CPD for Knowledge Fans

CPD has the potential to be the stuff of nightmares. At the end of a long day, the last thing I would choose to do is spend an hour sitting around discussing questioning strategies for closing the pupil premium gap, or messing about with Bloom’s Taxonomy card sorts, or worse– trawling through reams of data. Utterly soul-destroying stuff.


Since joining Michaela, I have not had to sit through anything close to this. In the English department, our CPD is focused around improving our subject knowledge. Under the guidance of our exceptional Head of English, Jo Facer, I have learned lots about the texts we teach, which has dramatically improved my teaching. Here are three things we do as a department to improve our subject knowledge.


  1. Annotation


We meet each week for an hour to discuss our upcoming lessons (which have been planned and resourced in advance). We all arrive to the meeting with the lesson content (poems/ book chapters/ grammar exercises, etc.) pre-annotated so that we have lots to discuss. Jo leads the meeting, and she goes through a few key points that need to be drawn out, focused on or developed in the lesson. We then branch out into a discussion about some of the texts, sometimes driven by our particular specialisms or interests. The aim is to deepen our understanding of the content. We all add to our annotations as the discussion progresses, building on each other’s points. Another aim is to consider possible misconceptions and alert our attention to things that pupils may struggle with. For example, Jo might point out some ambiguous vocabulary, or clarify, ‘make sure they don’t get x confused with y here’. It’s really, really useful, and it means that every teacher in the department spends a lot of time thinking deeply about the content.



  1. Memorisation


At Michaela, pupils carry out memorisation for homework every night. The aim of this is for every child to learn the most crucial knowledge to automaticity. Teachers at Michaela also work hard to memorise the same knowledge by heart. I’ve found this tremendously useful. If I find my class packed up, standing behind their chairs a few minutes before the bell, I can quickly quiz them on a few things without having to scramble around and look for a sheet of paper. It also means that I know what they know, down to the precise definition they have been taught for each concept. I have found that having a shared language for such things to be invaluable.


We also learn quotations and poetry off by heart. Again, it’s lovely to be able to refer to this shared language regularly with kids. For example, I often say things like ‘Come on, team, we need to fill the unforgiving minute with 60 seconds worth of distance run!’ or ‘You are the master of your fate and the captain of your soul! Don’t let yourself down!’


We sometimes have knowledge tests in our weekly English meetings, which is good because it holds me to account! When there are a million things to do, learning Macbeth quotes might slip down the priority list; knowing you’ll be tested on it in a week’s time is a good motivator!


  1. Reading


Of course, relying on the above is not enough. Teachers should always be a long way ahead of their pupils in terms of subject knowledge. As a non-English graduate, I feel particularly paranoid about this from time to time. This is another area in which Jo Facer and Joe Kirby have been brilliantly supportive and helpful: they have recommended various books and articles for each unit we teach, and in some cases, have furnished us with helpful abridgements! All of this has really helped to enrich my understanding of the curriculum.




If you want teachers to teach knowledge, then shaping CPD around the content they will be teaching is a good place to start. Of course, this isn’t going to help teachers get better at managing behaviour, nor will it directly improve their pedagogy, but it does help to focus their minds on their subjects. Sadly, subject knowledge gets pushed to the sidelines in many schools, often because of pressures surrounding data or exams or moderation, etc., and whilst those things are important, they shouldn’t eclipse our subjects, because our subjects, after all, are what we are here to teach.



How can we help the weakest catch up?

“So let me get this straight: we’re behind the rest of our class and we’re going to catch up to them by going slower than they are?”- Bart Simpson


Our instinct is often to assume that a kid with a reading age of 7 couldn’t possibly be asked to sit and read a Dickens chapter in class for an hour.  So rather than cruelly forcing them to do so, we might perhaps choose to watch a film clip and draw a storyboard instead. On the surface, this seems entirely legitimate and reasonable. After all, pupils cannot be expected to run before they can walk. But this is where I think we have been going wrong with the weakest pupils for a long time. Our good and caring intentions have unwittingly lowered the bar for the pupils who struggle the most. By reducing the expectations we have of their behaviour and output in lessons, we limit them from ever being able to achieve the best possible outcomes. Weak pupils will simply never catch up if they are rarely exposed to truly challenging tasks and aren’t pushed to meet the demands of an academically rigorous curriculum.


The weakest pupils need more focus, more rigour and more practice if they are to stand any chance of catching up with their peers.


  1. More Focus


For some reason, we don’t expect weak kids to behave as well as we expect top set kids to behave. 7.1 may be a dream to teach, but why, in the same school with the same teacher, are 10.8 a complete nightmare? Bottom set kids are doubly disadvantaged: not only do they come in knowing the least; their lessons are often the most disrupted. They need to spend the maximum amount of time in lessons listening to the teacher, following rules and working hard, yet often they are surrounded by chaos.


Think about the precious minutes that are melting away whilst the weakest pupils sit in a chaotic classroom. Think of all the things they could learn during that time if they were actually listening. School leaders must do everything in their power to ensure that every child has the opportunity to learn from their teacher every single lesson.



  1. More Rigour


When pupils find extended reading and writing difficult, there is a temptation to reduce the rigour in the content and tasks they are asked to do. It’s tough to give a kid with a reading age of 7 a full page of text to wade through, but surely it is better for them to struggle and come out the other side than to never even attempt such tasks. Again, we feel like it might be cruel to expect a bottom set pupil to sit and read a challenging text for an hour, but isn’t it crueller never to give them the chance? Reading texts in lessons with weak pupils is tough, but it isn’t impossible. If they get into the habit of doing it every lesson- perhaps, even across subjects- they will get better at it and will feel successful.


  1. More Practice


If a child has a reading age of 7 and cannot spell, they need to spend the bulk of their time in lessons reading and writing. They are literally years behind where they should be, and we simply do not have a moment to spare. Every planning decision we make gives us a choice: spend time doing things they can already do (drawing a story board), or spend time developing skills they desperately need to master if they are going to stand a chance of being successful in the future.


We must also remember that pupils only spend around 25 hours per week in lessons. This time is so precious. With such limited exposure to teachers and their expertise, we should strive to make the most of every second they have. They can watch films, make posters, do a bit of drawing and chat to their mates at home. They can’t work out how to solve quadratic equations or read and understand a Dickens novel without the support of a subject expert.




The weakest kids have the biggest mountain to climb. With the support of their teachers, a rigorous curriculum, meaningful lesson activities and focused behaviour in lessons, they stand the best possible chance of reaching their potential.




If you found yourself nodding along in agreement with this post, why not apply to work with us at Michaela? We’re hiring English, Humanities and Science teachers. More information here: http://mcsbrent.co.uk/teacher-vacancies/

Where can teachers have most impact?

Lots of teachers go in to the profession because they want to make a difference. A noble aim, of course, even if it is a consequence of a slightly inflated view of ones ability to do so.  Government campaigns peppered with inspiring rhetoric aim to seduce the quixotic, convincing us that teaching will turn us into classroom heroes who will land in a school and change lives left, right and centre.


Teaching is a constant roller coaster, and to help us cope with the extreme highs and lows, from: ‘YES- Jimmy can finally use quotation marks!” to “Please don’t make me enter any more data- I want to kill myself”, we convince ourselves that we are having enormous impact on the kids who need us most. We elect to work at the most ‘challenging’ schools, living under the romantic illusion that we can parachute into them and save the world. We love the feeling of being in a battleground, of transforming their lives one controlled assessment at a time. We feed off the possibility of being that one teacher who finally helps a troublesome teen to knuckle down, or being that one teacher who can get that class to behave, or being that one teacher who inspires a bottom set kid to love reading. It’s all a bit Dead Poet’s Society, and we berate ourselves for occasional bouts of ‘average’, or for delivering a run of the mill lesson on a Thursday morning because you made the call to go to bed before 2am the night before.


We want to be inspirational teachers because we love the kids and we know that’s what might make the difference for them. And in a school with a challenging intake, Ofsted-driven practices and a behaviour policy that doesn’t support staff, we roll up our sleeves and continue the fight. We keep fighting because we feel that we are having a huge impact.


But is such transformation possible in a battleground school where good behaviour is rare and underachievement is rife? Is it really likely that we will change a kid’s life because we work relentlessly against the tide of low expectation and poverty that drives mediocrity?


It feels like it might be, but I don’t think it is as possible as we think.


Yes, we may help them to get their C- hopefully we’ll help them to do even better than that. And yes, we probably make their lives nicer for a short time, and we may spark something in them that may have lain dormant without our intervention. We tacitly accept that poverty, Ofsted and rubbish SLT exist and cause most of the problems, but we set these things aside and focus on the impact that we- individual warriors against the orthodoxy of the system-can have. We practise ‘Zen and the Art of Teaching with the Door Closed’, and carry on under the misbelief that there is no other way. Whether or not we manage to do this for more than a few years remains to be seen. Do many battle-ground addicts stick it out for fifteen or twenty years? Or do they perhaps realise somewhere along the way that they aren’t having as much impact as they think they are? Maybe they come to see that they aren’t all that indispensable after all, or maybe they realise the arrogance of thinking they can singlehandedly transform a child’s life in the midst of chaos.


I would argue that there are two fundamental problems with the hero teacher mindset. Firstly, it sets many of us up to fail. The level of transformation we think we can have is fairly rare: nearly half of children in the UK leave school without 5 GCSEs, and most of those are the ones we never quite managed to crack. Whilst we remember the success stories of our careers- the occasional pupil whose destiny we helped to change- we conveniently forget the ones the system has failed.


Secondly, it is never a guarantee that you will have this much impact on a child. It’s not systematic enough. It depends on personality, on circumstances, on luck. You may end up being the next Rafe Esquith, but in a profession absorbed in pointless bureaucracy and oppressive accountability, it is less likely than you might think.


But there is hope. I maintain my optimism about the power of education – I wouldn’t still be here if I didn’t. I do think it’s possible to change the course of a child’s future through schooling. I think it’s one of the biggest leavers we have for improving social mobility and life chances. However, in order for us to have as much impact as possible, we must get over the hubris of “I’m a hero teacher” because the hero teacher is a myth. We must have the humility to realise that we cannot change the world when we are alone in our classrooms, and that in fact, we will have a far greater impact if we work somewhere where every single teacher and member of SLT is committed to getting pupils out of bad habits and into good ones, and will not rest until they have achieved excellence.


When teachers are working seamlessly together and are all singing off the same song sheet, something magical happens. When everyone is working towards the same objectives and believes that education means more than C grades and compliance, it is truly amazing and has genuine transformative power. Every single moment in a school like that feels purposeful. Rather than the occasional stumble over moments of joy and hope amid a sea of indifference, you can’t help but feel that every single small thing you do is contributing enormously to something far bigger than you would be able to achieve alone.


My message to you is simple: when choosing your next post, think carefully about where you will truly have the greatest impact. Going to work in a challenging school for the kicks you get from it will not be completely futile, but you will feel as if you are having more impact than you actually are in reality. Working somewhere where you are just one member of a group of people who all share your desire to change kids’ lives will enable you to have a far greater impact than you could ever have as a lone ranger in a challenging, chaotic school. The steps you take with a great team of colleagues will take you- and more importantly, your pupils- further than you could ever have imagined.