So, after discovering Michaela, by chance, earlier in the year, listening, fascinated and intrigued, to several of their teachers talking online about Bootcamp, Dead White Men and Family Lunches, as well as reading their book, ‘Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teacher’, I visited – in early July.
If you’ve read a few of my previous blogs, you’ll know that, all that is Michaela, has challenged my thinking – massively. I’ve since realised, somewhat miffed, at times, that my training was solely ‘Progressive’. I was taught to believe that child-led, and all that that means, was the only way. Being a facilitator of learning was a good thing; being the fountain of all knowledge was bad – as was assuming a position of expertise and clear authority in the classroom. If my children were not engaged in their learning – I probably wasn’t doing something quite right; if they were disruptive or did not demonstrate good manners, well – I guess that was my fault, too.
All this thinking and questioning on my part could not be kept to myself and a few of my colleagues heard all about Michaela, that all the staff were on the same page; that there was complete consistency across the school regarding discipline and expectations; learning happened as the result of drill and didactic teaching; there was no group-work at Michaela, pupils learned in silence, they moved around the school silently. Behaviour was impeccable. Honestly, their faces said it all – wide eyes and raised eyebrows. How can that be? It all seemed so very far away from what we had always done – what we were all trained to do. But I was excited about this different way of doing things; this was a school that was challenging the status quo and in doing so, providing an education for inner-city children and seemingly making a difference in the process.
So, with all this in mind (and with a very open mind), I arrived at Wembley Park Station on a sunny July lunch-time. I grew up in Wembley and went to school nearby; I remember being at bus-stops at home-time and watching elderly people being shoved out of the way by boisterous, senior-school pupils – but I had learned that Michaela children were different. I signed-in and was informed about my visit; I was presented with ‘Dos and Don’ts’ – the expectations of me, as a visitor – for example, I was not to act surprised when the children told me that they liked their school; I was encouraged to talk about my university experience and training.
Some were playing with balls, others were sitting on bench-tables talking. Uniform was smart. Play looked sensible and considerate. I approached a member of staff on duty and introduced myself. He began outlining the school’s ethos and philosophy. He was friendly and open. Out the corner of my eye, I noticed another member of staff speaking sternly to a pupil – a boy. The conversation was quiet and seemed respectful (although the member of staff had his hands in his pockets)…I know, I know – it feels petty to mention it – but I expected exemplary modeling of behaviour, too – but never mind.
After a few minutes, the children were called to line-up to go in for lunch. A male member of staff spoke loudly and sternly, reminding pupils of expected behaviour, how they were to walk inside. Eyes forward. One boy turned his head and looked sideways and received a demerit. I should have expected that, but I found myself trying to reason / justify what I’d just seen – it wasn’t easy.
Inside, after a quick shake of the hand by Ms Birbalsingh, she led us to a table at which I was invited to sit for the Family Lunch. The space was clean and organised. Pupils filed in silently and stood behind their chairs. They were led by Mr Porter in singing ‘Jerusalem’ – they hadn’t practised it much, apparently. God Save the Queen was better.
Lunch was served by the pupils. It went something like this, ‘Servers 1 and 2 – on my ‘Go’…Go!’ We were told what to discuss during our lunch (along the lines of Andy Murray’s motivation and commitment in order to get to Wimbledon). The pupils closest to me were confident in attempting to articulate their opinions. They responded to my questions about what they wanted to study at University and demonstrated good manners throughout the meal. Fifteen minutes later, another ‘Servers 3 and 4, on my ‘Go’…Go!’ and the clear-up process began. I was literally about to place a fork-load of vegetables in my mouth but thought better of it.
After lunch, pupils were encouraged to offer a few sentences to explain something for which they were grateful. This happened several times and after each, all pupils gave a two-clap applause, together, in response. Pupils spoke audibly and confidently. I got the feeling that for at least one pupil on my table, he had simply learned to play the game – he had asked me my name and where I’d come from, early on in the meal and had worked out that thanking me for visiting would be appreciated – I’m not sure it really mattered to him whether I was there or not, but I could be wrong – and I’m willing to acknowledge that all children (and adults) learn to play the game one way or the other.
The transition after lunch, into lessons, was outstandingly efficient and orderly. We were allocated two guides who would take us around the school. They were given a timer which would beep, we were told, after 20 minutes, after which they would go back to their lessons and we would be free to walk around the school and pop in to any lessons we wished to. The guides, a boy and a girl spoke confidently and the girl in particular, was clear and eloquent in her explanations of how the school was organised, what each of her badges represented and what ‘SLANT’ stood for. We were led into several classes; pupils were well-behaved, were sitting up straight (mostly) and raised their hands before contributing. Teachers stood at the front. And taught.
I walked around Michaela afterwards feeling as though I needed some time to process it all. I heard a teacher warn pupils that many of them were very close to receiving a detention. I walked past another in which one pupil had just been given a demerit for having lost his place in a text when called upon to read. I walked past another and sensed that some pupils, if allowed, would quite like to sigh deeply and stop listening for a bit… I watched other pupils enjoying a teacher’s joke and having a good laugh and the boy who lost his place in the text – well, I watched the girl on his left kindly (that’s the perfect adverb), point out where he should be.
To be honest though, I was relieved to sign-out and end my visit. I messaged an ex-colleague and told him that I wasn’t sure whether I liked it. He asked, ‘Too army?’ which, I think, pretty much summed it up for me. Much of what Michaela stands for does resonate with me, however. I have realised, thanks to their example, that some of the ‘Progressive’ stuff doesn’t necessarily enhance learning and some of it, absolutely doesn’t. Throughout this process, I’ve thought heaps about discipline in schools, expectations of behaviour, responsibility of pupils (and parents), good learning habits, relevance of content, the balance between knowledge and ‘finding out’, who we are actually doing it all for, as well as teacher work-load versus actual impact on learning.
I think that Michaela’s passion for changing the education system in order to better-serve some of Brent’s children, has to be respected; I’m fairly certain that many of their pupils will be, if they’re not already, hugely thankful for their Michaela opportunity. I have certainly learned a lot and hope to be a better teacher because of it. To answer the original question, though, ‘Am I Michaela?’, I felt (and it was definitely a feeling), from the first moment I stepped through the doors, that no, I’m not. Although I am thankful for the experience, and thought at one point, that yep – that’s me – and I could definitely work in a school like that – I just didn’t warm to it. I am, however, going to make some changes in my classroom…but not too many.
To all the staff and pupils of Michaela, thank you for welcoming me.