Many people are horrified by Michaela, and therefore dismiss all who sail in her, and all she stands for.
This is a pity. Michaela has been portrayed alternately as a gulag or Shangri-La, demanding impossibly high standards of behaviour because of an insane dictator, or due to an inspired prophet.
When I visited, I was ambivalent about the silent lines walking to lessons: wasn’t this oppressive? About the family lunch in which students performed appreciations, but mainly of their teachers: wasn’t this sycophancy? That they discussed the level of supervision they expected their parents to have over their phone and social media, and told me that, no, as children, they were definitely not to be trusted! Wasn’t this brainwashing?
I was unsettled by the sight of teachers and other adults standing around each table during appreciations, calling attention to those who slumped or did not have their arms folded correctly. Wasn’t this controlling?
Even teachers in the school like Lia Martin praise it and refer to it as a cult.
When I described it to my own children (18 and 20), they were adamant it was a cult. We sent them to the bog standard comprehensive next door (Progress 8 regularly around 0.0), and they came away with a string of top grades, amazing A level results and have excelled at university since – educational research suggests this would happen at most schools if you enter then at level 5. Do we need the cult of Michaela at all?
So, although ambivalent about the culture of Michaela, why was I so excited by my visit?
Why do we have so much to learn from Michaela?
I was also staggered by the students’ attitude to learning. I watched an English lesson in which year seven students independently, skilfully and diligently took notes, annotating a poem as I would expect only a top set year 11 class to do in my school (with progress 8 in the top 12% of all schools). They did this without prompting, without asking the teacher to pause and repeat themselves, and without giving up at the first sign of difficulty.
Do your students or teachers love learning?
Although I train my staff not to allow volunteers when testing knowledge, preferring random sampling, Michaela students shot up their hands at every opportunity. I was inspired by their French curriculum, which taught grammar, verbs, a variety of tenses, and which resulted in students being able to speak in sentences, rather than matching random sets of vocabulary to cartoonlike pictures in a textbook. Barry Smith allowed his class to ask me any questions they liked. I laughed out loud when one student asked, “do your students love learning as much as we do?”
Well? How would you answer that question of your school? Let me go a step further: how many of your teachers love learning? How many of them would choose to read a book about teaching techniques that would make them better teachers? (You know what I’m talking about!)
And so, if we put aside the cult of Michaela, the passion for immaculate behaviour, and focus on their attitude to learning, and their passion for a demanding and worthwhile curriculum, we will find much to inspire.
These are some of the things Tiger Teachers will force you to think about:
Is your curriculum valuable? Are you teaching worthwhile knowledge, that as an expert in your subject you believe everyone should know, or is your curriculum a set of random topics which could equally be replaced by other random topics? Alterantively, is it a set of topics building towards what they need at only at GCSE, rather than to master your subject?
Is your curriculum ambitious and designed for mastery? Are you teaching towards an end point where students are ready for GCSE in year 11, or are you teaching students to get better and better at your subject? Do they make so much progress that the GCSE is simply a detail, an exam to be prepared for in year 11, by the by?
Does your homework make students learn what they need to know, or is it simply a set of activities whose quality depends upon motivation, expertise and energy (or lack of all of these) of the teacher setting it on the day?
Does the timing of your homework make use of all that is known about spaced practice, so that students receive the right homework at the right time, testing the right knowledge just before it is about to be forgotten? Or do all teachers in your department set whatever homework they want, independent of everyone else in the team?
Is there a system for setting homework which removes the burden from the teacher, so that one subject is done on Monday across the school, another on Tuesday, another on Wednesday, all year groups having the same routine on each day of the week? Or does your school publish a homework timetable that every teacher in the school ignores when ever they feel the need to?
Do your teachers spend pointless hours chasing missed homework, chasing pupils who have not done it, chasing the time to mark it? Or do too many of your teachers give up on these tasks, because otherwise they would become all consuming? Or, is all the homework in your school quizzing, requiring no marking from you at all?
Do you still mark books? Do you use different coloured pens, do you have rituals for what went well and even better if, several stars and several wishes, double and triple marking? Or, do you have a system which allows you to mark a class set of books in 30 minutes, prepare your feedback to the class, and a routine which gets students to act on it immediately next lesson?
Do you find the time to teach spellings in your subject, so that students become increasingly accurate, with a routine that forces you to teach literacy alongside your subject content? Or do you think that is the English teacher’s job?
Does your senior leadership team spend hours scrutinising your lessons, feeding back on your performance, and setting you targets related to your teaching in performance management once a year? Do you find this deeply stressful? Has it ever improved your teaching or your performance?
Or, do most adults in the school visit your classroom, popping in and out for one or two minutes at a time, and emailing you something they’ve noticed that you could easily improve? Do you do the same for everyone else? Is there a culture of improvement in your school or a culture of “leave me alone, you can’t possibly understand my subject, or how best to teach it?”
The team at Michaela are very much a team. The phrase that crops up most frequently in the book is “rowing together”. Once we remove our emotional reactions to their behaviour policy, we notice their approach to teaching and learning is a triumph of common sense and cognitive science. They have tried to find the most efficient ways to teach, without wasting a moment of the teacher’s time.
Time is the one resource, even more than money, that I hear teachers asking for. If they spent the time to read this book, it would be paid back to them a hundredfold.
I’ll blog about the book more extensively during the year.
If you can’t be persuaded to buy Tiger Teachers, there are two of their teachers you should follow, with links to their blogs below:
They will literally change your teaching life.