Light bringers and Christmas crackers

I still feel relatively new to Twitter. Currently navigating my way through my second year on the social media phenomena, I am constantly in awe at the daily enlightenment and joy it brings. I must admit that even though there have been countless tweets and blogs which have inspired and influenced my practice as a professional, that I have also found in equal measure tweeters queueing to rain on one anothers’ parades in grand fashion. There’s a lot of people who spew out venom under the guise of debate I’m sad to say. So with it being Christmas and all, I thought I’d sprinkle a bit of love across the blogosphere by sharing a few thank yous to some absolute stars who have both educated and inspired me. Some will be well-known to you, some maybe not so well known but all are worth your time and interest. I’ve taken the liberty of linking you to their Twitter pages, blogs, books etc just in case I’m telling you anything you didn’t already know. So here are my chips with lashings of salt and vinegar, unashamedly laid bare for you to sample, appreciate or pee on – the choice is yours but I personally cannot begin to express the gratitude to which I owe these people who have given me a view through different eyes. 

Martin Robinson (@Trivium21c)

Martin is the reason I decided to discover Twitter after he visited our school roughly a couple of years ago. His work, Trivium 21c was instrumental in a shift in my own personal view of education. Through his book, blogs and conversations I began to realise that our school was not a lone voice in educational philosophy. Martin quietly encouraged me to pursue other avenues and perspectives, in doing so I feel I’ve developed both as a teacher and a leader. My curiousity was sparked and my eyes opened, thanks to Martin there’s no going back.

Debra Kidd (@debrakidd)

Like Martin, Debra was one of the first educationalists I came across. I’m happy to say that I feel I hit jackpot! Teaching: notes from the front line is one of the most emotive books I have read about the current state of education and the need for (r)evolution. Her work was timely as we are in the midst of huge change within education. Debra’s words are a health warning, advice to all that we need to make the right decisions for the right reasons. A self-confessed progressive, Debra is always happy to debate our purpose as educators, she’s a passionate advocate for change as well as a tremendous speaker and activist. Her work alongside Emma Hardy to develop and grow the Northern Rocks movement is a lesson in determination to us all. The now yearly event is quickly becoming the stuff of legend. It embodies everything that Debra is: quirky, fun, thought provoking, witty and purposeful but above all a voice for the classroom teacher. Debra shines a light on the great work that teachers do, she passes it on. Debra is one of the light bringers.

Tom Bennett (@tombennett71)

Tom’s probably at the opposite end of the spectrum to Debra when we consider the progressive versus traditional debate but nonetheless an exceptionally brilliant character. His achievements in changing political views of our education system are simply astounding. Tom has united academics, teachers and politicians through the omniscient being that is ResearchEd. Charming and articulate, Tom always manages to get his point across with inimitable humour and candour. Despite his countless achievements, Tom has maintained his humility and pays much attention to sharing the work of others. He has been dubbed our leading behaviour tsar for his work influencing policy and practice on a very grand scale, ResearchEd spans continents and he’s a fan of Duran Duran too so Tom’s a rock star in my book! 

Sean Harford (@HarfordSean)

Again, another character who has been instrumental in the sea shift which is currently being enacted in the educational climate. Sean’s activity both on social media and in the public sphere has been ground breaking. He has dispelled many myths about Ofsted policies in practice and clarified many messages that can sometimes be lost in translation. Sean has empowered teachers. His reputation as the voice of reason is well-deserved, he listens to those at the chalkface and is working tirelessly to evolve and reinvent Ofsted making it no longer something which schools fear but a body willing to listen and work with teachers. Anyone having been through inspections recently should have noticed the shift in the way they are conducted, with diligence, intelligence and a dialogue. I think that Sean has been a huge catalyst in this change in attitude that a lot of schools have experienced and for that teachers across the country are eternally grateful. 

Joe Kirby (@joe_kirby)

I have a lot to thank my Marmite pals at Michaela for. Whether you love of hate them, Katharine Birbalsingh and the team have certainly added spice to the recipe of educational debate. I’ve had some highly intellectually stimulating experiences and met many great people thanks to the events that the Tiger Teachers have organised. I’ve written about Michaela previously here and here (with another one in the pipeline), there is a lot to be admired in their teamwork, unrelenting drive and articulate presentation of their beliefs as well as much to be learned from their approach. It seems to be working for them and I wish them every success. Joe however gets a personal mention because despite our differences in belief about how education should be delivered, I can’t help but find myself agreeing with almost every word that he writes. He is excellent at what he does and I find his blogs influencing my everyday practice in the classroom. The CPD I’ve received as a result of reading his words has undoubtedly added value to my teaching and the practice of those around me. Joe is a very kind and caring man, he takes time to listen to different perspectives and is a great sounding board for ideas. He is a leader within a very controversial school but primarily he is a teacher. His blogs do more than tip their hat to the work within the classroom, they celebrate, enrich and influence it on an exponential scale. 

Rhian Davies (@_rhi_rhi)

If I look at people who have influenced my own practice Rhian and her colleagues at Marple Hall are definitely up there. As someone who is passionate about mathematical education, I felt like I got lucky when I met Rhian. I learned more about pedagogy from one day at Marple Hall than I have done in all the subject specific CPD I had experienced in my career. I came across Rhian through Twitter as I was particularly astounded by her work as an advocate for the sharing of good practice of our subject. I got myself an invite (or maybe I invited myself over) and the rest is history. It is through Rhian that I met the wonderful Ana Martinez and discovered TeachMeets  (no I hadn’t been living under a rock). I have so much to thank those lovely ladies for. Beyond that, I’ve found myself two new friends which is a blessing in itself. 

Chris Hunt (@chuculchethhigh)

A great headteacher who is out there just quietly getting on with doing a fantastic job, Chris is a breath of fresh air. Our school prides itself on taking the moral and ethical path to achieve the best education for our students. This is the right thing to do but sometimes it can make the journey lonely so meeting Chris felt like coming home. He is a beacon of constant support and encouragement, a great source of counsel. Chris has a completely can do attitude which is infectious. I have many things to thank him for in my own personal growth. Both Chris and his leadership team are dynamic and person-centred, there is an overwhelming sense of team which emanates from everything the school does and that comes from the top. If you cut Chris in half you’d find Culcheth running through him and as a result of that the school is a great place to be. Like they say, headteachers make the weather and the sun always shines in Warrington! 

Hannah Wilson (@Miss_Wilsey)

When we talk about light bringers Hannah is one of those people who just radiate. She spends almost all of her time on social media sharing good practice, building teachers up and spreading a positive message. Her relentless optimism and determination has ensured that the WomenEd movement is really gathering momentum, truly something to admire. All of this done whilst continuing to work as a senior leader and now as a head! Well done Hannah, you are an inspiration to us all. 

Jill Berry (@jillberry102)

Wow, if I get started about Dr Jill perhaps I won’t be able to stop! Jill’s probably the single biggest reason I thought about writing this (lengthy) blog (I apologise profusely but you can see I’ve been suitably inspired). Jill came across me or rather my blog about 18 months ago and it’s only then I began to learn about the woman she is. Having had a remarkable career teaching across phases and sectors, Jill spends her time now spreading good practice and developing future leaders in such a way that they have a strong moral purpose. Jill is how the light gets in, she is a ball of energy and positivity. She looks for the spots of excellence, leaving no stone unturned which often means she discovers little-known pockets of brilliance. Most recently, her book Making the Leap has inspired and given me the confidence (along with Mary Myatt, my own headteacher Sam Gorse, Chris Hunt and David Jones of Meols Cop High School) to one day lead a school. It won’t be for a while yet but Jill (among others) has shown me that a brave person can lead a successful school in a person-centred way. Jill is a sage, she’s an inspiration and I could never tire of hearing what she has to say. 

Mary Myatt  (@MaryMyatt)

Alongside Jill, Mary has had the biggest impact on me as a female senior leader in education. Mary is like chicken soup for the soul. She is the light bringer, just being in her presence is an uplifting experience. Through High Challenge Low Threat and most recently Hopeful Schools, Mary proves that there is another way to leadership than countless systems and bureaucracy. When I read her words I feel energised and committed to being a better leader. Her kind and caring nature come through every page of her writing. Mary is playful and intelligent, sophisticated yet fun. Most of all, Mary is a quietly determined driving force in the future of educational leadership. Her words are a source of timely brilliance and lesson for us all. 

John Tomsett (@johntomsett)

I’m not going to lie, John is one of my eduheroes so he had a great deal to live up to when I first heard him speak at last year’s Michaela debate. True to form, John didn’t disappoint, his behaviour only further proved why his is such a remarkable man. The work that John does both inside his school and on a much wider scale is one of servitude. His school and the children they teach, the research arm of Huntington and his work on social media ensure evidence based practice along with the kind and caring ethos with which it is delivered spreads far and wide. I watched John and Alex as an educational Morecambe and Wise at last year’s Northern Rocks. They introduced me to the notion of a premortem which is one of the best ideas I have been shown in my teaching career and thankfully something I use in my everyday strategic practice as a leader. John is another voice that reminds headteachers and SLTs to lead their schools in a person-centred way. He is a beacon of hope

Daisy Christodoulou (@daisychristo)

My last thank you has got to go to Daisy. Have you ever come across someone who just blows you away instantly because they’re so brilliant yet completely unassuming? Well that’s Daisy. She’s a gem. Her work, her blogs and her talks are so insightful, so thought out and so well researched that they make absolute sense. Beyond her own writing, Daisy shares the best research from around the world. She is incredibly well-read and passionate about passing on the best of what is out there. Daisy has set me on a path that I would have never ever considered before and I’m a much better teacher for the journey. Surprisingly enough, I started out as a cynic but with such compelling arguments I had no choice but to rethink my opinion on many things, especially the knowledge versus skills debate. Daisy has thoroughly convinced me and thousands like me to consider another perspective. Through her blogs, research and beautifully written book Seven Myths (which I wrote about here) Daisy is changing education as we know it. Having met her on a number of occasions now I can undoubtedly say that Daisy is as kind-hearted as she is brilliant. She has a good soul and the unique attribute of being able to make everyone’s contributions feel worthwhile. She listens, she encourages and she supports even when she may not share your opinion. Despite what critics would describe as relative inexperience in the profession, she provides unrivalled insight into the most significant aspects of education. Her work on curriculum and assessment will influence the policy and practice of generations to come. She has given new voice to the likes of E. D. Hirsch Jr and has encouraged a different approach that is very much called for, which in itself is somewhat amazing. I am excited about what lies ahead for Daisy, her new book which is out very soon and the debate which will follow.  

I’m lucky to have been inspired by so many great people in the last two years thanks to the power of social media but I have also been privileged to work with some truly magnificent teachers and leaders. There are too many to mention and I can never thank those people enough for the impact that they have had on my outlook and who I am as a teacher. This blog has given me the opportunity to consider just how important we are as role models, not just to the students we teach but also to the colleagues we work with. I’m lucky to work under great leadership in an environment that inspires but I know it’s not the case for everyone. For this reason it’s important that we are the light bringers. This blog has been an opportunity to look back and see how far I’ve come in my own professional growth and who has helped me along the way. It fills me with excitement to consider the opportunities that lie ahead in 2017 to further my own learning as well as the chance to support and encourage others in their own voyage of discovery.

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Finding an antidote for Michaela’s Marmite effect

I’m not a fan of Marmite, I find the horrible tar-like gloop somewhat repulsive. And, among friends I’m not afraid to air my views about the substance vociferously. I’m sure that for every Marmite hater like myself there’s an equal number of passionate yeast lovers loudly sharing their support for the brown jar of doom to whoever will listen. Love it or hate it, there’s no room for indifference. Michaela is a bit like Marmite, there appears to be no room for inbetween. I’ve written about my previous experiences of Michaela events here and my thoughts on their approach to a good education here, today I turn my attentions to their attitude towards publicity, their book The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers and its launch event which I was lucky enough to attend. 

I’m a cynic, a sceptic. I don’t feel 100% comfortable with the Michaela way so events like last weekend are a chance to challenge my views. After their last event at City Hall I was much more open to listening to the perspective of Katharine and the team since I felt that Debating Michaela offered a balanced argument, an event which presented an image of Michaela that was a far cry from portrayal many opponents of Michaela would have the internet believe. The team were approachable, willing to listen to other perspectives and not at all cult-like! I enjoyed it so much that as soon as Tiger Teachers was publicised I booked my ticket and excitedly waited for the big day to arrive. 

On the day visitors were greeted with an incredibly warm welcome from the team just as before with the vivacious Barry Smith and the enchanting Joe Kirby (among others) on the door setting the audience up for the day. The hospitality was probably the only similarity that this and their previous event shared for this was a book launch not a debate. The presenters, though eloquent in their rhetoric gave the Michaela view through and through, passionate and unequivocal in their completely biased traditional approach to education. My niavely constructed preconception from the previous event meant that I was in danger of being disappointed. Balanced this wouldn’t be, propaganda perhaps? However, I’d travelled two hundred miles to hear what the team had to say so the least I could do was listen. 

I’d be lying if I said that the day didn’t unsettle me, it completely took me out of my comfort zone. There were speeches which annoyed me, ideas that I vehemently disagreed with, snippets which challenged my thinking and soundbites which I hate to admit that I found myself agreeing with. The most discomforting aspect of the day though was the kind of purgatory I experienced between the two worlds of reality and virtuality. Physically, I was in a room of proponents of the traditional approach to education which at times felt like an evangelical meeting of the Church of St Katharine Birbalsingh. Contrary to this, my Twitter timeline was going wild with mockery and disdain for the event that was being streamed live.

And then came the closing of the gates and the grape crushing….

I was sad to read that Michaela had closed its doors to visitors but not surprised. Obviously the anti-Michaela rants that I was seeing on my timeline were the tip of a very vicious iceberg. The behaviour of certain individuals toward the school and its staff was saddening. Michaela has been completely divisive and even from someone who is willing to hear Katharine and the team out, I can see the part that they themselves have played in tugging on the tail of a tiger. However, there is no justification for the treatment the school, its children and staff have received from some desperate individuals wanting to highlight the “evils” of Michaela. Grapegate as it is known has become a case in point, I’m guessing that what meant is not necessarily what was said but the justification and retaliation that followed, really? Guys, it’s time to build a bridge and get other it! Yes some students in schools will protest if you ask them to pick food or rubbish up but it doesn’t make them horrible, it makes them human. And surely it’s our job to get students to understand why it’s appropriate to keep standards high not just comply to instruction? Katherine’s right though, we are who we continually practice to be. It’s important to consider that when we’re engaging in any interaction: professionally, publically and personally. 

Purpose is important

I look at Katharine and the team and ask myself what is your purpose, is your purpose now different from in the beginning and do you all share the same ethos, purpose, vision and values? More increasingly I’m concerned that Michaela may be losing its way. At first, what struck me about the school and in particular Katharine was the passionate belief that they were doing something different from the norm because the children of the district needed something different than what our current system was giving them. There was a strong moral purpose to what they were doing which you could appreciate whether you agreed or disagreed with its delivery. There was a lot of sense in what Michaela had to say. My concerned is that this is being lost in the media furore which surrounds the school. A lot of this created by what is said on interviews and in newspaper articles. Sadly the fame that Michaela is finding may be its undoing. Anecdotally, support for the Michaela way appears to be dwindling on social media and it’s critics becoming more vociferous, coupled with some statements from the Michaela camp being hard to defend. Katharine had significant support from many a classroom teacher but in building her school at the expense of the reputation of every other child and school in Britain she may have just bitten the hand that was feeding her. What is being lost is the sense of balance and understanding. Find me a school where the headteacher doesn’t think their students are brilliant and their staff are devoted to doing the best job they can? This will be the reality for almost every single headteacher out there, many quietly getting on, doing their daily best, wanting success for their school but never at the detriment of any other school or colleague because we know that the job is hard enough. As a leader, I’ve often found that a few foolishly chosen words can undo any amount of good work you do. I’ve learned that when something is said that shouldn’t have been it’s better to hold your hands up and admit wrongdoing than to try and justify it. Embarrassing at first but better in the long run. 

If the team at Michaela want to make their school a success (which I’m sure it will be) then perhaps it’s time to fly under the radar for a while and let the students’ actions put paid to the critics? If the motivation for Michaela is fame then the school is certainly on that track but there is always a price to pay and who is going to pay for the infamy of the Tiger Teachers? If the desire of the team is to influence policy and practice then surely it is better to win over your sceptics than to cause a divide? To what end will having two distinct camps serve our education system? There is lots of great stuff going on at Michaela as there is in every other school in the country. Surely it is much more productive to take the best bits for one another to improve education for everyone than taking a with us or against us approach? It’s important to appreciate all sides of an argument before forming a conclusion. It is also very useful to bare in mind that ethos, pathos and logos are important components in rhetoric, when trying to deliver your case remember you’ve got to win hearts as well as minds.