I'm still standing... barely

19th July 2013 at 01:00

When I was a young teacher, and was developing my passion for jazz, I read George Melly's colourful autobiography Owning Up. It is a lurid depiction of 1950s life on the road with Mick Mulligan's Magnolia Jazz Band. At one point, Melly describes a "knee-trembler" with a groupie in the alley behind a venue: hysterical sexual ecstasy at the point of exhaustion.

My life in jazz has been very much quieter, but teachers can readily identify with the concept of near-hysteria on the verge of exhaustion.

At my school, we recently held our staff summer dinner and disco. It was tinged with the kind of frenzy that Melly describes: we partied furiously, feverishly, when the sensible thing in terms of end-of-term survival would have been an early night with a mug of Horlicks. When I called it a day at 11.15pm, a few hardy souls were still going.

Something about school life dictates that, although it would be logical to spread major events evenly across the term, we don't. That big concertmusicalsports dayleavers' prom requires a whole term of preparation. So we conclude with a frenzied week, after which we all collapse, too knackered to really appreciate the long holidays that people so begrudge us.

Spare a thought for our students: they suffer, too. Rehearsals invariably hit their peak just as sporty children are playing competition finals: they are simultaneously sitting end-of-termyearmodule tests.

At our sports day, I chatted to some 14- and 15-year-olds who, the night before, had performed not one but four Moliere farces. They looked utterly washed out, but one was nonetheless about to run the 1,500m. "What I like about you guys," I said, "is that you look even more tired than I feel." I wasn't exaggerating.

I'm not convinced that we can solve this dilemma. Whenever some bright spark (usually an out-of-touch politician) suggests that we should have four, five or six terms in a year, I argue that it would just make things worse. Three ends of term in a year are bad enough - I'm not sure I could handle more.

No, I'm with Melly (on the subject of exhaustion, not back-alley fornication). In a strange, masochistic way, we teachers actually like the terminal madness. It's there, on the brink of collapse, that we achieve - or help our students to achieve - those great performances on stage, on the sports pitch, wherever.

At such times, I guess we do not teach as sharply as we did at the start of term, and I'm not convinced that the homework is as good. But, hey, that's all part of life's rich tapestry. Time management and immaculate organisation aren't the answer. Nor, necessarily, is getting everything done ahead of deadline. Sometimes it's simply about coping, achieving the miracle and, yes, surviving without enough sleep for the last week or two of term. We do it, so why shouldn't children learn the skill? And, as I say to my youngest colleagues, surviving without sleep is very good training for parenthood.

I'll stop now: I'm about to fall over. Have a great summer.

Dr Bernard Trafford is headteacher of the Royal Grammar School in Newcastle upon Tyne, England.

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