Mission Possible

I started teaching in 2010, the same year the documentary Waiting for Superman came out. If you haven’t seen it, you should: it’s a polemic on the American school system, starring the Charter school superstars. You hear from Geoffrey Canada, of the Harlem Children’s Zone, along with Michelle Rhee (ex Chancellor of Washington DC’s schools; proponent of performance pay) and the founders of the influential KIPP Charter Schools. The message of the documentary is that the school system is broken, but there are ways we can fix it.

When I first watched this documentary, I remember feeling that our school system was ‘at least not as bad as America’s.’ But I’ve come to see that working in London schools for eight years blinded me to the challenges of rural communities who cannot choose their school; schools who are dependent on one bus a day to transport children to it (making any kind of detention system extremely challenging to implement); the impact of grammar schools on student self-belief; and the funding of small-town secondaries.

But mostly, I’ve come to think that we probably are failing children, on a system-wide level, in a similar way. We don’t have the annual benchmarks of success, but in the schools where we have run the NGRT (a nationally standardised reading age test), the results have been damning. The amount of children not achieving a basic pass in English and Maths GCSEs at 16 is damning. And the number of children leaving school at 16 is damning. I remember being horrified about the ‘drop-out rate’ of American schools, thinking ‘at least we get everyone to the end.’ But 16 is not the end, so we don’t. In fact, allowing children to leave the school system at 16 (and I know colleges and apprenticeships exist and I know these have their benefits) is deeply troubling to me.

In this post, I’m not going to tackle these monumental system problems. I used to worry a lot about the education system, and what we could do to improve it. Now, I look at what we can do in schools to improve the lot of the children we work with, in spite of those poor systems (something The Teacher Gap has really convinced me of). And what Mission Possible does is to examine what goes on in a successful school, in this case the Success Academies in Harlem, New York.

The defining principle of the authors, shared by many in the charter movement, is that the quality of the school and the quality of the teachers are what make the difference to children’s results. The book opens with the impetus to make schools a ‘magical place’ to be, which I found an interesting word to use. While I wouldn’t prioritise some of what the authors consider important (notably, expensive trips and impressive classroom displays), I would totally agree with their other aim of encoding success for students so they want to come to school every day and succeed (and what is continual success in academics if not ‘magical’?).

The writers make much of the rigour of the curriculum, and the urgency required to ensure children catch up with their wealthier peers. Furthermore, the pages on letting children ‘do the thinking’ I ultimately agree with – not in terms of guessing answers or discovery learning, but certainly ensuring they do the bulk of the work in the lesson. In general we are moving, in so many schools, towards teacher-led lessons (something I wholeheartedly endorse); yet it is crucial this does not result in children sitting passively. It is too easy for children to tune their teachers out. Rather, our teaching must be continually asking students questions to ensure they work hard.

This book has helped to shift my thinking on parents. Of the two extremes on this view – shut parents out at the gates versus give parents autonomy to influence the day-to-day of school – I leaned in the past towards wanting parents to let teachers teach, smiling on from a distance. Yet this book is persuasive in the possibility of parents really transforming their child’s academic success. I’m always amazed by how much parents are willing to do to support their child’s learning if you only ask them.

The book also ranges over rigour, reading and pace, but the chief takeaway for me was on the professional development of teachers. Again, the authors implore us to focus on the adults, and begin by asking school leaders: how often do we fix the children when we should fix the adults? I’m certainly guilty of this: walking into a lesson and using non-verbals to remind the students of their teacher’s expectations, or even just standing there (when you’re senior enough), waiting for the class to behave perfectly and then leaving… Only for the class to immediately start to murmur again.

Instead, at Harlem Success, leaders practise live coaching. Instead of ‘fixing’ the children, the observers whisper to the teacher, or hand them a note (‘Ali is doodling; Tommy is looking out the window’) and then watch how the teacher ‘fixes’ their own classroom. They don’t intervene at all – or, with training teachers, they model the first two ‘fixes’ and then watch how the teacher does it. After the lesson, they feed back on how effective the teacher’s actions were and where they might improve. Doing this would require huge teacher buy-in, but I do think it would be far better for the overall quality of teaching.

The book goes into significantly more detail on teacher development, and I’d recommend reading it for those chapters alone. Although not everything in Mission Possible chimes with my beliefs, there is much to admire here.

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Teaching memoirs

I love a good teaching memoir. During my first year in the classroom, I relied on the Teach for America memoirs (which are legion) to provide hope that I would prevail, despite current adversity. I’ve also included some organisational biographies and books of leaders which I’ve found especially inspiring.

1. Taught by America, Sarah Sentilles

This is the first Teach for America memoir I read. Sentilles joined TFA as a member of the 1995 corps and was sent to Compton, a city south of Los Angeles. Her beginning days as a teacher will sound comfortingly familiar I think:

I woke up before 5am each school day, made myself breakfast and packed a lunch, drove to the nearest copy shop to make copies for that day’s lesson, and then hightailed it to Compton. I taught thirty-six students all day, and then I cleaned my classroom, graded papers, planned the following day’s lessons, drove home, opened a can of something to eat for dinner, and practically fell into bed. I often cried myself to sleep. The next morning it started all over again.

If nothing else will, these American teachers will make you grateful for your school copier (even if there’s a huge queue after 7:30am and it jams five times a day). The issues of unsettled homes are writ large in this book: Sentilles contends with an ever-changing register of names as children leave and move into the area. Despite these struggles, there are some truly heart-warming moments in this book – although the ending can be hard to swallow if you’re a hardened teacher (I won’t give it away here).

2. Hands up! Oenone Crossley-Holland

This is the sole Teach First memoir of a participant I have been able to find (if you know of another please do let me know). Crossley-Holland’s placement school was alleged to be the one near my own placement, and a girls’ school as well; I thought I’d find plenty to learn from here. I wasn’t disappointed. The writer takes you through several “typical” days, and some of the challenges (both external and emotional) of working in a “Teach First” school. I found the style of the book warm and the writer extremely likeable. Her dialogue is convincing and the students warmly depicted, with a real sense of them as humans, often flawed by factors not of their own making, and eminently lovable.

3. Whatever it takes, Paul Tough 

This isn’t a memoir, but rather a biography – yet it is also informative of the challenges facing our students, and inspiring in one man’s quest for educational equality, crusading outside a classroom. Geoffrey Canada, a teacher by trade, took it upon himself to transform the life chances of children growing up in Harlem, creating the “Harlem Children’s Zone”, and Tough chronicles his movement in this book. This book is a must-read for any would-be education-reformers, as well as anyone with an interest in the backgrounds of the students they find in their classrooms. Depressingly, it also shows us how vast the issue of educational inequality is; at the same time, one might also conclude that more people with Canada’s dedication can do much to turn the tide.

4. The Best Job in the World, Vic Goddard

I’ve never tried to hide it: I am a massive, massive fan of Educating Essex (any international readers: this is a Channel 4 series which documents the year in the life of an exceptional school in Essex, England). Goddard, in the series, is seen in headteacher-guise; a very human headteacher, but still one with all the confidence such a role illuminates. His autobiography shows us that such certainty is created, not inborn, and Goddard takes us through the highs and lows of his career, whilst simultaneously repeating his rallying cry to those new to the profession: become a headteacher; it is the best job in the world. There is much to learn here, both about teaching, learning, behaviour management and, especially, leadership.

5. Teaching in the Terrordome, Heather Kirn Lanier 

This is another TFA memoir, one about an English teacher. It is suffused with genuine humility, such as Lanier’s retelling of her first lesson with her students, where she wants them to see reading as a door to new and undiscovered worlds:

‘See! It looks like a door!’ I close the cover to illustrate, then open it again. I nod. “A book is a door! Reading is a doorway into a new world!’ I raise my eyebrows, I smile. They stare back blankly. They show no signs that they are enthralled by the prospects of visiting new lands via literature. No music plays in the background, and I win no one over.

The sheer belief you have in your students is often met with complete and utter apathy at first; in Lanier’s disfunctional school in Baltimore, she overcomes challenges I could only imagine, and reveals more about the disfunctional American system than perhaps any other memoir I have read.

6. Work hard. Be nice. Jay Matthews

This is another biography of an organisation, this time KIPP: a chain of hugely successful charter schools which have gone on to inspire many of their UK counterparts. This is the story of Mike Feinberg and Dave Levin, two of my heroes (and it is well worth following both on Twitter); of their initial experiences in the classroom (both were not born teaching prodigies, comfortingly) and their unstoppable drive to change education for the better for as many children as they could. The story is peppered with anecdotes which show the human and reflective side of the educators; my favourite is the one of the student who can’t finish her homework because she is addicted to television (something I sympathise with). Feinberg visits her home and asks the mother for the television set. She protests that it is their only one, and he responds:

That’s fine, but you tell me you are powerless to stop your daughter from watching it, so it seems to me the only way to make sure she doesn’t watch TV is to take the TV out of the house.

After the incident, Feinberg humbly admits he has overstepped the mark, yet there is something heroic in the anecdote I think we can all gain from.

7. Radical, Michelle Rhee

If ever there was a truly “Marmite” educational reformer, it has to be Michelle Rhee. She is known to many through her appearance in the documentary “Waiting for Superman”, wherein she becomes chancellor of schools in Washington D.C, said by some to be the most malfunctioning system in the states. Her central aim is to put students first; unlike my educational inspiration, Dr Irene Bishop (CBE; Superhead) who contends that to put students first you must look after your staff, Rhee often accomplishes this aim by firing “inadequate” heads and incentivising the best teachers financially. Although this sits uncomfortably with me, her invective against mediocrity is compelling. We must always be familiar with what we disagree with. And I don’t disagree with her aims, her intentions; only at times her method. Rhee’s style is powerful and she really takes you on her journey through education, as well as leaving you will an irrefutable call to arms.

This post is un-finishable; I have not explored There are No Children Here or In the Deep Heart’s Core, two of my very favourite books, as they mainly reiterate concerns above – but I would urge interested readers to read both; the first set in Chicago, the second Mississippi.

Finally: readers, please direct me to more teacher memoirs; share your favourites and, most importantly, go and write your own so I have more to read.