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Letting them go

It's that time of year again. Teachers across the UK are trying to build a better tomorrow, not just for the children but also for themselves: it's time to create next year's timetables.

It's a truth rarely learned until adulthood that he who pays the piper calls the tune. Similarly, it takes a while before you realise who really has the power in a school. The bursar can bless or dash your hopes of a trip to the Pyrenees as easily as Zeus drips lightning on to mortals. But somewhere in Olympus next to this godlike creature sits the commander of the timetable. Here's my top tip for any new teacher: find this person and bury them in glory. They can turn your day into night.

Whom we teach and when is rarely up to us. Your timetable is usually like the weather: you can't control it and nor can you forecast it very well. All you can do is bring an umbrella and sunscreen and assume the brace position.

But even then it's possible to nudge the dice a little. Some of us, for example, have the luxury of building the class lists for next year, either in sets or by topic. This is as close as you get as a teacher to omnipotence, to the Power Cosmic coursing through your quill.

Some teachers can't handle the champagne of opportunity, and write first drafts where their favourite students are assembled in one spot and their nemeses are banished to the Negative Zone. If you're faint-hearted you'll blanch as I spit this truth bomb: some students, you're perfectly happy to pass on to the next teacher. Some, you'd chip a nickel in a wishing well to keep until graduation.

If this surprises anyone, I suggest they've forgotten what it's like to be human. What makes you a professional is your attitude to either and both. The trick is to teach your damnedest no matter who you get. With some kids it feels like triage, with others it's a treat. But you park your prejudices and make the most of the moment.

The majority of us in secondary will already have said goodbye to our Year 11s. Some achieve escape velocity and never return; others leave only when the janitor sweeps them out with a broom. Secondary teachers will appreciate the unique chill you feel when a beloved student tells you that not only will they not be taking your classes at A-level but that they will be continuing the subject elsewhere. Part of you chokes up and you want to grab them and shout "What was wrong with us, eh?"

It's sad to realise that your students have outgrown your classroom, like Alice in Wonderland after she consumed the cake that said "eat me". And you can't even show it, because these kids are running a difficult enough gauntlet as it is without your emotional blackmail making their decisions harder. They need to study what's right for them, not what's right for us. So you smile and nod, say "good call" and wish them luck.

And sometimes, they come back. And then they leave anyway. And the wheel keeps spinning, and us with it.

Tom Bennett is a secondary teacher in East London, director of the ResearchED conference and the government's new school behaviour expert

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