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. 

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One thought on “Finding an antidote for Michaela’s Marmite effect

  1. Hello Kelly – Thanks for a thoughtful post. We are always happy to engage with interested thoughtful people. We are not willing to accept threats and rudeness, which a very small minority of people direct at us. We were silly enough to invite everyone to visit our school. That was a mistake because they came and compromised our children. Only kind people who are genuinely interested in our school will be allowed to visit in the future.

    You ask an interesting question: Why the press? When we first began, we did not write any blogs. We were, as you say, under the radar. But then we found it nearly impossible to find staff who thought like us. We are SO different, that unless word about us spreads, we will not survive and grow, simply because we will not find the staff. We would advertise for certain posts for instance, and not get a single reply.

    So we decided to get out there and promote the school. We even wrote a book – hence the more recent media. We partly wrote the book to get the word out there about us and because it served as a nice explanation for why we do what we do. Many people have appreciated it.

    The result of us spreading the word has been a marked difference in applications for posts at the school. I am less concerned now about our survival.

    It is interesting what you say about bile on your twitter feed regarding us. I rarely see these tweets unless deliberately sent to me. And when someone behaves like a stalker or is excessively rude, I block them. My staff are encouraged to do the same thing. Your twitter feed is one’s home and one should not have to endure personal abuse in one’s home.

    I don’t believe the haters are huge in number. I think they are vocal and it can be easy to believe they are far more numerous than they are. I know, from personal emails, direct messages etc just how much many teachers out there are inspired by what we do and would be devastated if we stopped talking about it. So there is this to consider as well.

    There are a small number of Heads out there who I am either friends with, or who sometimes ask for my opinion on things. These people would never have known of our existence had we not spoken up. Other middle managers and even teachers are taking much of what they have learned from our school and implementing it at their schools. I think this is a wonderful thing.

    We could do as you say. But it is more complex that what you suggest and I thought I would point out the complexities. It is great that you are so open-minded and honest (like in what you say about getting children to pick up a grape). You may not agree with everything that we do, but you show us respect and I like that. Debate and discussion and just living are some of what make life so interesting. We change our minds every day about methods and systems. What we do right now is by no means ‘the answer’. But we have inspired many to reconsider and some to change their practice, just as other schools have done for us, and that is no bad thing.

    Liked by 5 people

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