I umm’d and ahh’d a lot before posting this. Who needs to hear my thoughts on Michaela, after all? But then I decided that I hadn’t seen very much moderate assessment of what goes on there; that there are things in Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers that are somewhat provocative and thus invite a response; and that all I’ve done is write about what I saw and thought in a reasonable way. Besides, no-one has to read it.
Last Tuesday I spent a fascinating afternoon at The Michaela School.
Fascinating in so many ways. First, I’d not been into London state school since a few disastrous days of supply in 1997. Second, I’ve never been on a school visit where there was no host; it was just “Here’s you badge, have a look round.” Third – well. This was Michaela, after all.
It’s all true, you know. The teachers really do just need to whistle and raise their hand for a playground full of chattering, laughing, basketballing kids to fall silent. The children really do walk along corridors in single file, with purpose, saying “Hello Sir” when they walk past a stranger. The teachers really do say “1-2-3 SLANT” and “You say I say”, issue merits and demerits on regular basis, explain that they are giving detentions because they want the best for the students, insist on sky high expectations and aspirations. You’ll have read the blogs I’m sure, and they don’t lie.
What’s also true, and perhaps less obvious from the celebrated Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers, is that the staff are normal people, kind, generous with their time, enthusiastic about their school (actually you’ll know that one already) and, if Deputy Head Joe Kirby is anything to go by, open to and interested in challenge.
Lots of things impressed me. The clarity of purpose; the strength of the leadership; the consistency with which rules are implemented; the mature conversations I had with some Year 8s over family lunch about knife crime; the gratitude (“I would like to show my appreciation to Mr Pullan who has come such a long way to see us! On the count of two, 1-2!” Cue two loud claps, in true Michaela style. That made me feel nice.); the quality of the classroom responses. Generally, all the things you’ve already read about elsewhere so I won’t repeat them here. That’s not to underplay them, just that it’s been said many times before.
Why then didn’t I come away wishing all schools were like that? Why couldn’t I shake some of my misgivings about the approach? In the end it came down to two areas: pedagogy and culture. In both there were things to admire; but also a lot which didn’t convince me.
Cards on the table. I teach in an independent school in an affluent area. When it comes to inculcating respect for authority and each other, an understanding of community and the need to follow the rules, what is appropriate in my school may well not be for Michaela, and vice versa. They deal with very different children from very different backgrounds and in this element of schooling they are doing extraordinary things. But when it comes to classroom teaching, I am on more solid ground from which to opine.
I should also say that the content of these Michaela-related blogs was sent to Joe Kirby a couple of days before publication. He exercised no editorial control but I wanted to let him have a look first. In other words, they are not designed as a surprise attack on my committed and caring hosts. It’s a genuine set of thoughts about a genuinely thought provoking visit.