What does it mean to teach?

When my friend Lia told me to read Some kids I taught and what they taught me, my response was to judge a book by its cover – why would I, who lived the world of teaching each day, read what appeared to be a teaching memoir?

I’m so glad I did, because this book is so much more than a memoir. It is a love letter to teaching. Even more than that, though, it provides impressive insights on several areas of education. Below are just a few of my many favourite parts.

Early in the book, Clanchy identifies the driving need of children to fit in. It is a need that goes far beyond the school gates, and will drive their social mobility and overall chances of improving their own lives: “Not to be left behind, never to be the one dressed differently, acting differently, feathered differently, never, never to be excluded: for children, that is a primary drive. It is connected to the inbuilt Darwinian drive to walk with your tribe, stay with your kind, and it is stronger in a seven-year-old than the fear of death.”

Through the story of one student who leaves school and becomes a teenage mother, Clanchy allows us to see this girl as conforming to her tribe’s expectations, in words which ring familiar and true: “Aged only sixteen, she will join the adults of her family, with an income as good as her sisters’. She will meet all her family expectations as firmly as a surgeon’s son getting his place at medical school; most of us do not want more than that. And if she is conscious, as of course she is, that those expectations are different from those of the society around her, what of it? That will only make her feel more inadequate in the world, only turn her further in on her tribe.”

Clanchy tells us stories of the ways children from disadvantaged backgrounds cope with the boundaries of school – my favourite anecdote was the boy who turned up at the school gates each day with a small uniform infraction (shirt untucked, baseball cap on, no tie…): “‘He never gets any better,’ she says, ‘so we have to conclude that he likes a telling-off.’… He comes from a cruel, chaotic home where most attention comes as abuse. He has chosen this engagement with Miss P. Each morning, she and the uniform tell Connor that he is in a boundaried place now, where people care what he wears, and care if he keeps the rules.”

This book is the most insightful I have come across in unpacking modern poverty, as Clanchy tells the tale of two homes – her own, and that of a council-house dwelling ex-student: “Cheyenne’s boast about Christmas presents is not a tragic fantasy, and she is not lying about her BlackBerry or her Burberry shirt, for this is poverty in the twenty-first century, and it’s complicated… Cheyenne almost certainly does have more consumer goods than my children, in the same way that she has more calories and less nutrition; more cash and less financial security.” In this observation, Clanchy prompts the reader to consider the very real challenge schools face: “How do we, as a school or as a nation, educate Cheyenne, get her to adopt middle-class habits such as reading, homework, and long-term ambition, without alienating her from her family? How do you induce her to go through the difficulties and deferred gratifications of studying when everyone around her would say that did not work for them?”

On school choice, Clanchy is unflinching in recounting her own anxieties as a middle class mother trying to balance the need to do the best for her children with her political and moral compass. Ultimately, she chooses to send her eldest to the nearest school, even though it is one of the worst in the area, commenting nobly: “Maybe I should be thinking of what my son could bring to the school, as well as what he could take, about his patrimony as well as his entitlement.” The pain and anguish in this section was palpable, but Clanchy soon moves on to explain the very many positives her son experienced through this route, which should give comfort to parents everywhere choosing secondary schools.

As an English teacher, I found Clanchy’s insights on teaching English fascinating. Her mode is to teach poetry through writing poetry, something I myself did in school but have not invested significant time in my own teaching. Her arguments are lengthy and her explanations inspiring; rather than hatchet them here, I would simply tell English teachers – read, then action.

Ultimately, this book assured me that, as an English teacher who often finds myself surrounded by those with more scientific and research-minded colleagues, that there is a great power in literature, and, specifically, story-telling to provide insight. Clanchy delivers her message not through statistics, facts and figures, but through human emotions, lived realities, and incisive observations.

Teaching English at Michaela

When I joined Michaela, I was excruciatingly ambitious, and not a little arrogant. Within a week, I felt that if I remained an English teacher at Michaela until the end of my working days, I would be content.

For someone who loves books, loves reading, and loves kids, it is the perfect job. Our classrooms are peaceful places, where children read loads and where discussions are enthusiastic, and often insightful. Even teaching year 7 and 8 last year, I would frequently be made to pause, sit back, and say: ‘hm. I hadn’t thought of it like that!’

It is, in short, the dream.

Of course, not everyone feels like this. The list of what we don’t do at Michaela is significantly longer than the list of what we do. We don’t do card sorts, group work, pair discussion, drawing, mind maps, or any tasks asking children to guess. Our knowledge-based curriculum is 100% fully resourced for teachers, so teachers never have to photocopy a single worksheet or create a single PowerPoint slide. They never have to decide what to teach, or in what order. They never have to guess what prior knowledge their kids might have – they simply look at the fully resourced curriculum for the lower year groups.

That said, not everyone wants this.

Many teachers love to create their own resources, and plan their own lessons. But we at Michaela would rather our English teachers focused on how to teach instead of what to teach. All teachers plan their lessons, in the sense that they read and annotate their booklets prior to teaching, ensuring that they know the best way to deliver new concepts to pupils. We meet together as a department once a week to add to these annotations, and to improve our alignment. It’s not good having one teacher decide to teach the term ‘hypophora’; far better if we all agree to teach the term and agree the best way to teach it.  If one teacher’s class are struggling to use apostrophes accurately, we all work together to decide on the best way to ensure the children really understand it.

At Michaela, we think that team beats individual. Our English department works together to ensure that every single pupil in our school gets the very best education possible – not just the kids happening to benefit from what one individual teacher happens to know and think to share with them.

The results? Happy kids, learning loads. Their writing is beyond joyous – it is certainly unlike anything I have ever encountered in any of my three previous schools. In my first term, my year 8s essays on Macbeth far outshone those of the year 13 pupils I had taught the text to last.

If this sounds great, then you’ll be excited to hear that we’re hiring, and we’d love to hear from you!

Teaching Vocabulary


If this blog had themes, I’m sure one fairly major one would be ‘Changing my Mind.’ And lest readers consider me a fully paid up zealot of the ‘Knowledge Devotees,’ let me tell you that I have only recently changed my mind about teaching vocabulary.

When I began teaching at Michaela, I picked up someone else’s timetable; someone else’s classes. I was totally at the mercy of those who had begun their learning, and it was my job to learn how to teach in the ‘Michaela Way.’ I knew what I was getting myself into, and bit my tongue when one particular sheet came my way. It was a sheet listing 45 difficult words, split into three columns of 15, each with a one (or very few) word synonym.

‘What do I do with this?’ I asked.

‘They learn one column a week – meaning and spelling – and then you test it,’ replied Joe Kirby.

Not wanting to be that challenging complainer on day one, I said nothing. But I thought: ‘no way will this work.’ Everything I’d read, everything I believed, told me that rote learning vocabulary was a bad idea. It was far, far preferable to read widely, flag up new words, and allow children to just absorb them.

The first week, almost every child in the class scored zero out of fifteen on the words. (Here is the test: Me: ‘what’s a better word for determined beginning with “t”?’ Kids: ‘….’ [Meant to write down: ‘tenacious.’) Part of me felt vindicated – this was too hard, and totally pointless. But I trusted Joe, and I’d been wrong before. I was prepared to find out if this was partly my fault.

‘Didn’t you test them orally first?’ asked Joe. I had not. ‘Did you do a few every day at the beginning and end of lessons?’ I had not. ‘Did you give them time to green pen afterwards, looking at a few they had got wrong to really work on them?’ I had not.

I drilled them the whole next week, and tested them again. Half of them achieved 5 out of 15. The other half achieved zero.

Was the idea rubbish? Was I rubbish? Were the kids rubbish?

With lots to do, I had no time to rethink the Michaela vocabulary strategy, not halfway through the year with already boggled children. I kept going.

And as the weeks went by something started to click. It wasn’t just that the kids were starting to achieve 10, 11, even 15 out of 15 – and they were. (I had even taken out my letter cues, saying: ‘what’s a better word for determined?’ ‘Tenacious,’ they would write, spelling it correctly.) It was their paragraphs that showed the impact. They were astonishing. And that’s when I realised that while part of writing an analytical paragraph is knowing about character, plot, quotation, technique and context and combining all of that knowledge to write about it; the other part is having the words in the first place. The good words.

One of my year 7 classes learned the vocabulary. Inexplicably, I didn’t teach the other class the words. The gap between their paragraphs has grown and grown. The difference? Vocabulary. I am teaching the same lesson to each class – usually one straight after the other – the same concepts and ideas. They are reading the same thing, and I am saying the same thing to them. But class 2’s paragraphs contain mediocre vocabulary.

And vocabulary loves vocabulary, like all knowledge loves knowledge. Class 1 are always on the look-out for new words. Supported by their extraordinary form tutor, Ms Clear, who notes down key vocabulary from their class reading (done in tutor time in the afternoon) and tests them on it, Class 1 have actually started teaching me words (not sure yet if this is a low or a high point of my teaching career).

Yes, the kids really struggled with this at first. And they still get it wrong in context – one said recently: ‘The Arctic is the zenith and the Antarctic is the nadir of planet earth.’ Obviously wrong. But the list isn’t everything – it is the beginning of their accurate use of these words. Having this list committed to memory means the kid can say the above sentence, be corrected in front of their peers, and learn more about the correct context for these words.

I used to believe that kids could absorb vocabulary. On some level, I still believe this – if kids read widely enough, their vocabulary will inevitably be better than their non-reading peers. But it isn’t enough, not for any kid, to rely on this. They need to learn words by rote. The more they learn, the more they use these words, and the better their vocabulary becomes. I was absolutely wrong and Joe Kirby was absolutely right – a common theme in my teaching career.

Here is a paragraph from a year 7 exam, done on Julius Caesar and entirely from memory.


I’ve typed out what it says below, and made bold any words this pupil has learned by heart through our vocabulary programme, or through other knowledge organisers he has had this year:

Moreover, Antony develops as the play reaches its crescendo into a choleric, manipulative and sophistical character. After the death of Caesar, Antony calls him a ‘bleeding piece of earth.’ He uses personification fused with the striking word ‘bleeding’ to display his sorrow but also his anger. Shakespeare now makes Antony speak his mind after Caesar’s death to portray Antony’s true character, a manipulative, magnanimous and mendacious individual. Antony then goes on to deliver an oration to the crowd by starting with the lines ‘friends, Romans, countrymen: lend me your ears.’ By combining the tricolon of ‘friends, Romans, countrymen’ and the metaphor ‘lend me your ears,’ Antony creates a false sense of camaraderie between himself and the crowd. By doing so, he achieves the attention of the crowd, proving that he is manipulative. Antony uses sophistry to prove to the audience that Caesar was not a tyrant.

This pattern was replicated throughout the essays I was reading. The difference between the great and the good was often the words they had in their memories to use.

There are two changes I would make to the Michaela Vocabulary Strategy for next year. The first is chunking: I’ll be setting five words a week for the first few weeks. Success builds motivation, and those first weeks were depressing for pupils and me alike. We can build up to 10 and 15 words as the year goes on. The second change is to make sure that every single class learns these words. As Wittgenstein says, ‘the limits of language mean the limits of my world.’ With every word learned, those limits expand just a little bit more.

Here is a grid for year 7, with thanks to Joe for letting me share it.

Vocabulary Y7