Teacher Instruction

While moving my blog from Squarespace to WordPress, I witnessed some worrying things. I was horrified to see the extent to which I had relied upon group work, philosophy circles and multimedia to engage pupils. I considered, briefly, expunging these articles from my blog. But I decided, ultimately, that it was more honest to leave them. I have, you see, been on a journey.

When I first met Joe Kirby, Katie Ashford, Bodil Isaksen and Kris Boulton in 2013 to write an e-book for Teach First starters, I was their polar opposite. While they talked about knowledge and instruction, I raved about student-led lessons and pupils’ personal interpretations. We had common ground only on curriculum choice: the one thing that united us was the idea that kids should be taught great literature. We were desperately divided on how to teach it.

By September 2014, Michaela Community School had opened, and I was still nay-saying in the corner. It wasn’t until Katie Ashford shared her pupils’ essays with me that I had the profound realisation: their way worked. My way did not work. With my way, some children thrived, and others were left hopelessly far behind. With their approach, Katie’s set 4 (of 4) year 7s were outperforming my set 3 (of five) year 10s.

Teacher instruction sounded terrifying. For one thing, I’d never done it or been trained to do it. What would I say? How on earth could I fill 60 minutes of learning time with… Me? In my head, teacher instruction was like a lecture, and in my experience lecturers would speak once a week, and have a whole week to prepare it. How could you possibly lecture six times a day?

But that isn’t at all what it is. When I first visited Michaela, I accepted the theory, but had no idea what to do in practice. Seeing it, I saw there was a lot more common ground than I had thought. In fact, even in the dark days of 2013, I might even have done a bit of teacher instruction myself.

Teacher instruction is highly active, not passive. We explain, read, expand, yes; we also probe, question and test. We spend time writing out explanations and printing them up for pupil and teacher to read together. We spend time in department meetings discussing what we will teach and the key learning points we will be drawing out as we teach. The result is powerful: a highly engaging and dynamic classroom, full of pupils learning, answering questions, and recapping their prior knowledge. Visit Michaela and you see one thing very clearly: pupils love learning. They aren’t sitting in lessons bored, waiting for the next video clip or poster activity to engage them. They are answering questions, positing ideas, listening and annotating or taking notes, reading, reading reading; writing, writing, writing.

For a flavour of what teacher instruction looks like, watch year 8 annotating as Joe Kirby talks. Notice how he recaps on their prior knowledge throughout instruction – picking up on vocabulary they have learned, along with their prior knowledge:

Watch Olivia Dyer questioning year 8 in science. This is the start of a lesson, where she is recapping their prior knowledge. Look how many pupils have their hands up wanting to contribute! I always love visiting Olivia’s classroom – her manner is extraordinary: she is patient, quiet, calm and encouraging.

I love Naveen Rizvi’s excitement about the Maths as she carefully models for year 7, and engages the pupils every step of the way:

And finally, Jonny Porter’s expert use of a pupil demonstration to explain jousting to year 8, again recapping on their prior knowledge all the way:

 

 

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Term 1 at Michaela: what have I learned?

Teaching

For the first two weeks at least, the feedback in my (very frequent) observations was ‘you are going much too slowly. You need to speed up!’ Having worked for over five years in other schools, I’d become adept in the ‘explain it slowly three times and check everyone understands before doing anything,’ and at Michaela that is completely unnecessary – with the expectation for 100% sitting up straight and looking at the teacher, they get it first time, every time.

I was also spending far too much time eliciting information the pupils didn’t know – at Michaela, instead we tell them and then check they have learned it. So, if there is a word they haven’t learned I used to say ‘who knows what this word means?’ And if someone got close, try to elicit them to the right answer. Now, I say ‘woe means “intense sadness.” Annotate it on your booklet.’ And then, at the end of the lesson, I ask the class: ‘what does “woe” mean?’, along with the other new words we have encountered.

I’ve written at length about how we give feedback to help pupils improve their writing, but for me this was a totally new way of approaching looking at kids’ work. I’ve learned lots about the best way to explain how to improve, and when it is important to show exemplars to clarify trickier concepts.

I’ve worked on my ‘warm-strict’ balance. In a school with such strict discipline, it is especially important to explain why you are issuing a demerit or a detention – because you love them, because you want them to learn and succeed, and that issuing such a sanction doesn’t diminish your love for them as a human. I can’t emphasise enough how important it is at Michaela to show your love.

I’ve never taught from the front so much in my life, so I’ve had to improve my explanations. Luckily, I work with wonderful colleagues, and our weekly huddle where we annotate the lessons for the week has really helped me become clear on exactly what I will be explicitly teaching the pupils and how. This has been especially important for me with grammar, as I’ve never taught a single grammar lesson in my life. I am eternally indebted to Katie Ashford for spending countless hours going through the resources with me, and in particular for her eternal patience in always quickly answering my occasional panicked text message, which invariably reads: ‘is this an adverb or a preposition?’

Ego

Previously, I’ve been a bit of a praise junkie. I like to be told I’m great. There is no room for ego at Michaela – I’m bringing my A-game to every single day, and still have a such a long way to go to match up to the brilliant people I am surrounded by. It can be hard to see daily the distance between where you are and where you need to be, but being hung up on yourself just makes it harder. I’ve also had moments of panic, where I’ve thought: ‘I need to progress up the career ladder! Why did I quit an Assistant Head position? I need to have an impressive title and feel important NOW!’

Luckily, I’m able to find peace in the realisation that it isn’t about me – it’s about the school. The point isn’t me being brilliant and important, the point is all of us working together in the best way to serve our children. The ego gets in the way – kill it dead.

Purpose

I’ve written before about the intensity of the Michaela school day: no doubt, working at Michaela is hard! The difference is purpose: I’m not doing last-minute marking or planning, I’m not having stressful altercations with recalcitrant children or chasing up a thousand missed detentions: I’m preparing our year 9 units and improving our year 7 and 8 ones.

Reading my year 8s essays on Macbeth, who I’d only taught for a month at that point, was an emotional experience. Every single one contained more genuine engagement, impressive analysis, and originality of thought than any other essay on Macbeth I had ever read – including my previous year 13 class. I can’t take a single shred of credit for that, having only just arrived, but again it affirms my purpose: the sky is the limit for what these children can do, and it makes me want to do everything I can to see what is truly possible.

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New Year, New School (Part 2)

I can honestly say I did not foresee 2015. For me, 2015 was a year of dramatic changes, both personal and professional. In 2015, I saw things differently, and it was really, really hard.

Could it be a product of turning 30? Could my willingness to move away from what I had always taken to be a given have been signaled by my growing awareness of the brevity of life? Have I, in plain terms, had a mid-life crisis?

It is possible. I’m going to talk about one of the big, controversial choices I made in 2015 and why I made it.

In September, I took on a post as Assistant Principal for Curriculum Design at a large academy. I couldn’t believe it: my dream job in my dream school. It was everything I had wanted: a big promotion, whole-school responsibility, and an opportunity to change the minds and practices of every teacher in a big academy. When I started in September, it was even better than I had hoped. People listened, engaged, argued, and, swiftly, started to get on board. Change was, in many ways, rapid. I realised straight away I was working with some phenomenal people: an understanding line manager who ‘got it’ on every level; a Head of English and Head of Communications who were not only smart but massively fun to hang out with in the office we all shared, and a core group of individuals I ‘clicked’ with. Then there were the children: they were something else. Despite coming in massively far behind, despite every conceivable deprivation and difficulty, they were joyous. Within days, children I didn’t teach were greeting me politely; classes at first a little wild soon accustomed themselves to my preference for silence and made ridiculously good progress, and I was even beginning to enjoy the challenge of teaching, for the first time, out of my specialism. I could see myself building my career here.

So why on earth would I leave such a job?

I met Joe Kirby, Katie Ashford and Bodil Isaksen for the first time in January 2013. Between the three of them, they changed the way I thought about everything in education. They presented a radical departure from the norm to me, and although I held firm for a long time, eventually truth and research won me over. I could argue no more: there was a better way of doing what I did. I had to kill my darlings: group work, student-led activities, student research, and skills-led lessons. In the summer of 2013, when Joe, Katie and Bodil were about to found what would become Michaela Community School, I thought briefly about trying to join them. I dismissed the idea almost immediately. Why would I join something so untested? How did they know these ideas would work in practice? Then there was my own career trajectory – I was about to become Head of English; my next career move would be Assistant Head, not Head of Department again.

Then I visited. I saw what they had created, and I was awestruck. Here the ideas were, in their purest form. The children were amazing; so engaged; their progress more rapid than I could even have imagined. The curriculum was inspirational – the very best texts, the most important ideas, carefully organised for maximum student learning. And I met, for the first time, Katharine Birbalsingh, who in 20 minutes of discussion taught me more than I’d ever learned in such a short time about leadership, and what it meant to be a brave and bold leader.

But I was on the cusp of my next job, the job I’d always wanted; the trajectory I had so desired. Why would I leave that? Again, the job advert had come at the wrong time. Taking a step ‘back’ to be Head of Department again is hard on the ego. It is hard when you think about perceptions, and what others will think. ‘Oh, she couldn’t hack it at a tough school.’ ‘She wasn’t ready to be a senior leader.’ ‘It was too hard for her.’

Let them think that. I could have impact in my school in my context as Assistant Head. But as part of the Michaela team, we have the potential to change the whole education paradigm. If the ideas work, and it is a big if, predicated on massive amounts of work and effort, when the school is to scale, it could be the exemplar that moves leaders in education around the country to change what and how children are taught, and to avoid teacher burnout on a massive scale. I don’t want to stand by and watch as my closest friends change the world. I want to be part of that team.

So I have, after a short term, left my dream job. I have defied my own expectations for what a career progression should look like. I have let down colleagues and children at a school I promised to be a part of for long-term change. All of this is true.

And yet, I am hopeful. I am hopeful that, at Michaela, I can build an English curriculum that will endure for twenty years or more. I am hopeful that, at Michaela, I can learn from some of the best professionals in the country. I am hopeful that, at Michaela, we can destroy all the remaining doubts that ‘children like these’ can achieve at the highest levels in the hardest subjects. I am hopeful that, at Michaela, I can be a part of a school that will change the way children are taught and the way our profession is run.

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Research Ed 2015

There is surely no better way to begin the school year than immersing yourself in the genius of other educators. Compared with the last two conferences, though, this is the first I have attended every session, and not felt overly exhausted by the close – a testament, I think, to beginning the school year in a dynamic school with an exciting role, surrounded by supportive staff, but also to Tom Bennett’s astonishing capacity to gather together the best and the brightest to deliver and to dazzle.

Daisy Christodoulou: Life after levels

A long-time admirer of Christodoulou since reading her fabulous book, this session brought the theory and practice of life after levels to light. Noting that prose descriptors provide only the illusion of a shared language (after all, ‘Can compare two fractions and identify which is larger’ could apply as well to 3/7 or 5/7, 3/4 or 4/5 or 5/7 or 5/9), and ultimately ‘adverb soup’ she went on to share much wiser systems.

First, using the questions themselves, thus showing exactly what students can and cannot do, to provide clarity on exactly what they still need to master. Even better, use multiple choice questions, to probe student understanding more deeply by building in key misconceptions to the possible answers. Second, because of course we cannot get rid of essays, by ranking them instead of using spurious descriptors (as Christodoulou notes, we often get through half a class of marking and realise we want to change the first few – we are always, if only unconsciously, comparing essays for quality as we mark). This sounds tricky in practice, but I’m excited to explore ‘No more marking’, which presents essays to you to rank two at a time, before applying an algorithm to rank the lot.

Listening to Daisy Christodoulou is like listening to the future. I have often felt worryingly far behind where she is, but I am desperate to catch up.

Nick Gibb: The importance of teaching

Gibb, unsurprisingly, used his speech to provide examples of schools doing well as a result of government reforms. Along the way, he cited the BBC’s ‘Chinese School’ as a start to move towards a profession where we are focused not on our preferred teaching methods, but on those which deliver outcomes for children. He noted that ‘for some, a romantic aversion to formal teaching will forever trump the evidence,’ and I hope this is not the case. Gibb went on to also say that ‘pupil performance is not the sole aim of a school,’ explaining that although uniform might have no impact on pupil attainment, we wish to retain it for another reason.

Tim Oates: Other nations’ systems

This session focused on debunking many of the myths of other nations’ school systems. He opened with the assertion that we need to be exploring why some students are so much further ahead than our students, and closed by noting that we can’t adopt another system wholesale. Oates was scathing on a number of individual arguments, demolishing them with a mountain of evidence. On Singapore, for example, their case is often dismissed as their society is overly homogenous and their educational outcomes the result of high levels of private tutoring; yet Oates disputes both counts. He noted there was high social inequality in Singapore and large income variation, and yet their educational outcomes were outstanding (the subject of a worrying conversation later with Dani Quinn, who pointed out ‘if their educational outcomes are brilliant but there is still vast social inequality… Is our mission doomed?’). He noted that private tutoring usually exacerbates a gap between rich and poor, as the rich can afford the best tutors, and yet no such gap exists in Singapore.

Jon Brunskill: Moral psychology

Brunskill began by asking: what can moral psychology teach us about behaviour management? This fascinating session asked more questions than it answered, as we explored various moral dilemmas. He noted that children are often in the ‘pre-conventional’ stage of behaviour, where they believe the bigger the sanction the worse their act, and therefore behave well mainly to avoid such sanctions. He asked the troubling question of strict and successful behaviour systems like those at Mossborne kept students in this paradigm of behaviour, not allowing them to progress to the higher levels of behaving well because it is morally the right thing to do. He also questioned the idea that moral reasoning influenced moral action, sharing the Milgram experiment which involved participants delivering life-threatening shocks to others (luckily, actors) on the orders of men in white coats (also actors).

Towards the end, Brunskill began to unpick why some people act heroically, and explore some ways we as teachers can influence our students – I look forward to hearing more on this in the future.

Amanda Spielman: marking and remarking in exams

I’m not sure I have enough knowledge of statistics to have kept up with Spielman on marking, so I won’t try to poorly paraphrase the bulk of this fascinating talk. When looking at exam marking, Spielman praised the move to electronic marking, much despised by many examiners, for allowing unusual behaviour (overly quick marking; late night marking) to be picked up and addressed more rapidly. She also explored the issue of re-marking, noting that while 99% of grades do not change, often more marks are picked up by students, perhaps as a result of the markers’ sympathy in knowing these students are desperate to move up a grade.

Katie Ashford: The building blocks of literacy

I was so excited to hear Ashford speak, as I’m a massive fan of what she is doing at Michaela Community School with her phenomenal reading programme leading to astonishing student progress. She began by speaking about some of the low expectations we have of students noting ‘I want you to feel bad’ about saying things like ‘it’s not realistic for him’ to achieve a decent GCSE grade. After engaging the emotions, Ashford moved quickly on to the practicalities of teaching children to read, advocating robust assessments (‘a “4b” isn’t going to tell you anything about what a child does and doesn’t know’), a strong phonics programme like Ruth Miskin’s, and fluency and comprehension interventions. Finally, she went into detail about her reading plans at Michaela to have students reading 100 classic texts over their time there (or, ‘100 books kids probably wouldn’t read if they were left on their own’). She also noted the importance of reading across the curriculum, which is something I’m going to think hard about in my current role – what are children reading in every subject, in every lesson?

Sam Freedman: The five big challenges for the next government

Freedman began by asking how far we had come towards a school led system, and ended by asserting that such a system is still preferably to top-down initiatives led by government, which can provide a short-term push but in the long term do not make for sustainable system improvement. While government can devise what students learn, it is probably best for schools to have control over how students learn. The five challenges boil down to one: capacity. He then outlined challenges in resources, infrastructure, teacher supply, leadership and expertise, going over much-talked-of challenges in teacher recruitment and shrinking school budgets, and offering some suggestions for resolving these (make schools direct an easier thing to apply for; scrap fees for PGCE courses). The most important quote for me was that ‘schools are panicking and burning out teachers way too early in their careers.’ This is not a system issue, but a school issue; it is the job of leaders to shield teachers on the front-line from the stresses and strains of accountability, or we will be left with no more teachers.

I’m still digesting the genius of the day, and have added about ten books to my Amazon wishlist. The message of the day seems to me that we need to be critical and think harder, but not necessarily work harder.

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Keep it simple

It’s really difficult to boil down the most important messages from my short time visiting Michaela Community School. In discussing with people afterwards, I kept hearing myself say: ‘the really key thing is’, ‘the most important aspect’, ‘the best thing’ until I realized the futility of trying to rank each an every special aspect I was seeing.

A week later, I think I’ve got it: keep it simple.

The things that struck me are no different to those that have struck other visitors: silent corridors, with students moving purposefully between lessons; silent classrooms, broken only by the sounds of teachers teaching with joy and passion, students asking questions about the learning out of curiosity, and students turning to one another to whisper their ideas to reinforce their learning; exceptional politeness from every single student in every single interaction; extraordinary quality of student work. I could go on enumerating each tiny miracle I saw.

But I think it boils down to simplicity. Michaela have stripped away every educational gimmick and are just teaching very well. Their behaviour system is simple: merits for hard work or kindness, demerits for getting the details wrong (including failing to track the teacher adequately), meaning pretty much impeccable behavior because the standards are so high (and I believe three demerits escalates to being removed from the classroom). (A useless aside: everything is logged on iPad or iPhone apps, which took me a while to get used to as in assembly when registers were being taken it sort of looked like everyone was texting.)

Lessons are the simplest I have ever seen, and without doubt the most effective. Teachers read with their classes, stopping frequently to check understanding or to add detail and engage their classes with expert ideas or embellishments (or, in one instance, one-man drama performances to illustrate a point). Then students write silently about what they have read, while teachers and teacher fellows (like uber-TAs) circulate, checking for understanding and helping out. Then teachers go over the writing as a whole class, spending more time on the questions they noticed students struggled with while the children self or peer-assess in green pen. And sometimes, the whole sequence isn’t finished, and the lesson just ends, and that seems to be ok. No-one dies because there wasn’t a plenary or card sort or group work or shouting. Lessons at the tail end of the year were tailored in an incredibly specific way; watching a teacher go over and over and over one single concept, with constant questioning, I was interested to be told as she circulated ‘only 19% of the class got this one right,’ thus clearly explaining the focus taken from the needs of the class.

So the assessment is also simple: heaps of multiple choice questions, which are tracked meticulously by teachers so they can re-teach concepts more of the class are struggling with. These quizzes are done electronically and students receive immediate feedback.

The curriculum is also refreshingly simple. Students study English, Maths, French, Science, Humanities (History, Geography, ‘Religion’ [they ‘hate acronyms’), ‘Sport’ and Art. The curriculum is radically skewed towards teaching reading, writing and Maths, with extra time for English and Maths, but without teaching reading as a generic skill – instead, the curriculum planners understand that reading is also about your general knowledge (schools withdrawing students from humanities to teach reading: be warned).

The curriculum is based on something called ‘Knowledge,’ which the Michaela teachers like a lot, and so do their students. Their students chirpily explain to any visitor that they will ‘remember what they learn’ forever; as they explain sincerely and clearly: learning is not just about passing exams, but rather about having knowledge stored in their long-term memory, making them ever smarter.

The normal frills of schools are there in a way – termly trips, a reward event on the last day. But no parents’ evenings draining teachers’ energy; no endless marking of every exercise book; no half termly assessments to grade and complete data entry for.

So, does it work? This radically simple alternative to education? I was convinced in the Autumn term, when Katie Ashford shared paragraphs of year 7 students from the lowest ‘stream’ and they were of astonishing quality. And now there is ‘evidence’ for the data-minded among us: students are making startling progress on the GL assessment tests in reading, writing and Maths. 100% of students made expected or greater than expected progress, and average progress in levels was between 4 and 5 sublevels. Students’ reading ages have soared over the course of the year, with pupils making an average of 20 months progress in 10 months.

But all the Michaela crew will say is ‘time will tell.’ They are humble: the school is new, with only one year group. That too is part of its enviable simplicity. If the school can keep its focus on these simple things as it grows, it will be the making of a revolution in education.

Wellington Festival

Having suffered from the genuine man flu all week, I certainly was not looking forward to a 5:40am wake-up call on a Saturday. Yet by the mid-morning I was already regretting not requesting a Friday off to have attended both days of the education extravaganza that is the Wellington Festival of Education. Here’s my round-up of the best Saturday I’ve had in months:

Arrival

Being met at the train station by a courtesy mini-van was a lovely touch, and crammed inside a school van really brought on some nostalgia. Upon entering the hallowed gates of Wellington College, however, it was clear that this was schooling from a different planet: it was like entering some kind of National Trust facility; all manicured lawns and ancient turrets. A few friendly chats as we signed in assured me this would be one of those “share and have the chat” days. The relaxed atmosphere, strengthened by hay bales and plentiful coffee stands, made it feel more like a day off than I had expected.

Session 1: David Starbuck: Growing a love of learning in your school

Mocked mercilessly by my friends for insisting we arrive super-early for this session, I watched as the room filled to standing room only. I had really wanted to attend this session, as I’m a fully paid up member of the Mindset club; however much of the session was explaining what mindset was rather than how to grow it on a whole school level. If nothing else, though, the slick delivery of this engaging session assured me that sessions like this do help to convert teachers, and really – you have to get the teachers first. Starbuck was also good enough to provide some interesting resources from his own school on this topic, which I greatly appreciated.

Session 2: Alex Quigley: Twilight or Middlemarch?

I think this was the session I was most looking forward to. I’ve followed Alex’s blog religiously and been very inspired and influenced by his thoughts, yet never met him. This session was moderately interactive, but mostly Alex shared his new KS3 curriculum and the thinking behind it. Even though I’m sure I’ve seen it on his blog before, there was something about it up on a big screen that made me just think: wow. This is an inspiring curriculum. He explored some of the tensions in creating a curriculum: what makes a piece of literature “great”? How can we practically engage with literature in the limited classroom time we have? How can we foster subject knowledge in our departments? I especially liked such gems as teaching spelling through stories, teaching “She Stoops to Conquer” to year 8 to explore comedy, and the four threshold concept AOs – reading about this hadn’t convinced me, but in person (and again that massive screen) I really got it, and that is the beauty of hearing people talk about their ideas rather than just reading about them.

Lamenting after that I was hugely jealous of Quigley’s curriculum, a friend said: “just steal it.” I sighed. The thing isn’t actually the curriculum itself; it’s the deep knowledge he has of his school, the excellent relationships within a motivated department, and the skill he has in leading people to consensus that has resulted in this curriculum. More than anything, I felt like this was a curriculum made by a team, and you can’t just “steal it” and expect it to work. Alex reminded me I have far still to go in moulding a department.

Session 3: Kris Boulton: How a codified body of knowledge could make teaching a profession

I won’t hide that I really really like Kris as a human being, so my view on this session may well be biased. Beginning with the awesome words: “I’m just a teacher”, he proceeded to wow the room with his confidence and well-thought-out schemes. He began by pointing out that the very fact that there is a debate over whether teaching is a profession undermines it as a profession. The decision to come at the argument from the perspective of a parent of a child was masterful; we must always keep our key stakeholders at the forefront of any thinking we do on our profession. Through his talk, I was brought back to my first fretful year of teaching, not quite knowing what to teach or how – as Joe Kirby mentioned later, you study English at university, but you’re not teaching Foucault; you’re teaching how to read sometimes. A degree is certainly not enough.

One of the highlights of this session for me was the questioner who brought up sharing and developing subject knowledge in department meetings, something I have embarrassingly never even considered doing but will now be pursuing in full force (especially as my department adore English and all read plentifully in their free time – there is a vast well of untapped knowledge there to share!).

Session 4: Geoff Barton: The Habits of Literacy

 Mr Barton is the Headteacher of a wonderful school in my hometown, and is also a bit of a local (and increasingly national) teacher celebrity – I knew I would have to call into his session, if only to tell my Mum (a huge fan of his frequent columns in the Bury Free Press – bastion of local news). Barton began by exploring the word rich/word poor dichotomy, and explaining we needed to “make the implicit explicit” in order to help the latter develop the skills of the former. He also noted “language carries power”, and it is of course our duty as teachers to ensure this power is more fairly spread. He moved on to share some useful strategies: ask questions and give students a chance to “orally rehearse” their answers, explicitly teach students how to make their writing “not boring”, share great examples of great writing and talk about what makes them great, demonstrate the process of writing in all its messiness (I felt for the first time superior and not ashamed of my board-writing: so messy as to be almost-but-not-quite illegible), and naturalise the process of reading.

To say I was inspired is an understatement: at the close of this talk, my close friend both agreed we needed to quit teaching because we’d never, ever be this good. (After lunch we had cheered up and resolved to just try a bit harder.)

Session 5: Joe Kirby and Katie Ashford: Our School System is Unjust

Again here, I am going to flag up a severe case of confirmation bias: I am entirely on board with what Katie and Joe said on this front. This session was beautifully engineered, with Katie and Joe tag-teaming perfectly, and again starting with the children. The premise of this talk is that students from wealthier backgrounds have a double-advantage: they are supported at home to be school ready, and then go to better schools. There were some strong words about the training provided by Teach First, which didn’t surprise me but did interest me – on being asked as a block of audience “do you think Teach First prepared you as well as possible to start teaching?” I was too shy to be the only person putting up my hand, but I definitely should have. Admittedly, I did try to supplement the training by reading a lot of books (as both Katie and Joe did, I’m sure), but part of me feels that the only way to be a great teacher is to do it a few hundred times. Yet Joe’s argument against this might be that children are too important for us to try, fail and reflect – we must get it right the first time around for them. Hard to argue with that.

The conversation segued into some exploration of what texts to teach – Joe mentioned being told to teach Cirque du Freak, and rebelling in year 2 to teach Oliver Twist instead. I empathise with this, as similarly I was uninspired in my first year (I might even have taught Skellig, but I’ve blocked that from living memory) and went on the following year to photocopy the entirety of Animal Farm in a desperate bid to be a better teacher. I’d actually argue it’s easier to teach richer texts – have you tried analyzing the language in the AQA GCSE language paper? There’s nothing there.

Session 6: Gary Wilson: Boys will be brilliant

You might know that I have only ever taught in girls’ schools, so my attendance at this session was part of an effort to up-skill myself in the other. Wilson began by noting that Scandinavia is the only place in the developed world where boys achieve on a par with girls, which is of course shocking. Noting that only a barely believable 4% of the teaching profession is male and under 30 (and the majority of those in secondary schools), Wilson remarked that we cannot wait for male teachers to join en masse and lead by example. Explaining how he had taken a group of “at risk” boys and engaged them in peer mentoring in local primary schools – but cooking, reading and dancing with the primary school boys – Wilson heightened my awareness in the other part of schooling – we’re not only there to get results. We have a greater duty to these children. Much of what Wilson said concerned combating sexism and labeling of “troubled” boys, and made a lot of sense.

Other highlights:

  • Reuniting with an unexpectedly large crew of teachers from my last school, and remembering why I loved working with them so much.
  • Meeting my first Leadership Development Officer (Teach First Mum) again, and her telling me I hadn’t changed (“at all”).
  • The Mr Whippy van at lunchtime.