Glass Ceilings

I’ve mentioned before: Glass Ceilings is my favourite education read so far this year. And that’s not because I agree with every page, because I don’t. The book is inspiring and thought-provoking in equal measure.

When I started teaching, a film came out called Waiting for Superman. Again, I don’t agree with everything in it – but I still think it is a superb documentary. Both that film and this book showcase American charter schools, fighting against unthinkable odds to send children from the poorest backgrounds to the best universities. In 2013, I got to visit Chicago and see some of these charter schools in action, and it profoundly changed what I believed was possible in education. I had always said: ‘all children can go to university,’ but I would never have had the gumption to say, as a classroom teacher, leader, or (I hope eventually) headteacher, ‘all these children in front of me now will go to university.’

The charter schools forge the path for us: they are beacons of hope, and reminders that we could and should do better. I’m not aware of a UK school serving a deprived community that has yet managed to admit 100% of its pupils to a university, and yet schools like this do exist stateside. Statistically speaking, they are vanishingly rare, and yet their very existence should shock us into believing that we can do better.

What Hall’s book does so beautifully is to look at what those schools are doing, and what we can learn from them. An interesting early thread for Hall is how traditional the teaching was when he visited the charter schools: he reports being shocked by the ‘didactic’ focus, along with the ‘amazing gains in outcomes.’ Interesting, when I visited charter schools – though I was fully mired in progressive practices myself – the classrooms simply seemed normal to me. I think the length of my teaching experience (then just 2 years) was outweighed by my own fortunate experience as a student in a traditional private school.

Hall’s take-aways from these visits, and his application of these to his own British context, makes for helpful reading: he saw relationships forming the cornerstone of strong behaviour systems, a whole-school insistence on ‘whole sentence answers’ supporting literacy, and, after meeting Rafe Esquith, a belief that what all children need is a ‘content-rich knowledge based curriculum.’ Hall’s personal story is told in a compelling narrative, oozing humility as it inspires.

But what this book really made me think of was that education is, in the end, about our values. After I finished this book, I revisited and edited some of the things I had written when I first became a senior leader in a school. They were my core mantras for children, and core mantras for staff. These are my values, and the values I would love the people I work with and work for to share.

For children:

  1. Education changes your destiny.
  2. Discipline now means freedom later in life.
  3. The more effort you put in, the more you will get.
  4. Politeness gets you where you want to go.

And for teachers:

  1. Children rise (or fall) to our expectations.
  2. Powerful knowledge changes lives.
  3. All children are essentially good – it’s their behaviour that sometimes is not.
  4. Tough standards for kids are loving.
  5. Success motivates.
  6. All kids can do all things.

And number six is really the core of it all. I couldn’t count the number of times Hall referred to the belief in all children to do all things. And that really made me think: do I still believe this? And does every teacher in my school believe this?

Because over time, this driving belief that all children can achieve academically is being gradually eroded. The more time I spend with the ‘edge-case’ children, the more children I see being excluded from schools, or simply refusing to attend school at all, the more children aged fifteen and sixteen I see who can barely write even one coherent sentence, the more I start to think: is it possible?

And yet we have to believe. Perhaps the key is wilful belief, against the evidence. Meeting up with a colleague recently, we argued about the extent to which a child’s genes determined their ability. When it came down to it, I said, it didn’t matter what evidence my colleague had – I just could not believe it and still do a good job. Perhaps we have to believe against all evidence to the contrary that it is possible.

Then what do we do? Working it out – that’s the hard part. But it has to start with belief.

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