Down the rabbit hole – my first week at Michaela

“A change is as good as a rest.”

In this case, my move to Michaela Community School in Wembley has been a huge change, with an accompanying sense of massive rejuvenation.

I am in my third year of teaching, after going through the Teach First programme at an ambitious inner London school. Working in an improving school was truly rewarding and it was a pleasure to work with such inspirational colleagues and be part of a huge transformation which will see my old school delivering a much higher standard of education to the local community. However, the constraints of such an environment often made it particularly difficult to focus on subject knowledge and what pupils needed to know. During our Ofsted visits, I was never asked once about curriculum or substantive content. Systems, feedback and pedagogy were always the priority for whichever of Her Majesty’s Inspectors graced my classroom that particular day. Completely understandably, schools need to get through the inspection. Anything else is a red herring. In the long term of course, un-centralised systems, excessive feedback that leads to teacher burn out and dubious pedagogy are the three biggest red herrings in a rather complicated sea.

Subject knowledge was always my priority. I am a History Teacher before anything else. Admirable as it may sound, I always recoiled when I heard colleagues wax lyrical about roles which suggested anything other than transferring knowledge and developing pupils into proactive, confident and caring citizens.

Outside the private sector, I did not think it would be possible to break out of the straitjacket of the conventional ‘wisdoms’ of 21st century teaching. As luck would have it, the school I wanted to work for did exist.

Philosophically, I have always loved what Michaela do. In the company of many teachers, this has made me feel akin to a 16th century priest during the high tide of Elizabethan religious reforms. When I arrived, it was exactly as I expected, albeit a huge jump practically.

I am aware that working here is like working in the educational equivalent of Hollywood and many of my truly inspirational colleagues have already written extensively about the school. Hopefully, this gives a brief snippet of what it is like starting at Michaela.

“A school is only as good as its weakest link.”

The first thing that is immediately apparent is that I have a lot of catching up to do. Teachers at Michaela really know their stuff. Every departmental conversation oozes with subject specific tweaks and the culture is one of continuous improvement. Every moment of each lesson is considered in terms of its value and impact. Incidentally, meetings are few and far between, yet each one is beneficial for everyone.

Feedback has been rapid. Each member of staff understands that a culture of candour and constant feedback is the way in which we improve rapidly. The problem with feedback is that it is very difficult to differentiate between good feedback and bad feedback. Despite having an excellent school mentor, my general feedback from others in my previous school was “less teacher talk, more group work”. At some point I hope to write about this problem generally. At Michaela, feedback is short, sharp and swift. I feel I have improved more in one week than I have in a half term previously.

Of course, Michaela’s success is predicated on us all rowing together. Feedback is tailored to ensure that each oar is the correct length, we are rowing in time and the boat doesn’t have any holes in it.

This success comes down to the staff. We all believe what we do changes pupils’ lives and we are happy to sacrifice an element of independence in order to create such an environment.

What is certainly replicable is the way our SLT take decisions. Every decision is considered in light of its value, impact and unforeseen consequences. Many will be well aware that we do not mark books. By this time last year I would have already marked four sets of books, taking hours of time out of my day. Marking is not the same as feedback and at Michaela, the irony is that our pupils get considerably more feedback than in other schools which adopt a laborious process which has little effect, given the effort it took. In my first week I have given one to one feedback, verbal feedback within lessons and whole class feedback, dissecting essays and paragraphs under a visualizer (which, incidentally is one of only pieces of technology I now use in my teaching).

My quality of life, even after one week has improved exponentially. We do work long days and teaching from the front every lesson can be tiring. However, I am leaving work at 5pm, give or take and taking absolutely nothing home with me. I have regained my weekends and for the first time I actually have plenty of hours spare in which I can read history books again.

The behaviour here is exceptional. Teaching the pupils is an absolute joy. I look at the clock and my only negative reaction this week has been observing how quickly the time goes in lessons. There is so much more I want to get through and so much more I want to tell the kids. I know many teachers, not necessarily through any fault of their own, who watch the clock for very different reasons.

My Year 7s are beginning to grasp ancient Mesopotamia and my Year 9 pupils have a good understanding of the geo-politics of empire building in the 17th and 18th centuries. In fact, I have found that my new Year 9 pupils are far better at expressing an historical argument than many of my previous A Level pupils.

I am really excited to see what the pupils are capable of. Eton is famously known as the “nurse of England’s statesman”, yet there is no doubt that Michaela is delivering an education which will rival the very best public schools. I really hope this will mean that our pupils will go on to do some very special things. I for one cannot wait to see what happens next.