Is teaching like riding a bike? Sir Michael Wilshaw insists that it is, following his return to the classroom for the first time in 15 years.
The former Ofsted chief inspector has been doing supply teaching: three days a week, for two weeks, covering history lessons at Thomas More School, a Catholic secondary in North London.
“I was very happy to do that, even though I hadn’t taught for 15 years,” Sir Michael told Tes. “But I was a teacher for 43 years – you don’t suddenly lose it, do you? It’s a bit like riding a bike.”
The head of the academy trust to which Thomas More belongs previously worked as deputy to Sir Michael at an inner-city London school. He rang up his former head to ask for help: a history teacher at Thomas More had tested positive for Covid, so the whole history department was having to self-isolate.
“It was pretty straightforward,” Sir Michael said. “I had to mug up on the Great Depression and the general strike, but I’ve taught those before.”
Just another supply teacher
The pupils, he said, had no idea of his past career. “I could have been a supply teacher, for all they were concerned,” he said. “I turned up and did the usual: I asked them to listen, and they did.
“They didn’t misbehave. I think my age probably helped there: I’m old and grey, and that may have been a factor. They may have thought: 'There’s somebody who’s been around the block. We don’t want to mess him about.'
“It’s important, in any lesson, to ensure that the pupils do as much work as the teacher. So it wasn’t chalk and talk the whole time. I didn’t stand at the front of the classroom and just talk. I had the morning to look at the materials that the teachers who were away had prepared, and I worked around it, and got the students to do quite a bit of writing.”
Earlier this summer, Sir Michael appeared on BBC Newsnight to say that good schools would ask teachers to work extra hours – over half-term holidays, weekends and evenings – in order to help disadvantaged pupils catch up.
If his new colleagues at Thomas More felt any resentment, however, they chose not to display it.
“The other members of staff might have known who I was – they were probably briefed, before I turned up,” he said. “But I don’t think they worried about that too much.
“It’s been four years since I left Ofsted. Some of them probably hadn’t heard of me. But they were a friendly bunch: a very young, vibrant, friendly staff.”
In fact, they displayed precisely the kind of dedication he had been talking about: “The staff I spoke to were all very keen to be in school, and to make up for lost teaching and learning time. They were very aware that these pupils have missed a lot of school, and that the poorest pupils have missed out most of all. So they wanted to do well by them.
“It was very heartening to see: lots of them were coming in at the weekends or staying after school, in order to run catch-up sessions. It reminded me how the professional always comes up trumps at times like these – goes the extra mile.”
'Back in the swing of things'
The history department are now back, after their two weeks of self-isolation. But Sir Michael has been asked to come in again, to do some more teaching, and to run a leadership training session with the staff. He has also offered to do any English or humanities teaching that might be needed.
“I enjoyed it,” he said. “It reminded me what it was all about. It was nice to be back in the classroom, back in the swing of things. I do enjoy the dynamics of school life. Plus, I didn’t have to do any lunch or break duties.
“I think every headteacher regrets leaving the classroom at some stage. Looking at a budget or dealing with HR issues, or the other more mundane jobs of headship are never as much fun as teaching.
“Schools are in a very difficult place right now. Things are really fragile: they never know, from one day to the next, what attendance will be, either for staff or for students. And headteachers are really worried about pupils in the examination groups, who are going to lose out. That’s why I was asked in: they wanted an experienced teacher to fill in for those students.”
He stops short, however, of suggesting that retired headteachers should return to schools en masse to cover self-isolating staff members: “Once people retire, they often have other things to do and to enjoy – particularly those who have worked a long time in schools. And these are people of a certain age, so they’ll be worried about the health-risk factors – which, obviously, I had to weigh up, too.”
Sir Michael himself is 74, which puts him in the category he refers to as “so-called vulnerable”. And he did pause briefly to consider the risks to his health before agreeing to take on the risks faced by teachers on a daily basis.
“Everyone has to make judgements and balance the risks,” he said. “I’m healthy in other respects. If you feel that you can do it, then why not do it? I’m not the sort of person who can be stuck inside for long stretches of time, so it was nice to be invited out.
“My major concern was travelling to school by London transport. But I made sure I wore a mask, washed my hands, did all the right things.”
At school, he wore a mask in the corridors, but not in the classroom: “I think it’s impossible, really, to wear a mask while you’re teaching. But I maintained a good social distance.
“Of course, I’m no spring chicken, so I was tired at the end of the day – but not so tired that I couldn’t function. And it was a thoroughly enjoyable experience – an invigorating experience. It was good for me and, hopefully, it was good for the children I taught.”
And is the man who once compared himself to Dirty Harry, because of his willingness to take on the bad guys of teaching, prepared to grade his own performance in the classroom?
“No, I’m not going to give myself a grade. The children seemed to enjoy it – that’s all I can say. They were receptive to it, and it was a decent lesson. I’m happy with that.”