Each time of year brings its own dangers at playtime: deadly acorns in autumn, lethal daffodils in spring and the peril of sunburn and bee stings in summer

21st January 2005 at 00:00
We are all influenced by the rhythms and seasons of life, but in a special school we are even more sensitive to these changes.

Children who don't understand how to exercise self-control or observe social niceties are quick to let us know if they are uncomfortable. So we soon get to know how their bodies work; when they need food, rest, or to go to the toilet. We understand a child's pattern of seizures: how they build up, reach crisis and gradually recover. We note the effects of medication.

School life is heavily influenced by the seasons. Autumn term is our new year, beginning with back-to-school enthusiasm and new pencil cases, and building up to the paper doilies and glitter angels of the Christmas celebrations. Spring term is when we carry out our development work and put our plans into action. There is a feeling of Lent even for those who don't observe a fast and, after the hard work, Easter is a welcome gateway to the summer term. Summer is for assessments and parents'

evenings, but also the special feeling of taking lessons outside: a story under the tree, water play in the shade, picnics and sports days. Each time of year also brings its own dangers at playtime: deadly acornsin autumn, lethal daffodils in spring and the peril of sunburn and bee stings in summer.

But it can rain at any time of year, and don't we just love wet playtimes? They disorientate the children because a) they are not part of the routine, and b) the children don't get the fresh air and exercise they need. Every teacher and classroom assistant knows how hard afternoons can be after a wet lunchtime. The wind affects the children, too, much as it is supposed to affect horses. It makes them high and giddy: they gallop about and charge into each other, whooping and braying. When we are having a particularly noisy lunchtime and plates are dropped, beakers are flying and one child's rhythmical cry is echoed around the hall as more of the children join in, we look at each other with raised eyebrows and ask, "Is it a full moon?" One day I will conduct a study relating the noise levels of our (usually quiet) dining hall to the lunar cycle.

It's snuffly nose season now and my first job in the morning is to take phone calls from staff who are croaking and saying they can't come in. It is the teacher's dilemma: should you stay at home and leave your colleagues in the lurch, or come in and spread your germs? Most people seem to make the worst sort of compromise, staying at school until they have spread their germs and then having a day in bed. One colleague, annoyed by those whom she suspected of malingering, used to anticipate the "I'm sorry I can't come in today" calls by answering the phone sounding worse than they were and wheezing "Good morning" before they could get their croak in.

It's not just the staff who get ill either; some miss school because their own children are sick. Or their childminder. Or, as in a recent case, their childminder's mother. I was complaining to my head about the time our (largely female) staff take off because of their children. Why don't their husbands take a day off work to look after the kids? Our jobs are just as important. Then glancing down at my "absent today" list, I noticed Paul was off; his young son was ill. Oh well, fair's fair, and the snuffly nose season will soon give way to the brighter days of spring. I've learned to go with the ebb and flow.

Maria Corby is deputy head of a special school for pupils with severe and multiple learning difficulties. She writes under a pseudonym

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