A large number of teachers are going to be doubly thankful for the October break that has just started for many of us in Scotland. And not because we have been promised a week of benign weather, or cheap flights abroad have suddenly become available – but because of what we are missing.
Today, there will be a full moon, which means, so we're told, that teachers won't have to work with classes whose behaviour is subtly altered for the worst by the effects of this celestial phase where pupils often seem a bit more unhinged, unwilling to work and prone to irrational behaviour.
For outsiders, or those new to the job, this fear of the lunar cycle may seem a silly superstitious belief not worthy of the profession, but teachers' own repeated experiences make them uneasy working with their classes when the moon is full. I know of one teacher who marks these disruptive days in her planner in red to prepare in advance flexible lessons which take into account any lunar disturbances.
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I've had many moments of (apparently) lunar-inspired strangeness from pupils. On one occasion, I had a very sensible senior pupil hide under a desk for a full lesson, calmly emerging when the bell rang for the next class. It's at these moments where teachers will think about folk tales of men turning into wolves when the moon is full or the Roman belief that madness was caused by the moon. And teachers are not alone in recognising this lunar phenomenon. In 2007, extra police officers were deployed in Brighton when the moon was full, to cope with a larger-than-usual number of violent incidents.
Where's the evidence?
There is just one problem with this piece of teaching folklore: evidence, or lack thereof. Multiple scientific studies can't find a link between the phases of the moon and the actions of schoolchildren that teachers swear is there. The most extensive study from 2016 analysed the behaviour of almost 6,000 primary-aged children from around the world, published in Frontiers in Paediatrics, but the only change recorded was that children were more likely to lose five minutes' sleep due to the brightness of the moon (signs of primal howls and hair spurting out of the backs of hands were conspicuous by their absence).
More disturbingly, it seems it's not them, it's us: pupils aren't acting differently during a full moon but teachers are responding differently. We are searching for a behavioural pattern which doesn't exist and is an example of confirmation bias – where we use anything relevant to support beliefs we already hold, ignoring anything which contradicts this.
These illusory connections are partly caused by the far greater likelihood of remembering something out of the ordinary rather than the humdrum daily events of teaching. And if this strange event happens during a full moon, we make a connection, tell someone in the staffroom about it and remember it. But if a class seems out of control a day after a full moon, we will probably attribute it to something less supernatural than the phase of a celestial body: maybe we'll be more likely to blame ourselves for not being well enough prepared for this particular class.
On the other hand, our bodies are mainly composed of water. Is it just possible that, if the moon's gravitational strength can pull at our immense oceans, it could have some effect on the behaviour of students? It certainly sounds compelling – and it gives us an excuse to avoid more rational explanations for why pupils are acting up.
Gordon Cairns is a teacher of English in Scotland