My afternoon at Michaela

Friday 6th January 2017, 11:47am. My Metropolitan line train leaves Amersham and I open my copy of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers, the book published last November by the teaching staff of Michaela Community School in Wembley. It seemed apt Tube reading given that that was exactly where I was heading.

Some background

I stumbled across Michaela online in an exercise of complete fluke. For context’s sake, I’ll explain a little. I’m currently a modern languages student at the University of Southampton, and I have held the ambition of becoming a teacher since I was about twelve (though I think that was more a moment of realisation, and that it had been ‘in me’ long before then). Every now and again, I like to have a browse of the TES jobs section to see how many vacancies there are for MFL teachers, and to see if any particular schools stand out as ‘ones to watch out for’ when the time comes that I am applying for such a position myself. I stumbled across a French teacher advert for Michaela, and it stood out like no other that I had ever seen. I followed the links, read the teachers’ blogs, read some examples of pupil work and watched videos about the school on YouTube. I simply had to find out more, and so I sent an email to Jess Lund, head of MFL, detailing my interest in visiting the school. My only obstacle was that I am in Lyon for my year abroad at the moment! Faced with the prospect of waiting until June, I kept in touch with the activity surrounding the school thanks to Twitter and the blogs maintained by the teachers. After agreeing to cancel my pre-order of the book so that my grandparents could buy it for me as a Christmas present, I watched the launch event as it live-streamed. Fast forward a few weeks, and my exam timetable in Lyon made clear that I could stay in the UK for a little longer than anticipated over Christmas, and so I got back in touch to see if a visit could be arranged in early January.

Anticipation and arrival

That brings us to Friday of last week, the day of the visit. Having avidly followed what goes on at Michaela through Twitter, and read a decent amount of the book, I felt a strange combination of excitement and nerves. Could I be about to visit the school where I will one day aspire to teach? I certainly hoped so. You more than likely are aware that the school has a number of very vocal critics, and a line that is often used is that you should visit before reaching conclusions — which seems fair enough to me. I was conscious of the need to go in with open eyes and an open mind; I agreed with the principles of the school on paper, but seeing something in person is very different and so I wanted to do so objectively, so that my visit could be of maximum benefit.

I had allowed a little extra time to get to the school, being conscious of my at times limited navigation skills, and not too keen on the idea of being set a detention upon arrival! Thanks to the school’s close proximity to Wembley Park station, as well as the good directions I had been sent, even I would have struggled to get lost finding this school. My immediate first impression was that I was struck by the calmness of the place — a theme that would persist throughout my visit. Was it really possible for a school to be this calm?! I signed in, and was invited to go outside and speak to some of the pupils before lunch.

First impressions with the pupils

Alongside the other gentleman visiting, a teacher from the United States who was looking to move to the UK, I ventured outside to see various groups of children enjoying some free time before family lunch. Jess saw me and came over, and we had a brief conversation, before I was encouraged to speak to some of the pupils.

A group of boys were shooting a basketball into a hoop. They offered my fellow visitor the ball for him to have a go. ‘Please, God, don’t pass it to me!’ I thought to myself, not wanting to make an embarrassment of myself. Luckily, I was spared from this impending humiliation when Jess invited me to come over and watch some Year 8 pupils show off their French prowess.

The keenness of the pupils to practise their French, as they enthusiastically translated short phrases from English into French, was fantastic, as was their speed and accuracy of response. One boy almost instantly recalled the phrase “il faut que je fasse”, a phrase I wasn’t using until I was in the Sixth Form. I was then told that this was a lower ability group of Year 8s. Stunned, we progressed onto a group of Year 7s, the vast majority of whom would not have studied any French at primary school. Their accents and speed of recall, once again, were so impressive that I was standing there in almost stunned silence — this was after just one term of French!

I sat down at a table with two Year 7 girls from this group, and asked them about the school and their French lessons. They enthusiastically told me about how much they enjoyed their lessons, with Mlle Bettahar. Suddenly, the playground fell into total silence as arms flew up into the air. Barry Smith, deputy head, had just walked out and raised his hand to call for silence. I have honestly never seen a group of children fall silent so quickly.

A quick announcement, and the hubbub returned. I was so thrown by what I had just witnessed, that the girl next to me commented “You can talk again now, sir”! Our conversation continued for a couple of minutes, when a group of four girls appeared — “Sir, sir, sir! Have you seen the library yet? Would you like to see the library?” I was duly taken for a tour of the library, and en-route I was quizzed about which university I went to (the idea of aiming high is clearly instilled from the off here) and I was presented with a book on French history to look at. Clearly, they had paid full attention to every word I had uttered.

Family Lunch

It was now time for the famed family lunch, one of the things for which the school is best known. As the pupils lined up, I stood to the side as the Year 9 pupils filed calmly out of the dining hall. I was taken aback as the first boy to walk past me — who would not have seen me before in his life at this point — looked at me in the eye, smiled and cheerily said “good afternoon, sir.” As a flurry of pupils filed past me, I was thrilled to exchange a greeting with every single one. Headteacher Katharine Birbalsingh then came over and said hello, welcoming me and inviting me to take a seat at the head of any table for lunch. I walked into the dining room, selecting my table as the pupils walked in. As they entered, they were reciting poetry, which was something to behold as the room filled, getting much louder as it did so. I actually felt a bit foolish as the only one not participating — like the token footballer everyone lambasts on the TV for not knowing the words to the national anthem.

A whole string of merits were given out to kick off proceedings, highlighting the positive way in which all activities are carried out here. A topic of conversation was set, and pupils sprung into action serving each other. As guest, I was served first by the pupils at my table, four of whom were in Year 7, with the remaining two in Year 8. I asked them what their favourite thing about Michaela was. I asked nearly every pupil I spoke to this question, and the almost universal response was “there’s no bullying here”, which is hardly surprising to hear when you see how delightfully kind these children are. They’re switched on too, with a comment quickly made on the French flag tie-pin I was wearing. They asked about my background, why I was visiting and why I particularly liked French. We then had a brief conversation about how learning a language allows you to learn about other cultures, and how not enough people in the UK learn other languages.

Attention to detail is one of the reasons that Michaela runs so smoothly, and lunch is not spared when it comes to precision! Jo Facer, head of English and today’s lunch leader, came around telling us that there were two minutes left. Glancing at my plate, which remained at least half full thanks to a combination of being engrossed in conversation as well as being one of the slowest eaters in the history of the world, she smiled, suggesting that I “eat quickly!” That would certainly be the day…

As the plates were cleared away, Barry Smith came past my table and remarked that I had selected a very bad table, asking if I had been bullied. “Not yet”, I joked. “It’s only a matter of time!”. He asked what the pupils had told me, before doing another little French demonstration when I mentioned it and how it was my subject (knowing that it was his too). The pupil who had just told me that French was the subject he found the most challenging, was able to respond fluently to Barry’s prompts. One of the things I noticed was how a large proportion of the translations are jokes at the expense of the teachers, and this example of the good relationships between pupils and staff particularly stood out to me. Pupils relished commenting on how ugly, old, bald or short their teachers are, doing so with a twinkle in their eye, but were also mature enough to know exactly where the line is, not crossing it once.

Suddenly, I was being offered my dessert, again the first to be served. The politeness on show here was something else. Next, perhaps the element of the family lunch that is the most well-known, a Michaela trademark if you like: appreciations. Pupils were encouraged to practise an appreciation, where they stand up in front of the whole room and express gratitude for a fellow pupil, teacher or person in their lives. The boy next to me asked my name because he wanted to give me an appreciation. As he practised uttering “Hashman” under his breath, I was both taken aback and touched. Those pupils selected were able to project their voices to fill the room, giving reflective justifications for their selections. One even gave an appreciation for being given a detention, as it helped to remind him to make the right choices. Wow!

Leaving family lunch, I was amazed by what I had just experienced. I had just had a totally civilised meal, with mature, adult conversation, with a group of eleven and twelve-year-olds.

Tour

Next, I was given a tour of the school by two Year 7 ‘future leaders’. They came up to me and my fellow guest in reception, introducing themselves and shaking our hands. They asked what had brought us to Michaela, listening to our respective responses with keen interest.

As we walked from lesson to lesson, I was taken aback once more by the calm, purposefulness in the atmosphere that pervaded the corridors. I had read about the open door culture of the lessons in the school, but I had interpreted this figuratively, when in actual fact, it was very much literal. The classroom doors were all open, allowing us to float freely in and out. No eyes turned as we entered, as pupils remained focused on the teaching. They paid absolute attention, the entire time.

Our guides showed us pupil books, and it was striking how immaculately kept they were, how detailed the work was and how it was by no means a ‘robot factory’, as it accused of being by some, as pupils wrote considered opinions in their essays. It is only writing this now, nine days later, that I remember that these were written by KS3 pupils. They were of a far superior quality than that which would ordinarily be expected of this age group. Yes, I spotted spelling mistakes (I am well-known for being a major pedant when it comes to spelling and grammar!) but in every case that I spotted as I flicked through books, these had already been corrected — by the pupils, since teachers do not mark here.

As we entered a maths classroom, I saw what I imagine is probably the closest to a pupil ‘kicking off’ that I could have hoped to see here. It was just about the most civilised ‘kicking off’ that I have ever seen in a school, but it was simultaneously reassuring to know that these things do happen here too. The boy had already been issued with a demerit and we entered to see him raising his arms (not in a confrontational way by any means) and therefore being given a second demerit for a bad reaction. “I don’t understand, miss”, he said calmly, before being prompted to respond to his demerit appropriately. He took his prompt, with a “yes, miss”, meaning that the entire situation was under control within twenty seconds tops, without either party needing to raise their voice, demonstrating how the effective behaviour policy at Michaela allows such a calm environment to be maintained. I could tell from the off that it is one that is exceptionally conducive to learning.

We were given ample opportunity to ask any questions we had, as we progressed from classroom to classroom. Something particularly striking about our guides was their ability to provide thoughtful comments when answering these questions. They pointed out the various mottos that appear printed on the walls — such as “us against the world” — and explained what these meant for them. Their awareness of the stiff competition in the wider world was impressive, yet they were completely undeterred by it, instead relishing the battle and determined not to let anything hold them back. They were completely focused on being the best that they could be. This culture of high expectations, hard work and kindness was apparent in every interaction with the pupil guides, who were exemplary ambassadors of their school. They returned us to reception, shaking our hands once more, saying that it had been “a pleasure” to show us around their school. I can assure them wholeheartedly that the pleasure was ours.

A quick look in the classrooms

We were then given free roam to return to any classroom of our choosing. With only ten minutes left of the teaching day, there wasn’t time to indulge myself in much of a French lesson. While I saw snippets of lessons, it would have been nice to see the structure of a single lesson as it progressed; this was however the only thing I could possibly describe as missing from my visit, and for the purposes of this visit, this is something rather minor. I had seen a lesson as part of our tour, so revisited this lesson very briefly, before heading down the corridor to see the end of Jess Lund’s lesson. Pupils were completing a writing exercise, at the end of which one boy asked if they could play a round of ‘boys vs girls’. The remaining minutes of the lesson were spent on rapid-fire translations. A couple of the pupils had only been learning French for three days (yes, you read that correctly) but were still able to participate fully, offering responses that weren’t perfect in terms of their accuracy, but when you consider their exceptionally short careers as learners of French, were quite astounding.

Tutor time and reading club

At Michaela, pupils have tutor time at both ends of the school day. I stayed to watch Jess with her Year 8 tutor group. First, merits and demerits were totalled for the day and term so far, with those at the top of the table praised while those at the bottom were reminded of the need to work on turning their numbers around. The session was then spent reading through a book, the diary of Anne Frank. Pupils read confidently, with corrections given whenever necessary.

Glancing a few lines ahead in my copy of the book, I saw a word coming up. ‘Ah,’ I thought to myself, ‘this will be a good test!’ Surely a group of Year 8s would not be able to come across the word “vagina” in a class reading without some kind of reaction! We reached and passed the word in question without even so much as a single snigger. Not even one! Find me another school where you’d get that!

Tutor time finished with a quick ‘fact of the day’, and we were paid a visit by Barry Smith to remind those who had not completed their holiday homework that they had a detention the following morning (Saturday).

Following on from tutor time, was the after school reading club, led by English teacher Lia Martin, which I was keen to stay for. A pupil at the end of the table where I was sitting, handed me a copy of the book the group was reading without prompting, while a boy from the row in front turned to me to let me know which page number they were on, again unprompted.

As with tutor time, pupils read for the most part with great confidence, and when they came across trickier words they showed perseverance. Considering that these were lower ability readers, their ability to tackle challenging text was eye-opening. One boy wasn’t keeping up with the text, and was promptly issued with a demerit. A feature of the issuing of demerits that I particularly liked was the way in which they are always accompanied by a comment reminding the pupil in question how they ought to behave, so they are never in the dark as to why they have been ticked off.

Something I had read about was the way in which the open door culture I mentioned above stretched to teachers observing colleagues’ lessons. I remember Jo Facer saying during her talk about CPD at the book launch, “we watch each other teach, all the time”. I saw an example of this during the reading club, as deputy head Joe Kirby walked in and watched the session for a few minutes, before leaving again. Pupils were undeterred; there was no change to the atmosphere. Seeing these things I have read and heard about actually happening was a great reminder that this was all real, not just a piece of fantasy! I had only been reading Joe’s riveting chapters of Tiger Teachers on the role of a knowledge-based curriculum and homework as revision, on my journey in on the Tube.

As reading club drew to a close, pupils filed out with a cheery “have a nice weekend, miss” as they began to make their merry ways home. I then went with Lia to her duty, walking and talking, discussing the role of a Teaching Fellow at Michaela, as I had a few questions relating to this. These were very helpfully answered, and so as I made my way out, I felt thoroughly well looked after as a guest and quite simply wowed by what I had just witnessed over the last three hours.

Closing remarks

Firstly, congratulations for sticking with this mammoth post (unless, of course, you took one look at the length, balked and scrolled straight to the bottom!) and I hope that my perspective of the school from my afternoon there is helpful if you are weighing up your opinion of the school in your own mind. The overarching features of my visit were the following:

  • The exceptional behaviour and kindness displayed by the pupils
  • The refreshingly calm atmosphere that created what felt like the ideal environment for productive learning
  • The maturity the pupils displayed in conversation, especially given their age, as well as the extent to which they were totally switched on and interested in me, my background and the purpose of my visit (a handful even going so far as to remark that they will look out for me in a couple of years — I can only hope!)
  • Given my particular interest in French, the enthusiasm they showed towards language learning and their excellent display of translations, use of different tenses and even the subjunctive, all with excellent, authentic sounding accents.
  • Above all, the smiles on pupils’ faces and the joy that was so apparent in every situation, from the classroom to the playground. These are extremely kind, thoughtful, happy pupils, making the most of the education being offered to them.

If you have read about Michaela, and either immediately loved what you read or still need some convincing, visit. It’s one thing to read about a school, but no amount of reading can give you the same level of insight as a visit to see the place in action.

Finally, I would like to express my thanks (appreciation!) to Jess Lund for organising my visit, as well as to all of the pupils and staff that I met and spoke with on the day, for such an informative afternoon that left me feeling so excited about what the future will hold for the pupils of this fantastic new school. I look forward to following its journey with great interest. Two claps on two, 1, 2…

[Small caveat: when expressing my views about my afternoon on Twitter immediately following my visit, it was noted by one tweeter that I am a volunteer at a local radio station, and conclusions were jumped to regarding me having some kind of agenda relating to this. Please therefore be aware that this visit bore no relation to any voluntary role I have (the radio station in question doesn’t even serve the catchment area of this school anyway…!) and was entirely driven by my own desire to view the school as a budding teacher. All of the views expressed in this post are entirely my own. Thank you.]