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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Just one book: ethos

When I started this series, my aim was to distil my thoughts on education through the prism of a single book: which one book, for me, held the key to that particular aspect? For curriculum, it was Cultural Literacy; for assessment, Make it Stick; for teaching, Teach Like a Champion, and for school leadership, Leverage Leadership.

 For me, the book that most exemplifies my ethos of education is Rafe Esquith’s There are no shortcuts.

esquith

 Esquith’s ethos, embodied in the title, was adopted by Mike Feinberg and David Levin shortly before they launched their ground-breaking charter school, KIPP; now a chain boasting significant results for poor children in the USA. KIPP in turn went on to inspire other schools, including King Solomon Academy in West London. Esquith’s legacy is an extraordinary one.

I first read this book during the 2010 Teach First Summer Institute: bright eyed and completely clueless, all I knew was that the amorphous challenge ahead would be grueling. Esquith’s book is often about defying the officials and putting students first, like when he writes: “when my district assigns textbooks to the children that would cure the most seriously afflicted insomniac, I’ve used texts of my own choosing to inspire the children to dedicate themselves to their studies.”

The writer confronts the challenge ahead: “Yes, life isn’t fair. Other kids have more money. Their English is better. Their parents are better connected.” And there are no shortcuts. The students just have to work harder and learn more. I especially liked Esquith’s focus on high academic expectations, notably in text choice (like students studying unabridged Shakespeare, To Kill a Mockingbird, Malcolm X and so on). This is no better exemplified than here:

If fifth-grade students are reading at a first-grade level, placing first-grade books in front of them will never help them catch up with the students across town who not only are in higher-achieving classrooms but have parents and tutors helping them every step of the way. Someone has to tell children if they are behind, and lay out a plan of attack to help them catch up. If this means staying after school or taking extra hours sitting with the child and reading, so be it. There are no excuses.

I have been advised to withhold information like this from students in the name of motivation. But we must aim higher than this, as Esquith reminds us: “society is filled with forces of mediocrity that are going to battle you for the potential that is within your child.”

The second strapline of Esquith’s classroom, alongside “there are no shortcuts” is “be nice, work hard”; KIPP’s founders inverted this, and the founders of Michaela Community School in Wembley altered it to “work hard, be kind.” The message is simple, enduring and essential.

Much of this book is dedicated to examples of Esquith going above and beyond; extra classes, summer classes and the all-important field trips: “as a teacher of children from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, I came to understand that my students would work harder for a better life if they saw the life they were working for.” Esquith details raising funds for these trips which often include travel to a different state by plane and an overnight stay, underwritten by awe-inspiring fund-raising methods. Now, trips are often costly, both in terms of time, money and energy; they frequently, at secondary schools, lead to missed learning time. But I do think Esquith has something here, and I’ll be writing over the next few weeks about field trips and why I think they need to be prioritized despite all of these drawbacks. The learning is the thing, of course, and the ethos behind the learning is relentless progress, defying the odds. But ethos is also nurtured by those aspects of education which cause students to feel that emotional connection, that energy and excitement, and for some this is best achieved outside a classroom setting.

In summary, the key messages on ethos from this book are:

  • There are no shortcuts to success; only hard work
  • All children deserve a rich, challenging curriculum
  • All children deserve to be educated in pleasant, safe classroom environments
  • We as teachers must be honest but positive with our students, always believing they can achieve, and knowing how hard they will need to work to make it
  • Teachers must do right by their students; this needs to be their guiding aim

Of course, this book comes with a major caveat: Esquith is exceptional; exceptional in his ability and exceptional in his commitment. Some people go into teaching to be missionaries; most do not. Some people submerge their lives to the lives of their students; most do not. Early in my career, I sought to emulate Esquith in my priorities and in my dedication.

But I’m not him. I’m a better teacher when I take time out to read fun books, go on holiday, visit a gym, sneak out of work early once in a blue moon to meet friends or go to the theatre, take an entire weekend off to do nothing but watch an entire series of something rubbish on Netflix. I’d like it if this was not true, but it is. I’m flawed.

But Esquith, I’ve come to realize, isn’t the model; Esquith is the touchstone. He is the bar we all strive to reach. So few of us will make it. I know I won’t. But in my best moments, his is the ethos that flows through me; it my lowest moments, his are the words I turn to for the gold standard of caring and commitment.

This is not a book for the practicalities of teaching and ethos. This is a book for inspiration.

There are no shortcuts

Teaching is really, really hard. Anyone who is a teacher already knows this, but I need to preface this post with that key piece of information lest any non-teachers be reading. Yes, it is the greatest job in the world, but it is also, at times, unremittingly tough.

I wanted to write about Rafe Esquith, because I am coming to the end of my third year, and teaching is still really hard. Esquith was one of my first-year crutches: when I wanted to give up, or thought “actually, I’m making no difference at all, and I don’t really know how to”, I would pick up one of his books and I would find the tenacity to carry on.

Thank you, Rafe Esquith, because those hard times became fewer and further between, and I stuck it out. But there are still times where you wonder “is it worth it?” – those are the times you need this book. Maybe leaving school after an arduous parents evening which has made your in-school working day 13 hours long, and that’s before you mark year 9 at home. Maybe in those long winter months, when you leave home and it is pitch black and you return home and it is pitch black. Maybe after marking 28 essays and 28 books and organizing revision clubs and breakfast boosters and lunch boosters and a student still says: “I don’t understand. I need more help”; or more time, which you don’t have, because the exam is this Monday, and you have 27 other students, and this child has only just started to care about their exam, and if they had cared two years ago they might not be saying this now.

Whatever the scenario, when in doubt, read “There are No Shortcuts.”

Rafe Esquith works in a system that sounds tougher than anything I have ever heard of in the UK. Early on in the book, Esquith writes to new teachers: “outstanding teaching will require you not only to do everything in your power to reach your students but to battle the forces that are supposed to be on your side.” His is an administration doggedly opposed to any kind of innovation or creativity in the classroom, portraying low expectations of children at every turn. One example of this is that he can’t teach a full text; he needs to teach snippets of great literature to drill kids in multiple choice exams which say nothing about their aptitude for essay writing. As an English teacher, my heart hurt when I realized that an act of rebellion was teaching a full text, something I took utterly for granted. Indeed, Esquith advises to “read your favourite books with your students”, something I can already do, thanks to an incredibly trusting Head of English.

Esquith teaches fifth grade in a primary school in an extremely deprived part of Los Angeles. The rallying cry of this book is in the title: there is no magic way to help students catch up who are far behind their peers. You just need to work at it; and Esquith does: terrifying commitment is shown in every utterance. At times, you do wonder whether he is not actually an exception, and whether all folk could find this level of hard work sustainable.

What is great about this particular book is that you realize that Esquith did not always get it right. He made mistakes, and yet persevered, and altered countless lives. This is comforting to any teacher beginning to doubt their “calling.”

So, if ever you need your fire for teaching re-lit (and “Lighting their Fires” is another Esquith I would recommend), turn to dear Rafe, marvel at his efforts, and remember he is a human just like you, and what you do is amazing.