into perspective, and helps to explain to a Western mindset why, though the Chinese mother might seem ‘cruel’, it is, in fact, working from a different paradigm in raising children’s expectations of themselves. Like Japan, schools constantly communicate with parents and hold them to high standards. In lessons, pupils are taught didactically, but there is little time for extended practice – this is done as homework.

Of all the countries covered, Canada to me sounded more nightmarish. Crehan outlines a national curriculum full of discovery learning and group work. Yet Crehan herself in fact favours Canada, praising its balance between ‘the teaching of academic content and broader cognitive, social and moral skills and traits.’

There is much to learn from this extraordinary work, but one aspect I found compelling was the teaching in nearly all the above examples in mixed ability classes. Since moving to Michaela, I have really enjoyed teaching streams – lessons move at a pace the very vast majority of the class is comfortable with, and I can give whole-class feedback that is relevant to all pupils. Teaching to the top in a mixed ability class is not impossible, but it does rely on the weakest children working the hardest: doing more homework, and coming to teachers for individual support. This is possible in a culture where hard work and personal struggle to achieve are normalised. The practical reality, in my experience, is that the weakest kids are also the least invested: the least likely to do homework, and the least likely to attend additional clubs (non-teachers wouldn’t believe how hard it is to get kids who have fallen behind to attend catch-up clubs put on specifically for their benefit). But what we can take from the mixed ability argument is a need to pitch our curriculum to the top, so we teach all children the same stuff. This could be done by changing the allocation of lessons, so weaker children do the same high-quality work, but just have more time to spend on that tough material.

This book is fascinating for its research, but it is also a crucial one for all educators in that it reminds us that education is about values. More than once, Crehan asks: ‘would you want this in your country?’ This is why education will always be a knotty issue, because we do not have a consensus on values. We know what works to improve pupils’ behaviour, learning and habits, but what we don’t know is whether we all want pupils to behave in a certain way and know certain things. This book is crucial to prompt reflection from all educators.

cleverlands

Team Mentality

 

‘If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.’

Western society prioritises individual achievement. Many of us spend our lives in this paradigm, and Western society applauds us for doing so. We are focused on ourselves: what grades can I achieve in my exams? What kind of degree can I get? How impressive can my first job after University be?

And teachers are not immune to this. We are surrounded by people climbing the ladder, reaching for the stars; young headteachers are showcased by the media and applauded. We are programmed to aspire and to achieve.

I’ve written before about why I chose to join Michaela. Doing so meant stepping out of the ‘ladder’ mentality: I was an assistant headteacher in two schools prior to becoming a Head of Department here.

But it also meant stepping out of the ‘individual achievement’ paradigm. Before I began, I thought: ‘let’s see how fast I can be promoted.’ But when I started, I realised that I was in utterly the wrong paradigm. It wasn’t about me anymore. In fact, it had never been about me to begin with.

When weighing up the decision to join Michaela, Katharine gave me some honest options: ‘if you want to be a headteacher quickly, stay where you are. You’re not going to be a head fast if you come with us. In fact, it will slow you down.’ How badly did I want to be a headteacher? Really badly. But why? I wanted to change the lives of thousands, not hundreds, of children. But was that all? Or did I also want the ‘glory’? The responsibility, the excitement of being in charge?

I forced myself to face reality. Would I be ready to be a headteacher in five years? Or maybe even less? What kind of mistakes was I liable to make if I was promoted too quickly? How many people – adults, children – would suffer because of my ambition?

At Michaela, it’s not about me – it’s about the team. And that is, of course, how it is in other schools, for people who have left behind their ego, as I have learned to. I may not go fast, but it’s not about that. We, as a team, will go far. Together, we can accomplish what I could never do on my own. How could I make an extraordinary science curriculum, as Olivia Dyer has done? What do I know about Geography, History and Religion? Nothing compared to Jonny Porter. I took A-level French, but I don’t have a hope of teaching people to teach languages like Barry Smith and Jess Lund. And Maths? I can barely add up without using my fingers to count. Dani Quinn has a degree from Oxford. I don’t even know the first thing about how to teach grammar, and I’m an English teacher with a degree in English! I need Katie Ashford.

At Michaela, I’ve stopped focusing on what I can get, and started thinking about what I can give. When I have extra capacity, I ask Katharine what other parts of school life I can contribute to. That’s why I have had the opportunity to help to shape our CPD sequence, which I write about in our forthcoming book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers. I’ve been able to do so much more in a school where everyone works as a team, and the impact on the kids is beyond belief. With all of us ‘rowing together,’ the boat gets a lot further.

Our book is a great example of this. Individually, the teachers at Michaela write a whole heap of brilliant blogs. But this book is more than one person’s perspective. Instead, it is the perspective of twenty people, who all contribute to make our wonderful school the happy, productive place it is. We are a team, and team beats individual every time.

51-akisuugl-_sy344_bo1204203200_

Hillbilly Elegy

Like it or not, our society is fraught with class divisions. I was hooked from the first to J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy. Like Vance, I would now consider myself middle class – university educated, well-paid and a person with a gym membership I actually use. But it was not ever thus. Like Vance, my parents experienced extraordinarily different lives to my own: my Mum is one of seven, and with two unemployed parents the family of nine squashed themselves into the village council house I later grew up in (by which point it was immense for the three of us – Mum, Nan and me). She was the only one of the seven siblings to get into a grammar school (despite initially failing the eleven plus), and despite her promise, left school at sixteen to join the army, as did my Dad (who also failed the eleven plus), one of six. My children will have a very different childhood to my parents’, or even mine.

‘You’re reading about your people!’ mocked my other half (who is what we both jokingly refer to as ‘middling’). And in some ways I was, and in some ways I wasn’t. Our society is fraught with class divisions, and despite my roots, an assisted place to a private school largely took me out of my ‘natural’ world at an early age, just as my Mum’s grammar school had taken her from hers.

Hillbilly Elegy is Vance’s story of how he beat the odds of poor ‘white trash’ kids in the US and ‘got out.’ Fringe success stories are one thing, but how do we replicate that success for all children? I think there are some places this book helps us to understand, and other places where solutions are suggested.

In the Ohio of Vance’s experience, ‘the statistics tell you that kids like me face a grim future – that if they’re lucky, they’ll manage to avoid welfare; and if they’re unlucky, they’ll die of a heroin overdose.’ Poor and socially isolated, Vance describes poor whites in America as inhabiting a culture ‘that increasingly encourages social decay instead of counteracting it.’

He remembers a $13 an hour factory job he had in Ohio, one he explains is excellent pay for the area and for the requisite skills. He was shocked his boss found it hard to recruit, but could understand why. Vance refers to one employee with a pregnant girlfriend, who had ‘every reason’ to hold onto that job, who was chronically late, a poor worker, and would take 45 minute bathroom breaks. When he was inevitably fired, the worker railed against the boss for not understanding that he had to support a girlfriend and child, taking no responsibility for what had happened.

For hillbillies, the value of hard work is proclaimed but not enacted. Vance cites a neighbour who had received welfare (benefits) her entire life who would ‘blather on about the importance of industriousness’ and people who ‘abuse the system’: ‘this was the construct she’d built in her head: most of the beneficiaries of the system were extravagant moochers, but she – despite never having worked in her life – was an obvious exception.’ I remember teaching An Inspector Calls for the first time, and being shocked that in a school with over 70% pupil premium, 100% of my class were on the Birlings’ side, blaming Eva Smith for her plight. When we discussed benefits, more than one pupils angrily said the government shouldn’t be giving them to anyone except their own parents, who were an exception. Vance too tackles this cognitive dissonance: ‘we talk about the value of hard work but tell ourselves that the reason we’re not working is some perceived unfairness: Obama shut down the coal mines, or all the jobs went to the Chinese.’

The experience of the hard-working hillbilly seems to come into constant conflict with the others of the ‘same’ social class: working in a grocery store, Vance discovers how the welfare system is gamed: they’d buy two dozen-packs of soda with food stamps and then sell them at a discount for cash. They’d ring up their orders separately, buying food with food stamps, and beer, wine, and cigarettes with cash… I could never understand why our lives felt like a struggle while those living off government largesse enjoyed trinkets that I could only dream about.’ So why wasn’t Vance one of ‘them’?

This seems largely down to the influence of his ‘crazy’ grandmother, Mamaw, who early on in the book tells young Vance: ‘never be like these fucking losers who think the deck is stacked against them. You can do anything you want to.’

Throughout the book, Vance is struggling to explore where responsibility lies. He describes the decay of the town; the boarded up shops and houses where druggies lurk; jobs declining but federal programmes helping people to buy their homes trapping them with immense debt in areas where there are no jobs. He describes his mother’s spiralling drug addiction, noting how he scoffed when she came back from a Narcotics Anonymous meeting calling her addiction ‘a disease,’ finding this ‘patently absurd.’ Yet he also acknowledges that there is some research that supports such a view of abuse – the difficulty is that patients who believe their addiction is a disease find it far harder to get clean.

So often in this book, the statistics don’t answer the questions Vance is asking: ‘why didn’t our neighbour leave that abusive man? Why did she spend her money on drugs? Why couldn’t she see that her behaviour was destroying her daughter?’ The closest he can come is to tell stories which reveal the values of the people he grew up with. There are countless stories centred on loyalty, for example: the need to use violence to defend the honour of family members is cited on several occasions, and in one story his grandparents trash a store after an assistant is rude to young J.D. Vance. He writes of violence and shouting matches as the norm in relationships, and compares the unpredictability of his parents’ responses to ‘living among land mines’.

So the crucial question: how did Vance succeed against the odds?

  1. ‘Mamaw’

Vance’s grandmother is a pillar of predictability – even if she is predictably insane, her reactions are at least easy to predict. Vance hides out in her house when things get tough, and finds there somewhere quiet. In fact, he says he is a mediocre pupil until he moves in with her full time for the final three years of his education: ‘three years with Mamaw – uninterrupted and alone – saved me.’

Speaking to a teacher at his old high school, Vance says the teacher told him: ‘they want us to be shepherds to these kids. But no one wants to talk about the fact that many of them are raised by wolves.’ Interestingly, Vance never blames his ‘sub-par’ high school for his initial lack of academic success, instead expressing frequent gratitude for qualified teachers and a fully funded school building.

Mamaw has the right priorities – while Vance talks about the Hillbilly tendency to spend huge sums of money on Christmas, financed with credit cards or pay-day loans, Mamaw does not buy him ‘cell phones or nice clothes’ but when a teacher says he needs a $180 ‘graphing calculator’, she buys it for him, and uses the guilt over this expensive purchase to shame him into working harder at Maths.

  1. The Marines

The most revealing section of the book for me was this one, perhaps because both of my parents joined the army at age 15 and 17. For them, it was the key to a future: to travel, learn and be responsible members of society. I truly believe the army is strongly to be thanked for my own childhood: Mum may have held down two or three jobs at a time, and she may have raised me alone, but dinner was always on the table at 6pm, she was never even thirty seconds late for any of her jobs, and the house was always spotless. Routine is important for all of us, but especially for children.

Conversely, after a troubled and unpredictable childhood, Vance relates that ‘everything about the unstructured college experience terrified me.’ (As a sidenote, I do wonder if part of why poorer kids struggle in University is due to a lack of structure in earlier life – the middle class kids, in comparison, have had a lifetime of structure and so are not only able to structure their own lives independently, they also look forward to a little less structure at University.)

So instead of going straight to University, Vance joined the Marines. In his 13 weeks of bootcamp (where he was entirely cut off from home and family, with no phone calls allowed) he experiences harsh discipline. Taking a slice of cake on the first day, his drill instructor says: ‘you really need that cake, don’t you, fat-ass?’ as he smacks the cake out of his hands. Vance notes: ‘if you’d told me that I’d react to such an insult by cleaning up the cake and heading back to my seat, I’d never have believed you… I had underestimated myself.’ And this is the message of the Marines: Vance suddenly realises he has more self-control, more resilience, and more aptitude than he had ever thought possible: ‘what separates the successful from the unsuccessful are the expectations that they had for their own lives. Yet the message of the right is increasingly: it’s not your fault that you’re a loser; it’s the government’s fault.’

He experienced tough discipline, but also realised he was strong enough to take it:

‘Every time the drill instructor screamed at me and I stood proudly; every time I thought I’d fall behind during a run and kept up; every time I learned to do something I thought impossible, I came a little closer to believing in myself.’

In the Marines, a communal identity is forged: ‘from the day you arrive, no one calls you by your first name. You’re not allowed to say “I” because you’re taught to mistrust your own individuality.’ This fosters sense of belonging unlike any other. My Dad says the same of the British army – the drill sergeant’s job over new recruits is to ‘break them completely’; ‘make them hate you.’ He described to me how, thrown together with strangers, you quickly bonded over your mutual hatred of the drill sergeant. And, in my Dad’s words, ‘as the team bond develops, collective and individual performance improves, the drill sergeant reacts appropriately and the team’s respect for him/her increases. By the end of the process the team is a full functioning, well-oiled machine with pride in their own ability and level of performance that has full respect for a satisfied instructor who is the only one who really knows why.’

Moreover, the Marine Corps ‘assumes maximum ignorance from its enlisted folks. It assumes that no one taught you anything about physical fitness, personal hygiene, or personal finances.’ Vance was taught absolutely everything about these aspects of life, and then his drill instructor checked up on him: ‘in the civilian world, your boss wasn’t able to control your life after you left work. In the Marines, my boss didn’t just make sure I did a good job, he made sure I kept my room clean, kept my hair cut, and ironed my uniforms.’ To this day, my Father shines his shoes before leaving the house, and painstakingly irons every visible and invisible crease out of his clothes before putting them on, a hangover habit from a drill sergeant ‘complaining a perfectly pressed shirt wasn’t pressed enough.’

The Marines also gave Vance perspective. On spending time in Iraq, after giving a ‘two cent’ rubber to a boy who smiles like every Christmas has come at once and races to his family to show them, he muses: ‘for my entire life, I’d harboured resentment at the world. I was mad at my mother and father, mad that I rode the bus to school while other kids caught rides with friends, mad that my clothes didn’t come from Abercrombie, mad that my grandfather died, mad that we lived in a small house… but as I stood and surveyed the mass of children of a war-torn nation, their school without running water, and the overjoyed boy, I began to appreciate how lucky I was.’

 

One specific query with the content of this book was on education: I couldn’t quite square the fact that Vance says that school was a ‘haven’ for him, but his attendance was poor – something so many of us struggle with in schools. If home is hell, why don’t these kids want to be in school? The only thing I can think of is that in homes of such extremes, the kids in them are desperate for kindness. Perhaps pretending to be sick elicits kindness from the inconstant adults in their lives, and they stay home to enjoy these infrequent kindnesses when they come. I’ve also seen parents who desperately want their children to stay home with them as a comfort to themselves rather than for the benefit of the child. I approached Vance through Twitter, and he kindly responded, noting that his attendance was at its worst when he and his sister were living alone, without any adult supervision at all. This makes sense, and I’ve known this happen to many children in previous schools. He also emphasised that he did not approach school in a ‘rational’ way: ‘I hated school and hated home worse.’ The difficulty of pupil attendance defies logical explanation: Vance told me: ‘mostly, when things are so stressful, you don’t want to do anything.’ All of this is fairly bleak for schools.

‘Hillbilly Elegy’ leaves us with even more uneasy questions. Social mobility isn’t all positive; it’s also moving ‘away from something.’ My Mum certainly experienced that when she was at grammar school, and I felt something similar when I was the only cousin at a private school.

Another question is: how can we make success against the odds the norm? How can we replicate Mamaw or the Marines for kids who don’t have these?

I think schools can do a few things:

  1. Be a reliable presence

Schools can be predictable, reliable, calm and safe places for children to be in. Teachers need to be emotionally constant, so children can always predict how they will respond.

  1. Instil discipline

Self-discipline is the key to success. If schools are set up to do one thing well, it is to enforce discipline and instil self-discipline. A strong system of behaviour management, accepting no excuses or exceptions, can massively help children to see that their lives are self-directed, and they have responsibility for their actions.

  1. Push kids harder

Success is motivating; schools need to push kids who are furthest behind harder. Currently, we often treat these kids more softly. We need them to work harder and do more. If we can set up enough areas along the way for them to see their success, they can start to believe they can achieve no matter what their background is.

hillbilly-elegy

The Path to Wisdom

At the risk of opening with a lamentable cliché, the older I grow the less I know. More and more, I’m questioning old paradigms, not only in my work, education, but also in life.

Take, for example, the paradigm of sincerity. It is an accepted truism that we must be true to ourselves: old Polonius’ ‘to thine own self be true’ could hardly be more frequently quoted (and we conveniently forget the rest of his advice is brushed off as the witterings of an old ditherer). How about fixing our difficult relationships: we tend to want to have a heart-to-heart, ‘this changes everything’ conversation.

But what if there was a different way?

Michael Puett’s The Path: a new way to think about everything takes ancient Chinese wisdom and reveals its use in the modern world. He notes the ‘unhappiness, narcissism and anxiety surging in the developed world’ and suggests an Eastern alternative. Instead of prizing sincerity, Chinese philosophers emphasise: ‘honing our instincts, training our emotions, and engaging in a constant process of self-cultivation so eventually we would act in the right, ethical way.’ For them, artifice is crucial: we would not want to say everything that comes into our heads, and nor should we.

Puett talks about everyday rituals, such as the response to ‘how are you’ being ‘fine, how are you?’ This ritual is important: it establishes a connection quickly, and allows us to move on. We are learning to behave in a socially appropriate way all the time. The most notable example of this is the use of ‘please’ and ‘thank you.’ We first learn these words as a rote act, and they are largely meaningless to the toddlers who respond automatically to Mum’s ‘what do you say?’ But over time, this rote act evolves, and we come to genuinely feel grateful to others. Puett reminds us that we construct new realities with such white lies all the time: couples say ‘I love you’ when they don’t necessarily feel that loving nurtures the relationship and improves it, allowing their love to grow with this ritual.

Our lives are patterned by such rituals, and our behaviour is the inheritor of them. Instead of saying: ‘it’s just the way I am: I’m a very angry/emotional/sad person,’ you should recognise that you have slipped into ‘patterns of behaviour’ over time, and you have the power to change those patterns. Why do some of us revert to our teenage selves around our parents? Patterns of behaviour. But we can change ourselves and our relationships. How? By focusing on each daily moment. If we change how we ‘live our lives on a daily basis,’ we can alter our lives for good.

A large part of this is in staying in touch with our emotions, while not letting them rule us. Puett notes: ‘you will not mend a troubled relationship with your sister by sitting down for a single big breakthrough heart-to-heart talk. It will happen instead through the tiny decisions you make about how to behave and respond every time you talk.’ So, next time she pushes your buttons, instead of responding, think: ‘I’m feeling anger right now. But if I can put that emotion aside and respond in a kind way, I can change this interaction.’ We can even acknowledge our emotions in a heated exchange to help clarify what is going wrong: ‘I’m responding in an angry way because I’m feeling threatened by what you are saying. But you are not trying to threaten me, so let me understand what you mean.’ If we can take control of our emotions, and then our responses, we won’t be buffeted by the events of life to happiness and sadness, but can instead cultivate ‘balance and alignment, or an inner stability.’

Puett compares the Protestant world view, so pervasive today, that the world ultimately has order and sense with the philosopher Mencius’ view that the world is capricious: ‘hard work would not necessarily lead to prosperity. Bad deeds would not necessarily be punished.’ He believes that if we fail to respond to the changing world, we ‘die in shackles.’ Our reactions can’t be controlled by the things that happen to us. Again, a micro, daily focus is helpful here: instead of saying: ‘who am I?’, which is something always shifting and changing, or ‘how should I plan my life?’ which is open to similar flux, we need to move our focus to alter things on a small, interaction by interaction level.

And this is why artifice is intensely helpful. We get further in life by employing artifice. If you march into work, bringing your mood with you, you infect everyone you meet with your anger and upset. As adults, we have self-control, and we can grow our self control. As teachers, we are artificial ever single day, and many is the day I’ve woken up tired and grumpy, to plaster a smile on my face and ‘get through the day,’ only to end a teaching day feeling genuinely delighted. Pretending to be happy is the surest route to happy I know of. Similarly, the ‘deliberate training’ of a pianist, the artificial scales and arpeggios, is what leads to the ‘joyful freedom’ of the concert pianist.

This way of thinking is vital for schools: ‘our habits limit what we can see, access and know.’ Our children with least self-control must be taught self-control. They must be taught how to behave, and over time they will internalise it. Telling a child to say ‘thank you’ for a lesson might feel artificial, but over time gratitude grows from the external appearance of gratitude. Telling children to sit up straight and ‘track’ the speaker might feel horribly controlling, but over time this artificial habit becomes a real habit, and one that will stand them in excellent stead when they have marathon attention-spans that will enable them to argue at length in law courts, parliamentary debates, and focus throughout complex surgical procedures.

Puett writes: ‘in this fractured and fragmented world, it’s up to us to generate order.’ This is true of ourselves, and also true of our schools. The world is a messy place, and if our children are going to thrive in it, they need to understand how to control themselves and their emotions, and learn the habits that will allow them to succeed.

the-path

What can schools learn from successful communities?

Amy Chua (of ‘Tiger Mother’ fame) and Jed Rubenfeld have analysed outlier communities in the USA and distilled what they have learned into a readable tome called ‘Triple Package: what really determines success.’ The book provides a fascinating insight into what makes particular communities successful, but I think it can also lend its insights to schools. After all, every school is a community: how can we create the conditions within our schools to leverage the success in our community felt by those outlier groups in society?

The three conditions found across a variety of outlier groups are:

  1. A superiority complex (‘a deeply internalised belief in your group’s specialness, exceptionality, or superiority’)
  2. Insecurity (‘The paradoxical premise of this book is that successful people tend to feel simultaneously inadequate and superior.’)
  3. Impulse control (or ‘the ability to resist temptation’)

One example group given are the Mormons: this group represent 1.7% of the US population, but are dominate in politics and business, with a few representatives breaking through in the creative arts (such as Stephanie Meyer of ‘Twilight’ fame). The roll call of successful Mormons is quite extraordinary, and Chua and Rubenfeld explain it in their possession of the ‘Triple Package’: while Mormons consider themselves a ‘chosen people’, they are also broadly rejected, ridiculed and side-lined by society (see: ‘The Book of Mormon’). Their church also inculcates a deeply ingrained work ethic, among other ways, by a two-year ‘mission’: ‘While other American eighteen-year-olds are enjoying the binge-drinking culture widespread on college campuses, Mormons are working six days a week, ten to fourteen hours a day, dressed in white shirt and tie or neat skirt, knocking on doors, repeatedly being rejected and often ridiculed.’ Other successful groups explored in depth in the text include Indian, Iranian, Nigerian, Cuban and Lebanese immigrant groups.

Here are some ways schools could harness each ‘Triple Package’ element for the benefit of their pupils:

Superiority

Like Mormons, ‘Jewish children were raised hearing… that they were God’s chosen people’. Their ‘outsider’ status (of which more below) instils a ‘chip on the shoulder;’ an ‘I’ll show them’ mentality. Although ‘superiority complexes are hard to maintain… All the forces of assimilation work against it,’ nonetheless it is worth cultivating a superiority complex in our schools. How do we do this?

We could repeatedly tell our kids they are special; different. In every school I’ve worked at teachers give pupils this message in a variety of ways – the most successful schools get their pupils to feel a sense of huge pride that they wear their school’s uniform, and not, for example, the school across the road. In my first school there was always a sense that you were different to others in the community because you went to our school. It helped that the school was massively oversubscribed, Ofsted Outstanding, with amazing results at GCSE and A-level. Other schools may have to try different methods to achieve similar results. At Michaela, we overtly tell our pupils: ‘you are not normal. You are Michaela.’ We want them to feel like the chosen people: by virtue of the school they attend, they are different, and destined for greatness.

 

Insecurity

The tension of the ‘Triple Package’ comes in ensuring superiority and insecurity are present; for the Jews, the obvious motivator of centuries-old anti-Semitism comes into play massively, as Chua and Rubenfeld refer to the ‘fear for their survival’ playing into a drive to do well. Another wildly successful group of over-achievers are Asian Americans, who ‘regularly report low self-esteem despite their academic achievements. Indeed, across America, they report the lowest self-esteem of any racial group even as they rack up the highest grades’ (the authors share one anecdote that: ‘Conversations at the dinner table read like status updates of outstanding Asian kids our family know. So-and-so’s son just got into Stanford…’).

Conversely, ‘Children brought up in self-esteem centred schools and families are not taught to endure hardship or to persevere in the face of failure. They’re sheltered from disappointment and rejection by devoted, exhausted parents who monitor their every move, desperate to make their kids feel “special”.’

What, as a school community, can we do to mimic this insecurity? In some ways, this is an easier feat for schools who are not Ofsted Outstanding, or who do not have the results to back up their superiority message. Such schools are the ultimate underdogs, seeking entry to the mainstream with the proof of their results.

At Michaela, we remind pupils that they have a long way to go. We are honest with them: pupils at private schools have parents who are paying up to £30,000 a year for their education: you can bet they will come out with some terrific results, and statistically they do. If our pupils slack or misbehave, we remind them of the consequences; when they don’t do their homework we tell them about their boarding school peers who simply do not have an opportunity to not do homework. Even within class, we can drive pupil insecurity by pointing out the gap between their effort and their more successful peers. Pupils need to be afraid: someone, somewhere else, is doing better than them. They need to raise their game.

 

Impulse Control

Most educators are familiar with the ‘Marshmallow Experiment’: children are told they can eat the marshmallow now, or wait and be rewarded with two. The children who are patient, who have ‘impulse control’, ‘go on to get better grades; spend less time in prison; have fewer teenage pregnancies; get better jobs; and have higher incomes.’ Interestingly, this test was re-run in 2012, with an addition: some pupils experienced an unreliable interaction with an adult prior to the test; so an adult told them they would bring them crayons to play with but didn’t follow through. Those children were then much more likely to eat the marshmallow straight away, not trusting that the adult would follow through on their ‘two marshmallows’ promise.

This is of interest because our pupils from poorer backgrounds have come to distrust the system, and ‘if people don’t trust the system, if they think society is lying when it tells them that discipline and hard work will be rewarded – if they don’t think that people like them can really make it – they have no incentive to engage in impulse control, sacrificing present satisfaction in hopes of future gain.’ In many schools, we are battling with an ingrained distrust of the values and possibilities we present to parents.

Yet we know from many studied that ‘willpower and grit prove to be better predictors of grades and future success than did IQ or SAT scores;’ and that ‘IQ is not a complete predictor of success. IQ without motivation lies fallow.’ The authors remind us that ‘impulse control is like stamina. If you ran five miles every few days for several months, you’d build up stamina, which would allow you not only to run farther, but to perform all sorts of unrelated physical tasks better than you could before… If people are made to do any impulse-controlling task – even as simple as getting themselves to sit up straight – on a regular basis for even a few weeks, their overall willpower increases.’

At Michaela, our pupils are instructed to sit up straight in every lesson, and can be issued with demerits for turning around or slouching in their seats. The impulse control ingrained through this one simple policy is extraordinary: visit our school, and you will see 100% of pupils sitting up straight for six solid hours a day, facing the front, rarely speaking, listening to their teachers and writing. Hands are raised to contribute to the lesson, but a pupil may speak only twice in an hour’s lesson; perhaps less in some (though much more in others). Despite this, pupils wait patiently with hands raised to speak, and calling out is prohibited. Homework and holiday homework is set through centralised systems which ensure very nearly 100% compliance and 100% of non-compliant children being issues with a sanction. Firm consequences reinforce positive habits and develop our pupils’ impulse control.

 

If we can harness each of these elements, superiority, insecurity and impulse control, we create pupils who know they are special, need to prove themselves, and develop the will-power and dedication to persevere despite difficulties. Such pupils, I believe, will become the outlier overachievers of our school system. But perhaps, after all, it is better to steer clear of the extremes set out in this survey, and rather focus on their calmer, simpler cousins: quiet confidence, humility and work ethic.

Lean In

Here are some things I have been told over the past seven years, intended as well-meaning career advice from fellow women:

‘Get as high up the career ladder as fast as you can. Once you have children, that’s it. You’re not getting promoted.’

 

‘Have children before you’re thirty if you can. Or as close to thirty as possible. It’s so much harder after thirty.’

 

‘Everything changes when you have kids. Your priorities change. You won’t care as much about your career after.’

 

Since watching the Saudi Arabian film ‘Wadjda’ when first moving to London, I became interested in broadening my outlook. The film alerted me to the savage inequalities women face across the globe, and prompted me to read into the genre of ‘feminist literature.’ I learned that women are less likely to reach the top of their professions, are overwhelmingly saddled with domestic burdens, are judged by their looks, pressured to conform to a socially acceptable appearance, and then treated inappropriately when they did. The picture seemed bleak, and, like Katie Ashford argues, perhaps too much focus on the evils of patriarchy actually disempowers women.

For me, Sheryl Sandberg’s ‘Lean In’ was a revelation. The focus of this book is not on the passive: ‘what is happening to women?’ but on the active: ‘what can we do to succeed against the odds?’ Here are the lessons I learned:

Be ambitious: there are not enough women leaders, and the solution is to become a female leader. Society might judge you for your ambition (how many women have experienced, as I have, leaving a job for a promotion to have the word ‘ambitious’ spat at you like it is a dirty word?); cultivate it anyway.

Be present: too many women suffer from ‘imposter syndrome.’ Be confident that you deserve to be a voice which is heard. Some of the best feedback I received after an unsuccessful interview was: ‘don’t be afraid to tell us what you really think. You’re asked a question, we want to hear your answer.’ Underlying my reticence was possibly the ‘why do they care what I think?’ Such an attitude holds us back.

Be likeable: unfortunately, successful women are not as liked. This is a horrifying truth: blind tests of the same CV with the name changed from ‘Howard’ to ‘Heidi’ showed that among subjects of both genders, the woman was considered less likeable than the man. Assertive women are ‘aggressive,’ ‘bossy.’ Mentioning previous successes in an interview actually makes you less likely to be hired, but only if you are a woman. This is awful, but perhaps we need to just be aware and play this game to our advantage: be likeable, get the job.

Be decisive: when Sandberg was offered a lower-level job at Google in the company’s early days, she took it, even though it was a demotion. She cites the CEO telling her: ‘if you’re offered a seat on a rocket ship, you don’t ask what seat. You just get on.’ Rather than scrambling up the ladder, not looking around you, sometimes you take a different path: after all, in the rush to achieve we are not always contributing the most we can in the most innovative ventures.

Be honest: great communication is predicated on honesty. How often do we (not just women) side-step the truth because it is difficult? A culture of candour respects the truth of all parties, it looks to listen and understand, but not refrain from confronting hard truths on all sides. Sandberg writes: ‘“How can I do better?” What am I doing that I don’t know?” “What am I not doing that I don’t see?” These questions can lead to so many benefits,’ despite how painful it is to hear such truths.

Be committed: Sandberg cites examples of women who ‘leave before they leave,’ mentally committing to the family and children they, in some cases, do not even have; turning down promotions because they worry about balancing work and home. She sees this as one reason women choose to not return to work after having children: their jobs just were not challenging enough.

Be savvy: Or, in Sanberg’s words, ‘Make your partner a real partner’: choose to be with someone who supports you in your career. A partner who insists you do 100% of the chores and take 100% of the children’s sick days yourself and raise each child 100% alone is not someone who can support you to achieve your full potential. Choose wisely!

Work harder: Sandberg outlines just how hard it is to be a great mother and great in the office, and admits you will be unlikely to excel equally in both. For Sandberg, it becomes about ‘guilt management’ and understanding that, for a short time, you will always feel like you are failing in one or both spheres. But what can you do about that? Just keep working harder. And, presumably, accepting help!

Support each other: Women are too often each other’s worst critics. We need to champion each other, support each other, and celebrate each other’s successes. We need to team together, not cut each other down from the sidelines.

So, back to those questions which have haunted me:

‘Get as high up the career ladder as fast as you can. Once you have children, that’s it. You’re not getting promoted.’

 

‘Have children before you’re thirty if you can. Or as close to thirty as possible. It’s so much harder after thirty.’

 

‘Everything changes when you have kids. Your priorities change. You won’t care as much about your career after.’

Like men, I need to be in no rush to achieve. This self-focused approach will not allow me to learn the most or contribute the most in education. There is no rush, because children need to happen at the right time, not because the ‘thirty alarm’ has gone off. And perhaps everything will change, and perhaps I won’t care about my career. But that may be as much a societal construct as the expectation that I wear make-up and high heels and my male partner does not. Ultimately: none of these are comments a man would receive. None of these are worries a man would have. We need to reject these worries: gender should not be what defines us.

Lean In