Bunsen Blue – The Influence of Michaela

The Influence of Michaela

I started teaching at Michaela Community School in September 2017. Learning about, applying to and joining Michaela has permanently transformed my view of education forever. Learning about Michaela has been like constantly learning new threshold concepts: my view of the world dramatically changes with each new embedded idea, and I acquire a new lens with which to reflect upon my previous practices.

At Michaela, we have firmly held beliefs about education, pupils and values. When I say ‘we’, I truly do intend to use the all-encompassing pronoun for all the teachers at our school; yes – Michaela is rare insofar that all teachers agree on the philosophy which underpins decision-making. This should not be conflated with conformity and with being an ‘echo-chamber’; debate, discussion and challenging each other’s views are all integral parts of our structure (e.g. through our weekly CPD) and culture (e.g. through our culture of candour, open-door policy in both classrooms and SLT offices).

In this post, I will give a few examples of how my thinking has changed in dramatic ways. Notably, I was able to change my mind not because school decisions were made that I had to go along with, but rather, there is such a strong culture of asking questions, explaining the rationale for decisions and an openness on the part of all of my colleagues to spend time discussing philosophy. For example, the Head has an open-door policy, and I can walk into her office any time she is free, coffee-in-hand, and ask anything I’d like. Many aspects of changing my mind have come from reading about Michaela prior to my joining – this post focuses on these.

Belief 1: Long-term freedoms come at the price of short-term freedom; future liberation comes from enduring self-discipline

Most people will accept that in order to achieve a long-term goal, you need to work hard and make short-term sacrifices. At times, this can mean doing something that you do not enjoy. For example, practicing scales in a musical instrument is perceived as uninteresting to some. It is so much easier to drop the instrument and watch the second season of Stranger Things instead. But, the short-term sacrifice of the pleasure of this indulgence pays off in achieving greater piano-playing fluency. In the future, I will have the freedom of performing piano at the concert I have always wanted to perform at, since I have acquired the musical ability to have this be a choice. Without practice, this opportunity would not have even materialised as a possible opportunity to grasp. Sacrificing the short-term freedom of choosing to do whatever I like during piano-practice-time paid off as greater freedoms and choices in the future.

How does this relate to education? In school, the teacher’s duty is to constantly make decisions about what the pupils will be doing at any given time. We have a clear aim: for our pupils’ minds and lives to become enriched with knowledge and skills. The more you know and can do, the more you can think about and the more you can marvel in the world that you live in. We want our pupils to be happy and fulfilled. Now, picture lesson-time, and a few pupils have just finished their work before everyone else and begin whispering to each other about their weekend plans.

At Michaela teachers would instantly stop this from proceeding and give demerits to both pupils involved. Why? Because lesson-time is a precious limited resource: every second matters and must be utilised thinking about and mastering the subject content at hand. If pupils fall into habits of being distracted, they miss out. If teachers permit time-wasting, it will begin to permeate into other areas of their decision making and ultimately, pupils will be prevented from becoming the best in their subject they could possibly be. Our standards and expectations have to be incredibly high if we are to allow our pupils to succeed.

Now, it might seem difficult to stop pupils having a quick chat – they have finished the set task after all! When I first started my teaching career, I distinctly recall feeling bad for stopping pupils doing such things because I felt guilty for reprimanding pupils who were fulfilling the innocent desire of filling in their friends on their weekend plans. ‘It’s just 30 seconds until we stopped the task anyway’, I would justify to myself.

After having my thinking on this challenged, I raised my standards and changed the way I started to teach. I noticed how much more my pupils could get through in a lesson if they were fully committed to think about science only, when in science lessons.

At Michaela, pupils will usually be checking over their answers or self-quizzing on key knowledge if they finish early. Their habits have been shaped by their caring teaching to have the self-discipline to continue working. They will achieve more, see more success and be more fulfilled as result of all of the many decisions Michaela teachers make to ensure lesson time involves 100% focus.

We constantly explain to our pupils, the idea of short-term discipline enabling long-term freedoms. Make the right choices now, and you will have a strong set of GCSEs. You will be able to apply to a wider range of universities. A greater range of opportunities will be open to you because all of that time and all of those difficult choices you invested over several years will have come to fruition. 

Belief 2: Pupils must take personal responsibility for their choices.

Many people would not, at a first glance, disagree with belief 2. However, the manifestation of ‘choices’ and the extent to which we view ‘personal responsibility’ seems to stimulate much debate.

The simplest example is pupils being given a detention for not bringing their equipment such as pens and pencils to school. We believe pupils have the responsibly to be prepared for school. The detention serves as a consequence to remind pupils that they must take responsibility. This applies to not completing homework to a high standard, poor effort in lessons, being late to school etc.

When I first started teaching, I used to hand out pens constantly to those that were poorly equipped. This resulted in ungrateful pupils with a heightened sense of entitlement. It also failed pupils in the sense that I didn’t help them to become organised or responsible for their choices and preparedness

At Michaela, our culture of gratitude means that pupils give appreciations to their friends for lending them equipment when they forget theirs; appreciate their teachers when we do equipment checks ‘for helping us to be organised’; even for giving them detentions to teach them to become better prepared.

We constantly explain to pupils that their behaviours and responses to situations are their choices. If they respond angrily to a teacher giving them a demerit – that is their choice; their loss of self-control. Pupils must take responsibility and exert self-control in situations like these and make the better choice of responding calmly. This serves three benefits: the teacher can continue a lesson without disrupting the learning of the rest of the class; the pupil can continue to learn in that lesson; thirdly and most powerful of all is that it empowers our pupils to deal with difficult circumstances and act stoically. This philosophy is incredibly liberating and gives our pupils a mindset of achieving despite any circumstances in their lives that they cannot control. At least they can control their reactions and their efforts, and this will ultimately transform pupils from potential excuse-makers, to shapers of their own destiny. I know that since joining Michaela, I have made fewer excuses and made better choices in responding to circumstances outside my control. I can only imagine how remarkable the impact can be on pupils acting this way from Year 7.

In this way, our structures free our pupils to succeed in spite of their potentially difficult circumstances.

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To find out more about Michaela, you can read Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers.