Why I am not a Tiger Teacher, part 1: Compliance will set you free

| by James Mannion |

I had an illuminating exchange on Twitter the other evening with Katharine Birbalsingh, the head of Michaela School. It began because I was intrigued by a phrase she had used in the “heightened” part of her talk at the book launch for ‘Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers’, which you can see here. Here’s the exchange:

Me: Hi Katharine. I enjoyed your speech, but may I ask – what did you mean by “we will lose our country”?

KB: If our children never learn to behave and consequently cannot learn at all, we are doomed.

Me: Oh so it was more a figure of speech, rather than a specific point? It’s just you mentioned country in your blog as well…?

KB: The future of any country is its children. If we destroy ours, we will lose our country. Not more specific than that.

Me: I don’t mean to split hairs, but it is quite an unusual turn of phrase. Lose it to whom?

KB: You know how you can talk about ‘losing’ a class? You lose control of it, you can never get them back on track again. You lose the class or the country to the dark side…

At this point @LeoToAquarius chimed in with “lose to the oligarchy. We’re in-between a Democracy & a Republic = needs an educated population” and linked to a video called Types of government, explained; if you haven’t seen this before, it is well worth 10 minutes of your time.

Regardless of whether you think it is possible to get a class back once you have lost control (it is), the reason I think this exchange was illuminating is that while we may disagree on the means, fundamentally Katharine, Leo and I share an answer to the ultimate question “what is education for?”

I did not decide to become a teacher because I woke up one day with a burning desire to to turn D grades to C grades, or As to A*s, although obviously it is good if you can do this along the way. I became a teacher because following years of contemplation, I came to the conclusion that education is humanity’s best bet for building a brighter future. If you really want to change the world, be a positive role model for as many kids as you can and if you can – change the way education is done to make it work for everyone. Some people dispute this notion and say that if a teacher thinks their job is social engineer, they need to wind their neck in. But education has to be about more than a concern for your country’s PISA ranking. For good and for ill, education shapes lives and it is therefore fiercely political. It always has been, it always will be, and it always should be.

I too want a future where we do not “lose” our country in the same way an inexperienced teacher might “lose” a class. Because it won’t be an amiable assistant head who steps in to the power vacuum to restore order. I too want to prevent an unwitting, uninformed slide to oligarchy. As HG Wells once memorably put it, civilisation is a race between education and catastrophe. I get that. The question, as ever, is how best to achieve this.

The teachers at Michaela School have undoubtedly made a number of valuable contributions to the education debate – especially around teacher workload, for example. However, like Debra Kidd I also have a number of serious concerns about aspects of what they do.

It seems to me that if our aim is to create the kind of informed population that is able to prevent an unwitting slide to oligarchy in an age of fake news and post-truth politics, we need to educate young people so that they are not only knowledgeable, but also questioning and appropriately critical of those in authority. We need a population that is independent, informed, verbally confident, politically literate and politically engaged, self-regulating, organised, adaptive and disruptive where disruption is needed.

I have not yet visited Michaela (pitchforks at the ready), but I don’t need to visit to know that they insist on silent corridors for example, with utterances presumably punishable by detention. I don’t need to visit to take the view that this is unhealthily controlling – even if the students tell you they love it. (What would happen to a student who speaks out against the regime to a visitor?)

I presume that the main reason for silent corridors is a concern for the students’ safety. Katie Ashford here describes non-Michaela school corridors as “chaotic, violent, and out of control”, which is not a picture I recognise having worked in state schools for the last 10 years. (In describing a child magically transported to a Michaela corridor, she also writes “you remember the corridors and the fear and the dread and the loathing and the horror, and the words of the naysayers do nothing to perturb you or shake your faith in the environment you have helped to build.” I’m pretty sure I could eke out a PhD doing discourse analysis on this sentence.)

Look at any bunch of people in the street. They’ll likely be talking. Talking is what we do. Talking is what makes us human. You don’t want there to be bullying in corridors, and there are good ways to minimise this. There are also good ways of dealing with bullying when it does happen, and this too can be a valuable learning experience. But bullying is a fact of life, as any teacher who uses Twitter will attest. Should schools seek to suppress any independent talking among students altogether, sacrificed at the altar of no bullying? Is this really the direction we want to head in as a society?

If you have ever been bullied, as I was at school, you might think “Yes! Bullying is horrible and we should do everything in our power to stamp it out entirely – whatever it takes.” If this is your view, it’s perfectly understandable – however you also have to accept the consequences of this decision as well. As well as promoting knowledge, a school that insists on silent corridors (as just one of a raft of unusually controlling measures regarding types of pen, types of bag, how to use a chair, when to fold your arms, where to direct your eyes etc) also strongly promotes compliance and conformity.

Is this the best way to create the kind of informed population that is able to prevent an unwitting slide to oligarchy in an age of fake news and post-truth politics? Is this the way to educate young people so that they are not only knowledgeable, but also questioning and appropriately critical of those in authority? Is this the way to produce a population that is independent, informed, verbally confident, politically literate and politically engaged, self-regulating, organised, adaptive, disruptive where disruption is needed?

Of course I recognise the need for teachers to be strict at times. The golden rule of behaviour management is that you don’t let anything slide – ever. But strictness is not the only way to “not let things slide”, and it’s not always the best way. It should certainly not be the only tool in your box. When it comes to strictness, as ever Aristotle’s doctrine of the mean is apposite – the desirable middle way between excess and deficiency. Good behaviour management also involves being authentic, and listening to your students. It sometimes requires you to make exceptions, rather than excuses. More than anything, it involves good relationships. Of course you need whole-school systems that support NQTs to teach as well as their more experienced colleagues. But as a former colleague once said – an inspirational classroom practitioner who had the students wrapped around his little finger – you win the behaviour battle in the corridor. Not by insisting on silence, but by talking to students – showing an interest in their lives, establishing common ground, making them laugh, making them think. Being a role model. Making them feel understood. Making them want to be in your lesson.

If you want to find out about a whole-school approach to teaching and learning that is almost the polar opposite to Tiger Teaching – an approach rooted in research evidence, which has been found to lead to significantly improved academic attainment and a closing of the Pupil Premium gap from the bottom up – we are running a training event at Streatham and Clapham High School on January 27th. A Curriculum Journal article outlining the approach and its impact is available here. Tickets are available here. Tiger teachers welcome.

6 Comments

  1. I agree with everything you have written. The quest for absolute conformity is worrying. Human relationships and interactions are messy, full of negotiations and trust. Children need to learn these skills at school as well as at home. If the model they are learning is one party dominates and the other submits silently we are in trouble and the country is lost.

  2. Three comments:

    1. Having visited, the pupils huge enthusiasm for the place was clearly not simulated to avoid punishment. The least charitable semi-plausible explanation is that some of it might be due to something akin to the Stockholm syndrome (but I have no reason to believe that this is so).

    2. The reason for order in corridors is not primarily health and safety: behaviour in corridors affects behaviour in lessons which in turn affects learning.

    3. If you want to create critical thinkers (who can, for example, spot fake news), the best way to do this is to give pupils a lot of knowledge. It is counterproductive to practise too much criticism of ones own teachers too early. As a father, I want to teach my children to deal with a world which is often hostile and manipulative. To do this, I myself will aim to be completely trustworthy and dependable.

    1. Hi Ben, thanks for sharing your thoughts.

      1) I don’t suggest that the students would simulate enthusiasm to avoid punishment. However I don’t subscribe to the Stockholm syndrome interpretation either. As with many things, I think many factors are usually in play at any one time. Some are known, some are unknown. I do however think the students at that school are subject to an unusual degree of scrutiny – so many visitors, so many blogs, their work being trotted out on Twitter as proof of concept (a move I am extremely uncomfortable with). As far as I can gather, the students are also acutely aware of an “us and them” mentality that exists between the school and many outside it. We have no idea what the long-term consequences of this will be, as it is pretty unprecedented.

      2) It may be in part about learning – again these things are not mutually exclusive. The picture a deputy head paints in the post linked above is one of non-MCS corridors as unsafe places.

      3) Again – I am seeing a pattern emerging here – knowledge does not preclude skills, nor vice versa. Read my second post “knowledge is porridge” – it is a no brainer that schools should seek to develop both knowledge and critical thinking skills. Daniel Willingham agrees
      https://twitter.com/DTWillingham/status/809458257873891328

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