Platform: Teacher's plight before Christmas

25th December 1998 at 00:00
Shortly after the apples have been dooked and the witches have hung up their broomsticks, the build up to Christmas begins.

Early scheduling of a concert, fayre, boot sale, or dance may be responsible for this premature countdown.

November is often the time when dance rehearsals and carol singing practices waft through the corridors while wall displays start their transformation to festive glory. This, together with cards cheerfully announcing "Seasons Greetings," explains why children include Christmas as an additional season occurring between autumn and winter.

Amid the celebration and fun, Christmas can also be a difficult time for primary teachers who strive to communicate its messages. Schools that prepare early for Christmas can be uncomfortable places for pupils of other faiths.

This may be less true in schools that have a balanced or pre-dominant proportion of different faiths. With security of numbers they are likely to feel less awkward with their Christian peers. We, as teachers, have to project the inclusive spirit of Christmas, yet simultaneously consider these pupils' feelings by catering for their needs.

One pervasive feature of Christmas is the exchange of presents. Sometimes this extends to teachers. While I always love to receive presents, I don't like the thought of parents spending their money on me when I know that they are struggling to make ends meet.

There is also the rather delicate nature of opening up the presents in front of the children. I prefer to open them in private. This saves any embarrassment as special offers at the local shops often lead to children buying me the same thing.

Furthermore, over the years, I have received some weird and wonderful presents that to a child's eye must seem beautiful and thought to be greatly admired by my good self. These include a broken ornament, a box of mouldy chocolates by a make that I have never heard of, and a roll-on deodorant that was accompanied with the helpful comment, "Mum says that you'll find this useful."

My favourite present was given to me be an extrovert, enthusiastic, seven-year-old pupil. Every morning, after the first window of the Advent calendar was opened, this girl would come up to me and tell me that she was going to give me a present. I smiled and played it down. As the days went on it became a strong possibility that this present was a case of wishful thinking.

On the last day of term she came in as bright as ever, and watched the children give me their presents. At the end of the school day, when the class had left the room, she came up to me and proudly presented me with the gift.

It was wrapped, childlike, in worn, torn Christmas paper. She insisted that I make an exception and open her present there and then. On the first tear I recognized an orange sight that was all too familiar to me. I fought to suppress the giggles. My precious gift was a packet of Jacob's cream crackers!

Her reassuring comment, "Mum said it was okay," confirmed that she had received permission to take this from the kitchen.

After 20 years her remark, "I bet nobody got you this. I'm the only one, " still stands true. Although this wee girl was happy for me to receive a present, it was the giving part that gave her the greater personal pleasure.

This sentiment is difficult to project to pupils who excitedly but rather greedily focus on their anticipated Christmas booty. With precision that is often beyond the skills displayed in class, pupils recite the title of the software programme, model (and price) of the electronic toy or doll, and comprehensively describe their design features.

I never encourage this activity as it can be hurtful for pupils whose families cannot afford to buy them the gifts they would like. Some of these children have to be content with less glamorous presents - functional items of winter clothing, or a small token.

Shopping lists for Santa have to be carefully teacher-directed as disappointments are inevitable. The consumer ethos of Christmas encourages pupils to pressurise parents into buying them more. Children have a strong urge for one-upmanship. The "must have" of 1997, the Teletubby has been replaced by the equally unobtainable Furbey.

Finally, Christmas is also a time for giving to charity. Television programmes such as Blue Peter, Children in Need, Comic Relief are excellent in helping children understand the value of their contributions by explaining how their money, or recyclable commodity is being used to help others. Primary teachers do not always have the time to explain this in detail to pupils.

Although not crucial to the pupils' understanding of the concept of charity, other money collections can be confusing to young children. For example, last Christmas my class received a note home informing parents that Mrs McLean, our clerical assistant, was leaving and asked for contributions.

A few days later I received a note from an irate parent insisting that I check her daughter's bag for this money, as her daughter still had her money in her bag, but had claimed to have handed it in. When I asked this pupil about this, she replied, "I went up to Mrs McLean and gave her the 50p but she wouldn't take it!" My exact words, "Remember to bring in money for Mrs McLean" rang through my ears. A child who had definitely got the wrong giving message!

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