Good morning children, and goodbye

30th July 2004 at 01:00
Our summer term ended, as always, with our closing assembly, timed for the 45 minutes leading to the noon bell. It gives the packed hall of parents, children and staff the chance to end the year on a high note. We say goodbye to all who are leaving, sing songs and set off for the holiday in good spirits.

This year, our dispersal took longer than usual, since I was ambushed by the primary 7 girls who required a more personal farewell. Each, in turn clasped me in a vice-like hug.

My first reaction was panic. What should I do with my hands? What would the child protection gurus say? However, smiling parents gave me the confidence to accept the gestures in the spirit they were intended.

The boys, determined not to be left out, joined the line and we solved their obvious apprehension by settling for manly handshakes and grunts of "See you, sir".

I like the atmosphere of the final morning. Whatever the ups and downs of the year, it's worth reminding ourselves that, essentially, we like one another and find our school a pleasant and satisfying place in which to spend so much of our time.

Some children bring along a small present for their teacher and occasionally I am given one myself. The trick is to receive it in private.

This way the donor can be given proper thanks and other children are not given the impression that a gift is expected.

According to a recent radio report, "an apple for the teacher" has become big business in parts of England. Some parents assume that money can buy anything, even special classroom treatment for their little darlings, so they vie with one another to provide the most extravagant end-of-term gift.

Jewellery is de rigueur with mention even made of Prada handbags. The report came down to earth with the boy who brought his (male) teacher a bacon roll.

A few years ago, our council clamped down on its employees receiving gifts on the basis that donors would expect favours in return. It took time to convince them that teachers should be exempt and that a child handing over a bunch of Asda flowers or a bottle of Brut was not in the same league as shady dealings on a lucrative building contract. Perhaps our council was ahead of its time now that designer handbags may be replacing the teacher's apple.

This year the girls who were generous with their hugs were equally generous with gifts. I was the recipient of a number of ties, and wonder of wonders, they - or their mothers - had chosen well and all are wearable. A number of cards arrived too. The usual line is: "You're the best headteacher I've ever had."

Actually, I'm the only one, so not much competition there. One boy wrote two reasons for his assessment of my leadership: "You always try to be fair" - he doesn't suggest that I ever achieved that sublime state - and "You helped us win football trophies and medals."

The priorities are in ascending order. A primary 7 boy will do anything to have a shiny piece of tin on a cheap ribbon hung around his neck.

When the school fell silent I returned to my office, pleased that the morning had gone well. But the best was yet to come. On my working table lay a plastic bag. I looked in, caught my breath then buzzed our secretary.

"Someone's left a bag by mistake," I said.

"No mistake," she replied. "Everything there is just for you. Enjoy it."

I emptied the bag out and ran my fingers lovingly through the contents. A new packet of pencils with erasers on the end; packs of Post-It notes, yellow only permitted; highlighters, ditto, and a box of 1,000 paper-clips.

What a climax to a delightful morning.

Brian Toner is headteacher of St John's primary in Perth.

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