Sunday, 27 November 2016

Can you hear the people sing, singing the song of angry men?

Wherein our hero goes to wrestle a tiger, and realises that it might actually be Tigger.

I went to Michaela Community School on Friday, and attended their conference, “The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers”, the following day. I wrote down my reflection on my way home, and will perhaps publish that when I’ve had chance to think it all over a bit further, and decide whether I’ve got anything to say that Doug Lemov and Tom Bennett haven’t already said in their excellent posts following their visits. Suffice to say, it is a remarkable school, with remarkable people (pupils and staff). But when I woke up this morning I’d been thinking about something else. I dreamed a dream: does it have to be a battle?

If you’ve followed the social media output relating to Michaela even vaguely, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the school was some kind of Victorian work house, presided over by Gradgrindian ogres wielding canes and destroying dreams (with a strong undercurrent that they are doing it for their own gain). You’d also be forgiven for thinking that the staff were defensive, short and, occasionally, provocatively opinionated. Some of the conversations I have read on Twitter have genuinely shocked me.

I’ll be honest, until a few months ago I wasn’t aware of there being “Progressive” teachers and “Traditional” teachers. But it turns out that there is a battle going on, and everyone is supposed to take a side. The title of the conference, the language used by several of the presenters, and the attitudes exhibited by edutweeters on both sides, screams that a war has broken out. In this context, Katherine Birbalsingh referred to Michaela being “on the right side of history” during her opening address. And it made me think: we’re teachers. All of us. Didn’t we all try and pick the right side when we decided to do this, rather than something where you got paid decent money and didn’t have to speak to teenagers all day?

Maybe I am just too soft for Twitter. Maybe all these conversations are just locker-room banter. But they do upset me. As does the implication that I’ve found myself on the “wrong” side of history because I occasionally think my pupils might learn something from doing some role-play, or talking about an issue with more than one other child. As does the fact that, when I met and spoke to them, all the Michaela teachers were warm, friendly, and open. Yes, deeply passionate and committed to their school and their pupils, but so am I. Yes, confident and proud of what they’ve achieved, and are achieving, but rightly so - I have never been in another school which radiated positivity, love and the dedicated pursuit of excellence as much as Michaela. To be honest, the enthusiasm, the love and the energy was more Tigger than tiger. So why not show that face to the world? Why do we have to fight about whether being a Progressive or Traditional is the only way to teach children?

Cause here’s the rub. While we were all in the Michaela dining hall laughing about how people used to think children had different learning styles, and making me feel daft for making pupils put on different coloured hats to have a group discussion, Rome is burning. We are bequeathing our children a world of Trump, and Brexit, and child refugees, and ISIS. And while good and smart and passionate teachers waste their time arguing with each other about the right way to teach, children are simply not getting taught how to deal with it. We are in a battle. I agree with Katherine Birbalsingh: we do need a revolution. But, despite the strong words and robust discussions, I’m sure that most teachers are more similar than we are different, and that we’re more likely to create the revolution in education, and in social mobility and in social justice, that Katherine wants, that we all want, if we work together to find out what works best, rather than spending time searching for differences and fighting about them. Katherine quoted Russell Crowe in Gladiator yesterday (“What we do in life, echoes in eternity”), but he also said, “Whatever comes through these gates, we have a better chance of survival if we work together”. There are enough people who are ready to bash teachers, let’s not spend time bashing each other.

So, I will follow Katherine onto the barricades and do what I can in my own little way (as I said yesterday, after her barnstorming address I would have followed her into Mordor. If you weren’t there, find it on the live feed; whether you agree with her or not, it was quite something). But I would like Debra Kidd and Tim Taylor to be on that barricade too, because I agree with lots of what they say as well, and I think we all want the same thing, and if you keep on telling people they are wrong they aren’t going to want to come and visit you and find out what you’re doing and that will be a shame because I think lots of what you’re doing probably is the way to win this war. But I don’t know if it’s the only way. And I’d like for everyone to be able to talk about it, without getting distracted by all this right/wrong, good/evil, prog/trad stuff. And I think, now I’ve met you, that you maybe think that too. We’re all the good guys. We need to remember that.  

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