Hugh Bachmann: Novels and policy

Hugh Bachmann is a Cohort 2011 Alumnus of the Teach For Australia Leadership Development Program. He is currently working as a management consultant at McKinsey & Co. His work involves implementing large-scale school system reform and he is particularly interested in emerging market education. He spent seven months in Punjab, Pakistan helping the local government increase student attendance at schools. Hugh is passionate about how education can change lives, he enjoys travelling, good coffee and has arranged for all proceeds from the book to be donated to charity.

What have you been up to since finishing the program?

I don’t feel like I ever left the program! I finished the program a bit over 5 years ago and I’ve been at McKinsey & Co since, working on emerging market education and government transformation projects. The reason I joined TFA in the first place is because I am incredibly passionate about how education can change people’s lives and I’m trying to contribute to this change at a more macro and system level.

What’s been a highlight of your role?

A project that I had the opportunity to work on in Pakistan involved trying to increase the school attendance rates (and then levels of learning) for 10 million plus students. I’m lucky because I’ve been able to do a fair amount of travel and I’ve definitely gotten a few stamps in my passport.

What have been some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced?

Professionally, I think one of the biggest difficulties I have faced is around influencing senior system stakeholders to make tough decisions and stick by these to really drive and accelerate positive change.

Personally, I’m looking forward to planting my roots somewhere this year. I don’t have a permanent address right now (long story) and I’m looking forward to settling down a bit more.

What inspired you to write the book?

The initial idea came to me after I finished the Leadership Development Program. I was travelling with a few of my close friends and they kept asking me about the program. I shared a few snippets of my experiences as a teacher and they couldn’t stop laughing, one of them said to me that I should write a book about it. That was the catalyst.

Initially, when I started drafting the novel, my intention was to write a non-fiction book where each chapter was focused on a policy position. For example, how do you attract, invest in and retain high calibre people to become Principals? Each chapter would start with a funny anecdote, and then dive into the policy issues this anecdote highlighted and what the evidence says about the issue. I wanted to be provocative on one hand – to catch the reader’s attention and their imagination – around what policy changes could potentially occur in the Australian context.

Along the way, I got feedback from a few different people advising me to remove the non-fiction elements and draft the book as entirely fiction. I ended up taking the advice.

Would you say that much of the main character, Harry Mann’s, experiences were inspired by real life events that happened to you?

I would say 80% of the book was inspired by my experiences at the coal face as a teacher. In some way, shape or form all the characters were inspired by people I encountered at the school. Obviously, as a work of fiction, there is definitely hyperbole in the descriptions of these characters. But the main reason I wrote it was to make people laugh and get them to think about what is actually going on in our schools and what could be improved.

It’s funny because, looking back, I was so optimistic on my first day of teaching and I don’t think I realised how ineffective I would be. I was unbelievably ineffective. When I watched Testing Teachers*, I found the experiences of the Associates who were featured to be so relatable. Given that I had a very stable and comfortable upbringing void of poverty or trauma, it was a little mind-blowing to hear and understand what the kids I taught had gone – and were still going – through.

I don’t think I properly processed what some of them went through at the time and writing about it was a little bit of my way of communicating that. I hope people can connect to it.

I loved the realistic portrayal of the characters like Mr. Jones! How did you go about creating a three dimensional character like him?

It was actually really easy; Mr. Jones was a real person. Everything based on something he did or a story he told. He was a complex person – on one hand unbelievably passionate about his students with a real inspiring, intellectual zeal and energy for being an educator while on the other bitter, disenfranchised and frustrated with the system. He had so much expertise for helping his students learn but really became a little overwhelmed by the weight of a dysfunctional environment that frankly was not so conducive to learning. I actually saw a little bit of myself in Mr. Jones, and really could imagine myself possibly heading down a similar path if I remained.

Do you think that being passionate about their students but also feeling disenfranchised with the system is a common dichotomy that exists in many teachers?

Sadly yes. I saw it in a lot of teachers who have been in the system for a long time. Yes, they care deeply about their students while also being frustrated with the way the system works, or could work better.

Although there are some cynical moments, I think there is a real optimistic tone throughout the novel. Is this how you feel about the education sector more broadly?

Yes, I’d say I’m generally largely optimistic about the potential for change. The answers are by and large there, and there is limited debate around the big policy issues in education. It’s now largely an execution problem. Education system leaders need to set a bold aspiration for where they want their system to be in the next few years, and go after that aspiration like an Olympic athlete training for gold. Research shows that a system can increase average student learning by more than a year on average over the span of five years; however to spark this change requires a leader willing to make this change a reality.

What do you hope your audience will get out of this book?

I saw an anecdote from Arne Duncan, who was the former Secretary of Education under the Obama administration, which neatly sums this up. When the President was visiting the then-president of South Korea, Lee Myung-bak’s biggest education challenge was summed up as parents – “parents are too demanding”.

And with that, I hope that this book provokes the question: what would our education system look like if our expectations of it were unrelenting?

Ultimately, I hope people laugh and start having more conversations about the state of our education system – and, demanding more from stakeholders in the system as a direct result.

So, best place for coffee in New York?

I must admit that I’m a little bit of a coffee snob. I make sure my colleagues in the New York office head to Australian places for their caffeine hit.

Best ones (I could go on) are Bluestone Lane and Little Collins.

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