No uncertain terms

19th July 2013 at 01:00
Think of them like sporting rounds and it's no wonder we want to hear the bell ring

When I was a young teacher, and was developing my passion for jazz, I read George Melly's colourful autobiography, Owning Up. It's 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 band groupie in the alley and hysterical sexual ecstasy on 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've just held our staff summer dinner and disco. It was tinged with the kind of frenzy Melly describes: we partied furiously, when the sensible thing in terms of end-of-term survival would have been an early night in.

Something about school life dictates that, although it would be logical to spread major events evenly across the term, we don't. For that big concert, musical, sports day and leavers' prom, all the preparation requires a whole-term build-up. So we conclude with a frenzied week after which we all collapse, too knackered to really appreciate the long holidays. Spare a thought for our students: they suffer, too. Schools invariably hit the peak of rehearsals when sporty kids are playing competition finals: simultaneously they're sitting exams.

At sports day I chatted to some Year 10s who, the night before, had performed not one but four Moliere farces. They looked utterly washed out: one was nonetheless about to run the 1,500m. "What I like about you guys," I said, "is that you look even tireder than I feel." I wasn't kidding.

I'm not convinced we can solve this dilemma. Whenever someone suggests we should have four, five or six terms in a year, I argue 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, driven way, we teachers actually like that terminal madness. It's there, on the brink of collapse, that we achieve (or help our students achieve) those great performances - on stage, on the sports pitch, wherever.

At such times I guess we're not teaching as sharply as we did at the start of term, and I'm not convinced the homework's as good. But that's all part of life's rich tapestry. Time-management and immaculate organisation isn't the answer. Nor, necessarily, is getting everything done ahead of deadlines. Some of it's about coping, achieving the miracle and surviving. We do it: why shouldn't children learn the skill? Plus, surviving without sleep is very good training for parenthood, too.

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

Dr Bernard Trafford is head of the Royal Grammar School in Newcastle upon Tyne.

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