How do you catch a cloud and pin it down (when everyone else is showing videos …)?
In common with, I am sure, many colleagues, I hate the end of the Christmas term.
There’s something about the nights drawing in - with the end of the school day playing out in darkness – which seems to drain all energy and motivation from my classes. Year on year, at the start of December like clockwork, a kind of collective ennui seems to descend in the corridors. Even my most focused and diligent Year 7 students begin to flag and look wistfully at the clock when the countdown to Christmas begins (and the less said about my Year 9s the better). Every task is too onerous. Every text is too complicated. No schedule has space for ‘yet more’ homework.
It really is a joyous time to be a teacher...
However, as if that was not bad enough, it is the atmosphere switch – a shift that occurs with a week of the term to go – which really frustrates me. Without fail, the start of every lesson heralds a cacophony of complaints: ‘Can we watch a video?’, ‘How come the other class are playing games?’, ‘X gave us sweets’, ‘Why are we the only class doing work?’ ‘It’s not FAAAIIIIRRRR’.
I’m sure you can all add your own phrases of discontent to the ensemble chorus of dissatisfaction.
It did not used to be like this.
When I first qualified, I worked at a school where a very firm line was taken on the end of term. It was to be ‘business as usual’. Each and every colleague would teach as normal right up to the final bell. No-one broke ranks and no-one allowed a crack in the united front to appear. I genuinely feel that this collective approach led to a much calmer (and much more Christmassy!) conclusion to the year. Certainly, I recall – with only a touch of rose-tinted glasses, I’m sure – really enjoying the end of term in that orderly, calm environment.
I had no idea that this was not the norm - until I moved schools and tried to teach Chaucer in the last week of term … Trust me, there was nothing ‘low level’ about that disruption. You would have thought I had confessed to, not only murdering Father Christmas, but that I had personally butchered and eaten Rudolph for a tasty snack. Since then, pretty much every school in which I have worked has had this - unofficial, of course - policy of a free-for-all with a week to go.
So, what to do if you find yourself in this situation?
First of all, it is 100% my position that every colleague should teach each and every lesson up until the last assembly. It only needs one person to be the ‘cool’ teacher for that ethos to fall apart and then all bets are off. And, crucially, it is not fun for the students – no matter what they tell you. It is boring. Day after day of 1hr of one film, then 1hr of another. Constant sugar crashes from treats. Hours and hours of wasted time. It’s just awful for all concerned.
However, unless you have that strict environment – and, trust me, it is worth moving schools to try to find it - how do you deal with the pressure to please and the disruption to normal teaching?
Recently, my department has tried the following to deal with this phenomenon.
In the final lesson of term with each year group, we book our Assembly Hall, bring the whole year together and split them into teams
We then, for fifty minutes, conduct our Big Fat Quiz of the Year. Colleagues take turns being the question master, we try to ensure we have a mix of popular culture / subject specific questions (we use the same quiz across the year groups: lots of help with the 7s, nothing for the 13s), keep a running total of scores and, generally, make a big production of the whole event. Oh, and all mobile phones are handed in at the door!
We throw some budget at it. We have appropriate books per year group, as recommended by our librarian, as prizes for the winning team and some natty bookmarks for the runners up. We ensure that there is an article about it in the school newsletter, photos of the winners, and the Head praises those who do well in his summing up of the year assembly speech. We ensure there is status to success in this activity.
We do all this, though – and this is the key for me - on the understanding that the English department is entirely business as usual apart from this final lesson.
And it works.
From the anarchy (I’m not exaggerating!) of previous years, we now get a purposeful environment to learn right until the end.
If the price we need to play is one lesson – and we know this will happen year on year – we can adapt our planning to take it account.
I have suggested that, perhaps, this event could play this function across the school and allow colleagues to claw back some teaching in the final week. I’d be delighted for our Big Fat Quiz of the Year to become a school event, instead of a departmental one.
Not to be, so far.
If you need inspiration – or to save some time - you can see the quiz we used last year here (which colleagues in other schools seemed to find useful) and the upcoming one for a few weeks’ time is here – both take about 50 mins to an hour to run and you can, of course, not do all the rounds if time is ticking.
I’d rather be teaching than doing this.
However, I think, making a virtue out of necessity, this is quite an effective way to end the year purposefully and, also, raise the status of people who know things!
Robert Frost teaches English at a school in London. You can follow him on Twitter at (@stoppingfrost) and view his TES Shop.