Essential summer reads: ‘Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers’

02 Aug 2017

new perspective

“It is impossible for a man to learn what he thinks he already knows’


Having spent the last sixteen days with a group of seventeen Year 12 students completing a World Challenge project in South India, perspective is a word I have been thinking carefully about. Seeing these young people completely outside of their comfort zone, attempting to not only lead but help rebuild sections of a primary school in the fierce Indian sun, has taught me a significant amount. What they will all return home with, regardless of tears, failures and successes, is a widened perspective – a fresh understanding of themselves and the world around them. At the cusp of adulthood they will hopefully have gained an experience that will stay with them a long time.

Returning this week I have been delving into a rapidly growing collection of teaching and learning books from this year, seeking to use some of the break to continue to gain insight into other schools and their ways of tackling troublesome educational challenges.  The first summer read is ‘Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers: The Michaela Way.’  I started my teaching career six miles down the road at Holland Park School in London and had two years in the leadership team there, so I was fascinated to read about Michaela’s approach to comprehensive education in such a diverse part of the United Kingdom.  I was also interested to see what might work in the completely different setting I now teach in: a comprehensive in a small town just outside Newcastle.

The structure of the book in itself is unique and fascinating, with a range of teachers from the school all contributing a chapter on particular aspects of school life. What certainly resonated was a unique perspective, a fierce determination to enable the very best opportunities for young people and a failure to accept the excuses that frequently permeate schools and staff rooms. While I will be thinking hard about aspects that could be adapted in my own context in September, here are some of the areas that stood out:

Knowledge, memory and testing: Joe Kirby 

One of the aspects of the school that powerfully resonates from the book is a sense of strategic direction, a sense of careful coherent and meticulous planning for what each year group needs to achieve and how that will build into the next. This is achieved, in part, through the centrality of knowledge in the curriculum. It is a knowledge that is founded on high expectations of what students can master:

“Our motto, which we share with all pupils right from their first day at school, is that ‘Knowledge is Power’; it empowers all children to achieve, choose their future and decide what legacy they would like to leave. We believe that broad cultural and historical knowledge improves all pupils’ achievement. Especially poorer pupils. Even the very weakest pupils can study the greatest books ever written, such as ‘Frankenstein, Oliver Twist and Animal Farm’. pg 20

A skills based curriculum can often see both students and teachers blindly stumbling from one unit to the next – without the interconnections that a clear curriculum design can facilitate. While this ramping up of expectations on its own is inspiring, the notion of making connections between subjects is also a powerful one. How often in our schools are departments completely isolated from one another, with young people unable to make connections between the various elements they study?

Alongside this is the presumption that if material has been taught, students have absorbed it. Michaela’s insistence on regular testing is recurrent throughout the book, with the focus on long term memory. Yet again the efficacy of low stakes testing dominates the book, with each lesson beginning with a short test of previous learning. This is certainly an approach I will be looking to implement in September:

“If we want our pupils to automate complex concepts, we need to ensure sufficient time, focus, attention, revisiting, application, consolidation, practice, usage and eventual mastery” pg 23

How reluctant readers learn to love reading: Katie Ashford. 

The mystery all English teachers are desperate to unpick: how to harness a love for reading. It is clear first of all that reading is everywhere in Michaela, and the notion of developing a love for reading is more than just a platitude. One element that I will be thinking more about in my own teaching is the expectation of how much students should be reading in lessons:

“In Michaela, all teachers embed reading into their lessons. Our philosophy is simple: anything you explain verbally could be written down for pupils to read. Not only does this approach iron out the problems some teachers may have with off-the-cuff explanations of new or complex concepts, it allows all children to read hundred or thousands of words every lesson” pg 41.

This approach in every lesson leads to a huge amount of reading on a daily basis. It means that students have access to a significant diet of words that will then start to seep into their own writing and begin to close literacy gaps.

More importantly is the crux of developing readers: building a reading habit that will last. The school has clearly invested significant thought in this with reading for pleasure drives which encourage the habit of reading: reading in tutor time and the interesting idea of ‘Friday Reads’. The intervention programme from Year 7 identifies readers who require additional support early, meaning that the endless intervention as they reach exam age becomes unnecessary.

Kindness: Brent Williams-Yale 

The book makes no excuses for rigid and consistent behaviour management system. Having taught young people from the area I see exactly why this has been enforced, with often turbulent life at home and outside of school leading to significant conflict in the school environment. I also appreciate the expectations of every student to meet standards, rather than seeking to make excuses and label students as being unable to adjust their behaviour. The Bootcamp for Year 7 is a fascinating idea, further highlighting the importance of ethos is establishing values immediately as students enter in Year 7. Being a real stoical philosophy convert I also value their focus using stoicism to influence behaviour and attitudes.

What I also liked was combining this focus on no-excuses discipline with values and kindness, seeking to build a humane and thoughtful environment in which gratitude is regularly expressed.

“Our motto at Michaela is ‘work hard, be kind’. Hard work pervades lessons, and what pervades the atmosphere of the school in classrooms, corridors, breaks, lunch, and even outside of school into family homes, is kindness.” pg 108

Achieving this appears to be about making kindness and gratitude ever present throughout interactions and valuing everyone’s contributions. Discussions and dialogue dominate the book, and two delightful ideas were ‘Family Lunch’ and half termly thank you notes. Again simple aspects of school life that would be easy to implement:

“Another gratitude mechanism that helps us to go beyond self-centredness is thank you notes. Every half-term we encourage pupils to write a post card to someone they’d like to thank. Some of the most heart-warming times in teaching are when a child talked the time to thank you for making a small difference to them”. (pg 112)

Competition is Crucial by Dani Quinn

Having grown increasingly frustrated by the cotton wool approach that appears to be more and more dominant in many education settings, this chapter was a refreshing read. Competition is widespread and frequent throughout the school; be it rankings of daily quiz results, sporting competitions or through homework:

“All of these take place within a highly consistent and heavily-narrated culture that is driven by values and a firm belief that all pupils are capable of growth and improvement. The school motto of ‘work hard, be kind’ underpins how staff narrate preparation for, preparation in, and the results of the activities”. (pg 129)

This sense of competition appears to foster the desire to get the best out of every student, to make sure they are pushing themselves in all aspects of school life. Even the aspects of how quickly books can be handed out at the start of lessons is framed around a competition. Young people thrive on competition, they embrace it and Michaela appears to be skilfully employing this to positive effect. It would appear that not a minute of the school day is wasted: the young people have to be competitive and determined in order to thrive.

CPD at Michaela: Question Everything by Jo Facer 

How can we improve as practitioners on the basis of a performance management observation and generic CPD? How can we identify the areas in which we individually need to build on to develop our craft? This has been a continuous rant of mine on this blog this year and one of the most refreshing areas of the book was the chapter on CPD:

“Every day at Michaela, teachers watch their colleagues teach – five minutes, ten minutes, 30 minutes perhaps. Teachers receive feedback on their practice from every member of staff- teaching fellows, Heads of Department, SLT and admin staff chip in what they notice.” pg 187.

This focus on frequent and low stakes observations with quick feedback is so much more effective, having experienced a system that was very similar in London. It was continuous, there was always discussion and feedback about how your teaching was progressing. People would pop in and out of classrooms and offer guidance and support. While this was rather terrifying and intimidating at first, the benefits were soon clear: creating consistency of ethos and seeing teachers as professionals who will continually grow and improve.

It requires, as Facer, acknowledges, a “lack of ego is crucial to thriving”, to act with humility and open mindedness in the desire to provide the best for young people. This idea of continually watching other teachers is also hugely inspiring, I know I have always felt hugely invigorated from watching colleagues and never failed to ‘steal’ aspects that would be directly included in my own teaching. This is also embraced in the knowledge based department meetings which “are given over to subject content”, rather than the check list approach to items that have no impact in improving teaching in the classroom.

It would be disingenuous and reveal a lack of thoughtfulness if I suggested I agreed with all aspects of the book. At times the tone was rather too combative and dogmatic or my liking, too quick to present Michaela as a utopian ideal and criticise other methods and schools. In some chapters, such as ‘Drill and didactic teaching works best’, this became tiresome and there was room for more intellectual debate. Yet what I certainly admire is the conviction, ambition and drive that resonated from reading ‘ Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers,’ and a read of their recent Ofsted report is a glowing validation of what the school is doing. The inspirational positives hugely outweighed any quibbles I might have, and it will be those positives I will be reflecting on and seeking to implement in my own classroom.

Part of the summer break should be about taking the time to open windows into different perspectives, be it a journey to an exotic foreign land, or being intellectually curious about the wonderful things that are happening in the world of education. ‘Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers’ should certainly be required reading for those who are “passionately curious” and to encourage a renewed approach to whole school life in September.

passionately curious




Jamie Thom

English teacher, host of @TES English teaching podcast. Author of 'Slow Teaching.' MEd in Practitioner Enquiry, doctorate student #StrathEdD. Runner.

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