On the twelfth day of Christmas.

.you'll need a little lie-down. The festive season is testing for everyone, but for primary teachers it's downright exhausting. Steve Eddison looks back on the seasonal whirlwind and gives thanks for having survived with sanity – if not dignity – intact
19th December 2014, 12:00am


On the twelfth day of Christmas.


It's six nights before Christmas and in this house not a teacher is stirring. A combination of cheap cocktails and several failed attempts to do the lambada with Mrs Goodtime at the staff party have left me dead to the world.

I could sleep right through to the new year if several members of my family didn't intend to wake me at first light. They want me to join in the ritual abuse of a young pine tree sacrificed to the god of seasonal excess; to lay gifts beneath its foliage, hang baubles on its branches and violate a fairy on its topmost sprig.

"Breaking up for Christmas." The phrase sums up the situation for primary teachers perfectly. Having survived a term that appeared to last longer than the Holy Roman Empire and ended in a car crash of glitter, glue and tears, we are presented with more of the same.

Does the world not appreciate the Herculean effort it took to get this far? Is no one aware of the 12 labours we undertook in order to survive the Nightmare Before Christmas?

`One word of warning.'

So hissed Mrs Wright (God rest her soul) while holding me pinned by the throat to the staffroom wall. "We never mention the C-word before December," she continued. This was the moment when, as a new teacher, I learned that the mere mention of Christmas has a unique effect on small children. It is like giving them several bags of Haribo in a single intravenous dose. It overstimulates them. They get incredibly excited and want to down tools immediately. They lose all sight of the fact that learning to be literate and numerate is why they come to school. For sanity's sake, primary teachers must delay the onset of festivities as long as possible - at least until November is out. After that it's time to abandon all hope, ye who enter here.

Two suitable parents

Mary and Joseph were a modest and virtuous couple, just the sort of people God needed to bring the baby Jesus into the world. Unfortunately, the children most determined to get starring roles in a school nativity play are neither meek nor mild. Take Laura. It was with great effort that I persuaded her and her mum that being a Wise Person was better than being the Mother of God.

"Think about it," I whispered to avoid other parents overhearing. "Mary was the poor wife of a simple carpenter; she travelled by donkey and gave birth in a stable, of all places. Balthazar, on the other hand, was not only a scholar but a ki.a queen who wore fine robes, expensive jewellery and travelled on the biblical equivalent of a Mercedes-Benz SLS."

Casting the nativity play is a challenge that can be survived only by being creative and fearless in selling the different roles.

Three core assessments

Could there be a worse time to carry out end-of-term tests in reading, writing and maths? Just when the children are bouncing off the ceiling like a bunch of escaped helium balloons, the papers arrive. They land on your desk with the gravest of thumps. Suddenly it's like the end of the I Love to Laugh scene in Mary Poppins. A distinct lack of enthusiasm, combined with a deep sense of injustice, descends upon the classroom.

When the tests are done, you can bemoan the fact that you have neither the time nor the energy to complete all the marking, but it won't go away. We just have to get on with it.

Four tubs of glitter

The dreadful truth is that Christmas creativity doesn't just consume valuable resources; it consumes the will to live. Although you can derive some joy from the fact that you don't have as much marking to do as usual, supervising the whole imaginative frenzy takes a huge physical and mental toll. Plus, at the end of the day you have to clean up, and explain how PVA glue got into the carpet, and how it got into Megan's hair, and why she felt the need to cut it out with craft scissors.

Five riotous rehearsals

Like a Thomas the Tank Engine story, every school nativity play needs a Fat Controller. The problem with teachers is that they all think the fat controller (minus the adjective) should be them. So every instruction is accompanied by at least three countermanding ones. And it is a well-known fact that in the interests of festive chaos, children love nothing more than playing teachers off against each other.

To prevent a slaughter of the not-so-innocents, teachers must decide who is responsible for what. For example, at our school we appointed Miss Cyborg (the ICT leader) to take charge of all logistical issues involving movements of students and timings of events. (She, in turn, put this information on a spreadsheet on the school's intra-web-cloud-drive thingy that nobody over 35 can access.) Miss Perfect was appointed director of communications and given first and final word on all operational matters. Mrs Himmler, for obvious reasons, was appointed behaviour supremo. The rest of us patrolled the lines shushing, glaring and threatening.

Six bouts of brawling

In my experience, if it doesn't include tears, fights, vomit and mass hysteria, it's not a primary school Christmas party. The sense of anticipation built up over time leaves children barely able to contain themselves. When the big day arrives it's like taking the tops off several canisters of highly unstable explosive material and juggling with them. The most innocent reference to Angelica's bright yellow party dress resembling a sick bag is like a spark to a flame. The most evenly administered game of Musical Chairs can in a moment erupt into mass violence.

The Christmas party, like any potential conflict situation, needs buffer zones. To survive, teachers must build into it moments that are the equivalent of a ceasefire. The Dead Fishes game (otherwise known as Sleeping Lions) is always good for promoting a few minutes of profound silence amid the frenzy of battle. For a more sustained peace, try your own speciality act. Telling festive jokes is always good, although I prefer to perform the Great Eddisono's Amazing Feat of Mind Reading. It involves six plates, a pound;20 note and nerves of steel.

Seven strains of streptococci

They strike when you most expect it. When the festive spirit has all but killed your own spirit, when your physical and mental defences are at their weakest and your joie de vivre is hanging by a thread. They are the killer throat viruses; the throbbing headaches; the flu-like symptoms that cruelly torment every joint and sinew.

It is a bitterly cold December morning but you drag yourself out to do playground duty. You sip a hot lemon remedy from your teacher safety cup and ask yourself why you didn't make that call to the school office this morning. You could have spent the day wrapped in a duvet on the sofa, but you didn't. That's because primary teachers are not the sort of people who burden colleagues with extra children, additional tasks and the opportunity to talk about them behind their back.

Eight boys a-sliding

Boys under 11 have no idea that discos are for chatting up girls. They think they're for knocking them down. I know this because every primary school disco I have ever supervised involved boys sliding across the dance floor at high speed to create low-friction pandemonium. The Christmas disco is in reality two hours of bedlam accompanied by flashing lights and thumping bass lines. It can only be brought to some kind of order when you finally introduce that other kind of slide. I am, of course, talking about Cha Cha Slide by DJ Casper.

Leading children in this communal classic is the only way to get the majority of students in the same place doing the same thing at the same time. The risk is that somebody may film you on an iPad and post your moves on the school website, but then it is Christmas.

Nine babies crying

Performing the nativity play is stressful. It's all right for theatres; they have tiered seating, online booking and professional door people. In our school hall, seating for anybody under 5ft 10in and not on the front row is restricted viewing only. Oversubscription is the norm and the only thing between Mrs Hope (front of house) and death by stampede when she opens the doors is good fortune.

Then there is the task of keeping parents under control, which is difficult because you can't keep them in at playtime. Some of them may listen to reason but there is nothing you can do about those with crying babies. You could try tutting loudly, smiling helpfully or whispering advisedly, but parents with howling infants will always resist any attempt to get them to leave the auditorium. The result is that when you reach the most moving moment in the play, the only baby not bawling will be Jesus, and that's because somebody had the foresight to take His batteries out.

Ten pounds for presents

Obviously it's essential that primary teachers turn up on the last day of term with a small gift for every child in their class. But 30 times even a modest sum of money is a lot in the current economic climate. And if six years of austerity has taught us anything, it is that spending money you don't have is not a good idea.

Thrifty primary teachers have no choice but to spend little in terms of money but lots in terms of time and effort. In my case this means buying two economy tubs of assorted chocolates for pound;10, dividing them by 30 (eating the remainder) and making a personalised, chocolate-stuffed cracker for every child in class. A task that took until 3am one night. Crackers indeed.

Eleven engaging tasks

Some older readers will remember the pitiful sight of athlete Jim Peters stumbling around the track at the end of the 1954 British Empire and Commonwealth Games marathon in Vancouver, Canada, before collapsing only yards from victory.

Primary teachers, remember this and do not be deluded. Do not let the last day of term lull you into a false sense of having made it to the finish line. Looking after 30 children while you dismantle displays, fill waste sacks and pack away resources is only several teetering steps away from disaster. Trying to establish a sense of new year sobriety and minimalist good order in a classroom that looks like a post-apocalyptic vision of Santa's grotto is a gruelling ordeal that should not be underestimated.

The only way to survive the horrors of the last day is to keep children occupied in ways that don't occupy you. Let them bring toys, play games, watch DVDs, listen to Christmas songs and colour in festive pictures. In fact, without compromising safeguarding, let them do anything that doesn't sap your last ounce of energy. You will need that for tonight.

Twelve fancy cocktails

The staff Christmas night out should be treated with caution. The euphoria felt by survivors of the Nightmare before Christmas is a trap. Teachers, like many other people who have been through an intense experience, can succumb to post-traumatic hypomania.

So when you arrive at Club de Cuba and those Latin American rhythms kick in and the rum starts to flow, try not to be tempted by those two-for-one cocktail deals. Weeping over colleagues and making outrageous comments about senior staff can be embarrassing. Waking up the next morning and vaguely recalling doing the lambada with Mrs Goodtime, with your shirt open to the waist and a pair of antlers attached to your groin, will only make the nightmare worse.

Steve Eddison teaches at Arbourthorne Community Primary School in Sheffield

A gift for teachers

You're in the final furlong but you've got some lessons still to fill. Our pick of resources will make the time fly by.

This colourful PowerPoint quiz asks students to identify Christmas items. bit.lyChristmasQuiz1

Complete these bauble designs and sneak a real lesson on symmetry past your pupils. bit.lyBaublePattern

Another quiz, this time on the Christmas story. bit.lyXmasStory1

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