It’s a rather odd, almost out-of-body, experience to read Twitter on a weekend, as people argue back and forth about my school and what it does. Sometimes I weigh in with a tweet or a blog post, but more often I just sit back with a cup of tea as the debate whizzes down my screen. As Katharine Birbalsingh has said on numerous occasions: Michaela is Marmite. Lots of people have lots of feelings about it.
Twelve months ago, I did not love Michaela. I’d heard about the school from friends and colleagues who are more engaged in the Twittersphere, and I was told they were hiring in languages. I decided to read Barry Smith’s blog. Like many others, among my first responses were, ‘What is this craziness? Have these children no personalities? What about the SEN kids? How can they all read that much? What about the Power Points? Is this not all terribly dull? Or cruel, even? Who is this strange repetitive man? What about creativity? WHEREFORE SYNTHESIS?!’ (I was an NQT, and my school had a real thing about Bloom’s).
The last of my first responses, as it were, was ‘I’ve got to see this in action’. No way – no WAY, I thought – could this be proper learning, with the kids actually doing things properly and owning it and enjoying it. It could only be rote learning of the worst kind, with kids memorising paragraphs and parroting them back with no real understanding or appreciation. I requested a visit. I fully expected to dislike the school and everything it stood for.
If you’re reading this blog, you are most likely au fait with the goings on at Michaela, so I won’t write at length about my experience on that day. Suffice it to say that I applied for the MFL job that same evening. And this wasn’t a case of self-selection – I was, on paper, not the kind of person they were looking for (or, rather, not the kind of person I thought they were looking for). I have voted Labour my entire adult life. When children misbehave, my natural instinct is to cuddle them. I like the idea of letting kids talk to one another to work their way through ideas. I think discovery learning can be great fun and great learning. I think that creativity is important. I think cheeky kids are hilarious. I love banter. I make cracking Power Points.
Michaela was – is – serious and earnest and intensive. The discipline is just as strict as you’ve heard. The routines are just as slick and automatic. The children are monitored constantly. The teaching is unashamedly didactic. The teachers are evangelical about what they do and – in equal measure – how they do it. Clapping and drum rolls are tightly regulated.
On paper, I neither understood nor appreciated what Michaela was. The above description is in equal parts true and the antithesis of what I thought I wanted in a school, for myself as a teacher or for any child. I completely understand why, having read about Michaela, many teachers and educationalists would remain unconvinced, deeply sceptical, or even horrified.
And yet, the following is also true: It works, it’s full of joy, and it’s done with love. I have felt, as a visitor and an interviewee and an employee, an immense sense of excitement. Of community. Of a group of 260-odd people working together. Of course it’s not Shangri-La – of course we have difficult times and tough decisions. And – lest it not be said enough – we make mistakes. But the lasting feeling is one of happiness. The kids are safe, they are cared for, they are learning a huge amount, and they are experiencing meaningful success on a regular basis. The kids are happy. I may only be three years into my teaching career, but I’ve worked with kids for almost 12 years, and I know happy kids when I see them.
Michaela on paper is a very different prospect to what it is in real life. I approached the school as a critic, and ended up loving it. It has changed my view on a number of issues, and I have adapted many of my personal and professional habits as a result. The impact of the no-excuses discipline, traditional from-the-front teaching, no games or group work or anything else is that teaching good stuff is much easier, and the kids learn it more quickly and remember it for longer. Work-life balance is truly achievable here.
I am aware that, having been a teacher for very little time, I can be charged with naivety. So, all I can say I know is that I am happy teaching, the pupils are happy learning, and they are learning lots of great stuff.
And there you have it. I love Michaela, but you don’t have to. Although I have a sneaking suspicion that if you do visit, you might quite enjoy yourself. What do you have to lose?