A time for every season, but not gardening

4th April 1997 at 01:00
So that was that then, it was Easter, and this year, so they tell me, it was very early. Can I say, on behalf of the teaching profession, that it did not seem to arrive any earlier than usual, but that is half the problem of living in a parallel universe, which is what it feels like in education a good proportion of the time?

It all starts well before Easter, in early December. It is cold and dark, you've bought no cards or presents, you've still to have the argument about the whereabouts of elderly relatives for Christmas day, and then the school Christmas activities begin.

If you're lucky, you might get away with three disco parties (you call them that while the fifth-year helpers are desperately marketing them as raves), a Christmas carol concert and two hours freezing in the town centre singing carols for charity. But, hey, it is the week before Christmas, where's your festive spirit?

I tell you, it's on the dining-room table, spreadeagled and helpless, under 160 prelim papers that have to be marked before the end of term, and yes, you could leave it until January, but that would spoil the whole holiday for you. You begin to see why as teachers we feel we might be operating to a slightly different agenda to the people in that other world.

So you stagger back to school in early January, scarcely refreshed by your seasonal activities, not to mention The Great Escape, again. Through a mantra that goes something like "Fourth-year parents - choice of subject - work experience - folios", Easter can be dimly made out like a light at the end of a long and troublesome tunnel, although, as the man once said, there's a horrible suspicion it might turn out to be a train coming in the opposite direction.

It is a rotten time of the year, anyway. You leave home in the dark and return in the dark, feeling a bit like Mole in Wind in the Willows, muttering: "Up we go! Up we go!" For half-term you get a single day, sandwiched between in-service bonanzas, but you're still skint after Christmas, so you couldn't afford to go away in any case, and there's still the summer holiday to be booked.

But spring is the great revivalist, and before you know it, the nights are getting that bit lighter, and you no longer have to interrupt first period because you forgot to switch your headlights off. Could this be the green shoots of recovery?

Well, don't talk to me about green shoots. Having time at home in daylight reveals the enormity of the tasks left undone in the garden last October, on the basis that the nights were drawing in and it was too cold to do the weeding. The back garden does not bear thinking about, the only recognisable feature being the wine bottle that held the rockets on bonfire night.

As for the front garden, it has become a place to rush through, head down like an accused headed for the High Court: And I put it to you Mr McPartlin, that those dandelions, that moss and those 8ft-high roses should all have been dealt with last autumn. You can hardly bear to acknowledge your neighbours as they wave their hedge clippers and trowels at you, scanning the horticultural mayhem in front of your windows with comments like: "And Mr Martin kept it so nice, as well."

These people are finely tuned to the seasons: primroses and daffodils spring up precisely on time, while weeds are battered into submission before the the bell ending round one. These folk are out there in their sensible gloves and funny hats, while you're only dimly aware of change because the focus of your week has switched from Ballykissangel to Hamish Macbeth.

But then these folks are completely innocent of the joys of investigations and folios. Just as prelim marking lies draped over Christmas preparations like an old and tired labrador refusing to get off the bed, so the completion of exam board material gets in the way of our headlong rush towards Easter eggs and hot cross buns.

It is a remarkable illustration of role reversal. As pupils, with all to play for, laconically reflect that they can complete five pieces of English work in three-and-a-half hours, their teachers lash themselves into ulcers and breakdowns in an annual event best described as the educational equivalent of the chariot race in Ben Hur.

The high hopes of January degenerate from "I want the best work of which you're capable" to March's "Surely you must have written something since the start of S3?" Bizarre interchanges with parents take place: "Investigation? I thought I'd put him down to do maths, not playing flaming Inspector Morse!" Eventually Easter is reached, with a feeling that the brow has been crested and it is all downhill to the summer holidays. As I spend this Easter holiday walking the strands of the west coast of Ireland, I try to ignore the cries of the gulls and whisper of the waves as they hint urgently in my ear, "New timetable! New classes! Results and appeals!", and focus on the fact that it'll be Christmas before we know it. It could be early retirement vaguely visible offshore, but it's more likely a submarine that'll dive out of sight before I can get near it.

I reflect that it's a good job, I love teaching so much and that it's being so cheerful that keeps me going. I refrain from braining a passer-by who is thoughtlessly humming Terry Jacks's old hit "Seasons in the Sun", and enjoy a quiet laugh at the latest entry in the great exam board acronym competition: SQA: Seasons Quickly Amalgamate.

Hope you got lots of eggs.

Sean McPartlin is assistant headteacher at St Margaret's Academy, Livingston.

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