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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Starting at Michaela

Starting at Michaela is unlike any other school I have started at. In the three other schools I have started at, in my first lesson I have introduced myself, told them a bit about myself (especially if I have a position of any clout) and where I’ve worked before (showing them I’m not a newbie and won’t be walked over), stamped my authority on the class as kindly as I could (in particular, showing them I know the behaviour system) and then just done what I do. I’ve taught as I’ve always taught, improving incrementally each year (I hope).

In a first week at Michaela, there must be three hundred new things to learn every day. Some examples: all teachers say ‘3-2-1 and slant.’ No child does anything until you say: ‘go.’ Each lesson begins with children handing out books; this takes ten seconds and you count it down. Every second of every lesson is used; routines are meticulous to ensure this happens and everyone uses the routines. This, for me, has been the hardest part: on top of learning 240 names (the expectation is that every teacher knows every child’s name), you’re always thinking about the systems that others have long since automated. It is hard.

But necessary. Because what you don’t need to do when starting at Michaela, even mid-year, is stamp your authority on children. Children will happily file in absolutely silently, wait for all your cues, and do exactly as you say. Within 30 seconds on Monday, I was teaching my first Michaela lesson. Contrast this with the first lesson I ever taught: asking a colleague what I should do, she replied: ‘well, you have to give them their books. So you won’t have much time after that.’

Behaviour is so good I am having to fine tune my radar. Demerits are given for infringements than at any of my past schools would have gone unnoticed: turning around slightly, leaning over instead of sitting straight or not ‘tracking’ the page or me. Demerits are given publically and quickly: ‘Hayder, that’s a demerit for not tracking. We listen so we can learn.’ And the pupils’ response? So far, for each demerit I have given, pupils have responded by desperately trying to get back into my good books: sitting up straighter, putting their hand up more, writing faster, trying harder. They don’t sulk; they don’t argue back. They want to do the right thing; the demerit is the reminder to meet the sky-high standards.

Teaching, something that takes up 59 minutes of every Michaela hour, is a joy. With 100% focus, we get a lot done. I am constantly being given feedback to ‘speed up’ my teaching. Previously, I’ve been told: ‘slow down – they don’t get it.’ I’m starting to think that pupils didn’t ‘get it’ because they weren’t listening. Their behaviour and habits were such that I had to go over and over key concepts to ensure they understood. Every moment is used, and the pupils expect this. On packing up my last reading group of the week at 4:29pm, saying how much I enjoyed reading with them, I noticed no-one had closed their books. One pupil raised their hand and, eyes shining, said: ‘we still have one minute! Can we keep reading?’ A dozen nodding heads agreed. We read on.

I’ve been observed a lot – at least once a day, sometimes twice. Sometimes it is someone wandering in the back for five minutes; sometimes they stay for the full hour, usually bringing their own work to get on with at the same time. I’m given written feedback immediately, meaning I can put it into practice in the next hour. There are no grades. There are two, maybe three, small action points (‘narrate when you give a merit.’ ‘When you parse the sentence, start with the nouns and verbs, not the first word.’ ‘Don’t ask them an open question they can’t answer.’ ‘Don’t say “we shouldn’t be.” Say “We don’t.” Should suggests people are going to defy that expectation.’) The feedback has felt incredibly supportive.

What has also felt incredibly supportive is the response of the pupils. On my first day, children were thanking me for my lesson with beaming grins as they exited. Then came family lunch, where I sat with pupils whose names I could not remember, as they told me how much they were enjoying poetry. By the end of the week, pupils I taught were telling me: ‘my friend thinks you’re a great form tutor.’ I have never had such positive feedback in my life, and it makes me love each lesson all the more. At one moment on Wednesday, I looked at the clock: 12:20pm, ten minutes to lunch, and I actually felt sad. I felt a deep sadness that my lesson was nearly over. I desperately wanted to keep going. Similarly, on Thursday evening, I asked my other half if it was ‘Thursday or Friday tomorrow?’ He looked bemused: ‘Friday!’ It didn’t feel like the end of the week. Even this first week, which has to be the toughest, I could have kept going.

Teachers work hard at Michaela. We teach intensely, making every moment count. We have lots of duties, maximising the time we are with pupils. We are reminded to engage the pupils at break time and lunch time: they are our top priority. We have lunch together every day, talking and chatting with them. And yet teachers do not work late: the work is intense, but manageable; with pre-planned resources, my own ‘planning’ can be done on half a post-it note, and most of that is reminding me to give the books out.

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What has surprised me most? The noise. It can be loud. If more than half the class have their hands up to give you a one-word answer (‘what poetic technique is this?’), you get a choral response: ‘one two three:’ ‘ALLITERATION!’ Thirty-two children shouting an answer is loud. This happens several times in everyone’s lessons. Lining up ready for lunch, children are chanting poems they have learned by heart, speeches, times tables or subject chants, in unison. It is loud. They love it. The looks on their faces are joyful to behold.

These are normal kids. But they are exceptional. And at Michaela, a normal teacher like me can begin to feel exceptional too.

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