Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teacher

An Interview with Katharine Birbalsingh

May 23, 2021 by

Katherine Birbalsingh
Katharine Birbalsingh. Photo courtesy of Michaela Community School.

Readers from the United States may not be familiar with Katharine Birbalsingh, but she is well known here in the United Kingdom as head teacher and co-founder of Michaela Community School, which has been called “the strictest school in Britain.” Michaela is a “free school” which is roughly equivalent to an American charter school. The first graduating class from Michaela finished in 2019 with some of the best exam results in the country. Katharine is an outspoken person and it’s fair to say that not everybody in education agrees with her approach, but as a parent of four children, I was delighted to interview her.

Ian: You founded the Michaela Community School in 2014. What makes Michaela different from other schools?

Katharine: People often come to the school and say that while we are a secular school, we’re more Christian than most Christian schools. I think the reason they say that is because we really get human nature. A friend of mine always says, “You don’t do the grace bit, but you do the human nature bit really well.” We get that kids are kids – it’s why we love them, and they can be naughty. And while I don’t normally talk about original sin, because we are a secular school, we understand that man is flawed and unless he gets taught how to be a good person, he won’t necessarily be good when he grows up. If you take a couple of toddlers and give them one toy, they will fight with each other in order to play with that toy. They need to be taught how to share. They need to be taught how to be kind, how to be grateful. And that is a big difference between our school and some other schools. We actively teach this stuff.

Our motto is “Work hard, be kind.” In the United States there is a charter school called KIPP. They have hundreds of schools across America, and have done an extraordinary job with lots of Black children in the inner city. We actually copied their motto. Their motto was “Work hard, be nice,” and we changed it up a bit and said, “Work hard, be kind.” They have now abandoned that motto, they were told that trying to get children to be nice is somehow trying to get them to be subservient, and to not equip them with the right type of critical thinking to get out there and change the world as it were. I don’t see being nice and being kind like that. In some schools, if somebody drops a plate in the dining hall, all the children will start howling and screaming and banging on the tables, whereas with us, five or six other children will run to help them pick up the plate of food and sort themselves out. So I think it’s really important that we should teach children to be kind and be nice.

People call us the strictest school in Britain. We have a very high standard of behavior; very high expectations, not just of the children, but also of ourselves. We are relatively old-fashioned. We stand at the front of the class and the desks are in rows. The children look at the teacher and the teacher leads the learning. You might think that’s what happens in all schools, what do you mean? Sixty, seventy years ago, that is what happened in all schools. But since then much has changed in education. And we have seen a change from desks-in-rows, teacher-led learning to what is called child-centered learning, where the desks are in groups and the children are looking at each other. If you don’t believe me, go and visit a local school; in particular, go and visit any primary school. You won’t normally find the desks in rows in a primary school, you’ll find them in groups, although you might find the occasional teacher in a secondary school who has them in rows.

When teachers are leading the learning, they are in charge; we believe in adult authority and that it’s okay for the adult to be in charge. It’s good for the children to be led by the teacher who knows more than they, and who’s able to help form them and mold them over the years. With child-centered learning, the understanding is that the child knows so much, in fact, you hear teachers say, “I learn as much from my children as the children learn from me.” And I always think, well, that’s a bit odd – in fact, you can’t be a very good teacher then.

So two big areas of difference between Michaela and more normal schools is the kind of behavior we expect – discipline, kindness, and gratitude – and the way in which we teach.

Ian: You mentioned that people say Michaela is the strictest school in the country, and I think you do hold the line very tightly. How do you find the children respond to this?

Katharine: They love it. They absolutely love it. Children don’t mind discipline. I tell you, children want adults to hold the line. They want us to set the standards because they want to succeed. And they know that if we help them, that they will do better in life. But it’s also just part of their human nature to be naughty, so that’s what they do as well. And they learn over time how to change those habits, and how to develop themselves into a way of being that means that they just are someone who turns up on time, who sits up straight, who always brings a pencil and pen to class, who always does their homework to the best of their ability. Children aren’t born doing these things. You have to teach them how to do these things. And bizarrely, we don’t seem to get that point. If you get that our human nature is flawed and that man must be taught how to be good, then you can create this type of environment and this type of school. If you don’t get that basic point, it’ll never happen.

Ian: In the last decades it’s been noticeable that schools are having to take on more and more, and that the role of parents is becoming less. Who is responsible, ultimately, for the education of children?

Katharine: That’s a really, really good question. I’ve done a number of podcasts and interviews, and nobody’s ever asked that, which I think shows us where we are in terms of society. Because the state gives a free education (and I’m not saying it shouldn’t), but because it does, I do find it extraordinary how many people don’t see it as their role to teach their own children. There is this sense that the state must do all. And when I try and tweet about the idea that parents might want to try and teach their children how to read before they get to school, I’m often met with outrage. “That’s the teacher’s job. That’s not my job.” And then I say, but the thing is, children who have been exposed to reading, even if they can’t read before they get to school, will have a much easier time picking up reading in the end.

I’m not saying it’s easy, because obviously people work as well as support their children. But I don’t think people understand just how crucial their role as parents can be in terms of teaching. I don’t just mean supporting what they learn at school. I mean, actually teaching your child because it isn’t just about their physics GCSE (GCSE stands for General Certificate of Secondary Education, a standardized test for all students finishing the United States equivalent of tenth grade). It’s also about teaching them kindness, teaching them gratitude, teaching them how to behave in a particular kind of way. And every parent is capable of doing that. Not every parent does this.

Especially in the day and age of iPhones, iPads, and social media, parents can be tempted to farm out babysitting to these things. They don’t spend enough family time with the children, where they might be able to teach them how to behave. How to be, is what I should say, not behave, just how to be; how to grow up into a human being whose nature has been molded to be good. Whose role is it? Look, I’m a teacher and I believe in schools being powerful agents to help address social inequality, to help children who wouldn’t otherwise have a chance to be able to change their stars – that is what I always say. But I believe that parents have a responsibility as well.

Ian: In the last year we’ve had a lot of focus on the bad parts of British history. In many ways it is not a history to be especially proud of. But is it important for children to have pride in their country? And is this something that you focus on at Michaela?

Katharine: Yes, hugely! We sing “God Save the Queen,” “Jerusalem,” and “I Vow to Thee My Country.” We talk about the Michaela family, and then we talk about our country, just like a football team that goes out to play. The kids have got a flag that they hold up and we have all kinds of people representing the country. It makes them stronger as a team, it makes us stronger as a school. The children here come from a variety of different backgrounds and ethnic minorities from all over Asia, the Middle East, the Caribbean, Africa, and so on. I want them to feel like they belong to Britain, and that this country’s history and literature belongs to them. In the age of Identity Politics, people can often think that Black children should read Black literature, and White children should read White literature and so on. We don’t believe that. We believe that Shakespeare belongs to all of us, whatever our color, and that our country is the one thing that binds us together. If you’re going to have a successful multicultural community, you need to be bound by at least something, and I would say that that’s our country. There needs to be a love for country. I think people often confuse this with a sense of nationalism; patriotism isn’t nationalism. It just means that on Remembrance Day we can wear a poppy and feel sad for all of the soldiers, including the Caribbean and the Indian soldiers and the Muslim soldiers that we give assemblies about; to say we are grateful for what you gave, so that we can live in freedom. And it’s all part of our push for gratitude, and humility, and understanding where we are in the world. And how much we owe other people for the goodness around us.

Ian: At the same time a lot of kids from ethnic minority backgrounds will really face discrimination in their lives. Are you doing anything to teach them to deal with that?

Katharine: Well, I’d say everything we do is about teaching them how to deal with that, because the best way to deal with discrimination is to look past it, and to be brilliant, and to work hard, and be kind. The best way to deal with it is to be resilient. One of the things that all of our visitors comment on is just how resilient our kids are. If you indulge in a feeling of victimhood where you’re constantly talking about how there are many obstacles in front of you, and how life is so hard, then you’ll never try your luck at anything. If you spend your time building up skills and ambition, and resilience to go out there and make something of yourself, then you will, no matter how many obstacles are in front of you. Our children are very much aware of racism, sexism, homophobia, and so on. We talk about these things, but not hugely, because they don’t dominate here. What dominates here is that whatever the issues are that you’ve got in front of you, you got to find the wherewithal in order to overcome them.

Ian: What is the single most important thing parents can do to help their children?

Katharine: Spend quality time with them. When I say quality time, I mean see every moment as a teaching moment. So when you’re talking to your children, you’re also thinking, let me explain that. Let me push you on that. Let me correct your vocabulary. Say to them while they’re talking, “give me a synonym for that;” “give me an antonym for that;” “there’re a number of peas on the plate, let’s count them;” “let’s put them in twos;” “let’s count by threes;” and so on. Learning is everywhere. You’re walking down the street and you’re singing your times tables together, or you’re walking down the street and you’re saying, “Hey, look at that man over there, he’s wearing a funny coat. I wonder why he’s wearing that coat. Let’s talk about it.” Spend lots of time with your child treating every moment like a teaching moment. You will give your child every possible advantage.


About the author


Ian Barth

Ian lives at the Darvell community in East Sussex, UK with his wife Olivia and their four boys.

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