Nowhere I'd rather be

22nd December 2006 at 00:00
Some teachers will be working while you're sitting in your dressing gown this Christmas morning. But they're not complaining, reports Nick Morrison

On Christmas morning, Tim Cannell will wake up the boys at his West Sussex school dressed as Father Christmas and help them open their presents. After breakfast, he will travel to church and then come back for a glass of mulled wine. It is only then, at about 1pm, when the last boy has been collected by his parents, that Tim's Christmas holiday can begin.

While many teachers will relish the break at the end of the long autumn term, for Tim it's one of the busiest times of the year at school. But it's also one of the most magical for him.

"It's a lovely time. You suddenly get down to a handful of children and it is completely different, a special time," he says. Tim is head of the Prebendal School, a boarding and day school in Chichester, linked to the neighbouring cathedral. During normal term time, its corridors echo to the sound of 235 children.

But after spending the weekend after the end of term at home, the 14 boys who make up the cathedral choir return to school to prepare for what is, for them, a very hectic period.

Although the boys spend much of their time in the cathedral, a skeleton staff - Tim, two teachers and three matrons - remain in school to look after them between rehearsals and services. But far from feeling he is missing out on the holiday, Tim relishes the atmosphere which envelops the school.

"We tend to decrease the areas of school we use and really decorate them,"

he says. "There is a mixing of staff and children and it is on a different level. It is like having an extended family.

"We do get time with our own families when the boys are rehearsing, but it is not onerous at all. We can't go away before Christmas, or for Christmas itself, but that's the only drawback."

Staff take the children - aged nine to 13 - bowling and swimming, and staff and pupils combine in snooker and table tennis competitions. The school also hosts Christmas meals for everyone involved with the choir, and a party where the boys play the school game, details of which are a closely guarded secret.

"They love having that special time together," Tim says. "The services are popular and often the cathedral is packed. The boys love performing and when you have 1,000 people in the cathedral that is such a big thing."

Julian Ridler has also given up on the idea of a full Christmas holiday, but for him it will be in a different environment. This year will be his 10th helping at a shelter run by Crisis, the homelessness charity.

"It started when I was working in London and I was looking for something to do over the Christmas holiday as an alternative to a traditional Christmas," he says. "A friend had worked for Crisis for a year, so I thought I would go along and see what it was like."

Julian, who teaches English as a foreign language in the north of England, is now an assistant shift leader, helping ensure the safe management of shelters which take in hundreds of homeless people over the Christmas period.

His duties range from preparing and serving food, helping with the cleaning, washing up, and shampooing and cutting hair. This will be Crisis's 35th Crisis Open Christmas, with shelters open from December 23 to 30. This year there is an emphasis on education.

"It is about involving guests in activities, from arts and crafts to literacy and numeracy, and there are a lot of guests for whom English is not their first language.

"When I started nine years ago, the emphasis was on keeping people busy, but now it is much more about learning and skills, encouraging them to get themselves qualifications which could help them into employment," Julian says.

He has generally volunteered for the main day shift, coming in at 2pm and rarely leaving before midnight. This year will be no different.

"Christmas Day is the high point for a lot of our guests and for a lot of the volunteers as well," Julian says. "For the past few years I've spent Christmas with more than 1,000 people.

"It's an alternative celebration. And an extremely rewarding one. For a lot of the guests, it is the only time when they will have someone's undivided attention, and they are not seen as pariahs. You see them gain in confidence and they feel more secure," he adds.

"But while it may be Christmas Day, the toilets still need cleaning and the floors still need to be swept. This has become my Christmas now. I can spend time with my family at other times of the year."

Far from putting her feet up over Christmas, Caroline Thompson will be on the beat as a special constable. She is in her first year as a PE teacher at Blurton High in Stoke, and had originally wanted to join the police, with teaching as a back-up. But when she started her PGCE year her priorities switched. "I started getting into teaching and really enjoyed it," she says.

Caroline was reluctant to give up on policing altogether and became a special constable just over three years ago, while still at college. "It is the best of both worlds. I get to do my teaching and my police work," she adds. As a special, she can be flexible over the shifts she works, although she tends to put in a full Friday night, from 6pm to 3am. The Christmas holiday will be a busy period.

Caroline says: "Our priority is dealing with special events, such as concerts, but they don't happen every weekend so we go out with the incident management unit and do the same jobs officers do, such as dealing with nuisance youths," she says.

Her beat centres around Cheadle, so she tends not to come across the children she teaches. While there is little crossover of people, when it comes to the abilities and approaches required, it's a different matter.

"If you go to a domestic incident and someone is shouting and getting upset, rather than shout back at them you have to talk them down, and that is a skill I've found useful in school.

"I've also seen some officers shout at kids and it has backfired. At school you learn that if you talk to them like a normal human being they respond better. Certain aspects of both jobs are the same, but at the same time they are different," she says.

Caroline also sees an affinity between teachers and police officers, with the staffroom not so different from the station canteen. "We are similar.

We are outgoing people you can have a laugh with and I think that is why I found the transition quite easy," she says.

Back at the Prebendal School, after the Christmas service Tim Cannell will go home for a bottle of champagne, and then look forward to his Christmas dinner in the evening. With his own children now teenagers, and too old to get excited, there are advantages to spending Christmas at school. "When we get home at lunchtime, our family is still surfacing," he says, "I still get the magic of Christmas with the younger children"

Teacher Support Network: 08000 562 561 (England); 08000 855 088 (Wales)


It may be the holidays, but many teachers' thoughts are never far from the classroom. And for some, this can mean anxiety and stress.

Calls to the Teacher Support Network over the Christmas holiday have followed similar lines since its launch seven years ago, according to Tom Lewis, the service's professional development manager, who is a counsellor and former teacher.

While the period between the end of term and Boxing Day is relatively quiet, as the new term approaches the number of calls increase.

"It is almost as if that first week is like a buffer, when teachers can become whole people again, rather than channelling all their energy into being teachers," he says.

"It's when it comes to the second week of the Christmas holidays that teachers realise whatever issues they might have are still there and they have to find a way forward."

Tom says the pattern of calls during the Christmas holidays differs from that over the Easter and summer breaks. "Some teachers see things more clearly when they have had a break, Christmas is a time for families and a time for reflection, and it also comes at the end of the longest term.

"For some, that means they are looking at how they can put a bit of balance in their lives, and looking at how they can do the best for the children they are teaching. The new year is about starting afresh, and even if it's not conscious, they may still be thinking that way."

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