Unto the Breach

Unto the Breach

After being tempted to write a blog about my experiences and reflections on the classroom for many years, the book launch of ‘The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers’ at Michaela Community School, Brent was the last little push I needed.

The example being set by so many of the Michaela staff but also teachers like Toby French, Ben Newmark and Daisy Christodoulou regularly make me examine my own practice and if I can, in some small way, be part of what the incredibly inspirational Katharine Birbalsingh describes as a ‘revolution’ in teaching, then great!

But what to call the blog…

My first thought was something from Coriolanus, one of my favourite Shakespeare plays and a text that I studied with an all boys English group a couple of years ago.  The moment in Coriolanus that sticks with me the most is when he completely loses his temper with the sniping and goading of the tribunes, calling them “You common cry of curs!” and concluding with “There is a world elsewhere.” He then leaves Rome, joins (and essentially leads ) the army of his mortal enemy and turns against Rome, almost destroying it before his mother manages to save Rome at the last minute, but dooms her son in the process.

While the idea of “a world elsewhere” certainly strikes a chord with me in terms of how differently, and in most ways better, Michaela do things, I wouldn’t go as far to call those who don’t agree a “common cry of curs”!  Also, taking into consideration Joe Kirby’s discussion of stoicism that every year 7 student is taught about at Michaela’s boot camp to help them understand that anger is weakness and self-control is strength, Coriolanus probably isn’t the best role model.

That got me thinking about some of my other favourite Shakespeare speeches, one of Hamlet’s less well known soliloquies, right before he goes and becomes a pirate for a few years, “Rightly to be great/Is not to stir without great argument/But greatly to find quarrel in a straw when honour’s at the stake.”  Aiming for greatness…good; quarrelling…less so; the final line “My thoughts be bloody, or be nothing worth!”…not generally approved of by…, well, everyone but pirates.

Then I thought of Henry V, my favourite of all the Henry plays, and the siege of Harfleur. Henry’s men are tired, have been beaten back from a breach in the walls of Harfleur and are on the verge of defeat and that’s when Henry commands, “Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more”, turning around their fortunes and, ultimately securing the thrones of France and England for his son, Henry VI.

As I read on in my head the rest of the speech I smiled at the lines, “But when the blast of war blows in our ears/Then imitate the action of the tiger”, as I knew I had my title.  There are pretty clear parallels between Katharine Birbalsingh’s call to arms to get the message out about what is possible in education and Shakespeare’s ‘blast of war’.  And as for the ‘action of the tiger’, well, they are ‘tiger teachers’ after all.

So now I have a blog, a title for it and now just need a catchy ending to this first post and again Shakespeare comes to my aid.  To all those who were in Brent on Saturday, watched the livestream or have watched it since I would say:

I see you stand like greyhounds in the slips,

Straining upon the start.  The game’s afoot:

Follow your spirit, and upon this charge

Cry ‘God for Katharine, teacher-centred learning, and Michaela!’

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