Christmas is a hard bag of clementines to juggle at school. On the one hand, there’s the utilitarian drive to hothouse and harvest grades; the endless Groundhog Day of teach, test, reflect, improve that characterises the modern heartbeat of high-stakes accountability. On the other hand, it’s Christmas. These are not usually compatible aims, and the only place where the advent of Advent focuses minds and hands on industry is in Santa’s elven workshops.
I can appreciate both goals. My memory of school Christmas, as a kid, is idyllic: snow up to your knees; burning red, wet ears after every break from snowball baptisms; carol concerts and gift making. In many ways, primary school at Christmas felt like a Blue Peter theme park. My school was next to a church, so we were immersed in both secular and religious traditions, from the slow, sad carols that would one day become nostalgic tattoos on your heart in adulthood, to the poster-paint reindeer displays. And this might be an invented memory, but I swear we sat in lessons one Christmas Eve. Did the school calendar ever enjoy so Presbyterian a structure?
It’s important, I think, for schools to respect and reflect the cultures from which they emerge; Christmas, whatever your flavour of faith, is that. Schools have a duty to keep Christmas in some way, or risk playing Scrooge to the most wonderful time of the year.
It has the perfect hooks from which to hang a hundred values and articles of character –kindness, altruism, family, community, service, charity, compassion, tolerance, hope. Keeping Christmas, as Dickens would say, is done as easily in a council estate as in front of a log fire.
And yet, there’s that other thing to remember: learning, if you’ll recall. Schools aren’t Disneyland, and the staff aren’t there to be surrogate Santas (Santa Claus, the only saint who lives in a supermarket, and the only one apart from Valentine that most people know about). The gift we give every year, and all-year-round, is education, and that doesn’t come in a box or a sack; it blossoms in the hearts and minds of children over a decade or so.
We waste valuable learning time at our peril. Every minute we stick The Snowman on is a minute we take the children further from the exam hall. It’s why I get so annoyed by teachers and schools who compete with each other as to who can stick on Big Momma’s House the earliest. The reason I don’t do this is because if this is all that school has to offer them, why come in at all? I didn’t train to be a cinema reel operator. I value them and I value their time.
My compromise is one that many teachers find; teach up to the final whistle, but don’t pretend that Christmas isn’t happening. I am more fond of a good Christmas jumper day than I care to admit, and my love of teaching lessons about the religious and cultural origins of Christmas cannot be challenged. But when the kids ask if we’re having a fun lesson, I crack my knuckles, rub my jolly belly and greet their disappointment with a healthy "Ho-ho-ho".
This year, like every year, I gave them a present they can unwrap for a lifetime. The tinsel on it was a bonus.
Tom Bennett is a secondary teacher in East London, director of the ResearchED conference and the government's school behaviour expert. He tweets at @tombennett71