Shock, horror and another happy day at the chalkface

15th January 2010 at 00:00

These are the dark months of winter. They creep into your soul. Daylight passes you by and you become locked into an endless round of parents' evenings. You write reports; you squeeze the last drops of coursework from a reluctant Year 11. Memories of the holidays slip further into the past and you wish fervently for snow. Everyone is grumpy.

But it doesn't help our state of mind if we keep moaning to each other all the time. We can lock ourselves into a downward spiral and screw ourselves into the ground. And no one likes going back to work in January. It is normal. It is not only teachers who feel like this. Everyone has sold their freedom in exchange for a salary. But there is plenty for us to enjoy in our job. See it through someone else's eyes.

Sarah has never worked in a school before and recently started work in the office. She loves it. She has worked elsewhere but being in a school is so completely different. They are, after all, complex and unpredictable places.

The idea of a routine in a school is an impossible concept. Parents, children, teachers - all sweep through the office, leaving chaos in their wake. Some of the things that we deal with she has never come across before - it makes you stop and think when you are reminded that there are people for whom such things are not normal, because this is our world. Most of us in school become unshockable. Drugs and teenage sex are part of the landscape we inhabit. Dirty children, smelly parents? Welcome to my world. But others are astonished.

For the first time in her life, Sarah has met the irrationality of aggression. She has met children who are so neglected that you want to cry. Children with hangovers. Kids with parents who are regular drug users. Can a job in an insurance office ever prepare you for watching blood drip on to your carpet from a snotty nose? Or for the child who wanders into the office and throws up in your bin? And then there are those complex family arrangements that no one can untangle. Answer the phone and you might find yourself operating as some kind of counsellor.

One of our parents, Darren, and his dad were once both involved with the same woman - Darren's wife. This was all set out very carefully to Sarah by Darren, a man whom she had never previously met. He explained, very helpfully, that the resulting uncertainty over his paternity is the reason why Sean had been truanting. Of course, Sean must never know that technically he could be his own uncle. Sarah agreed never to inform him of this. Sean's father - or possibly his brother - thanked her profusely. Clearly, her position in the school office confers wisdom upon her that she never knew she had.

Because schools are different. Staff readily give up their own time to share in the community that a school becomes. Now Sarah helps out at the school play and at the fete. It is what the job does to you. It draws you in. It becomes a part of your life, warts and all.

You can run away from this reality. You can say that it is not for you. And who could blame you? Why should you confront these things? But if you can accommodate them, then a whole world opens up before you and your life will never be the same. Working in schools changes you and brings unexpected riches. It is a job that is for the most part based upon positive and genuine human relationships, and no amount of legislative madness can change that.

The next batch of recruiting ads we will see will be sickly and twee, but even they can't hide the essential elements of the job - that you have no clue what will happen next and that at some point you will laugh at a story you will be desperate to repeat. Never forget that schools are places of enormous laughter. That is why we all stay working there. They can be such fun. When you can't see the fun, then you reflect for a moment on a world of unexpected pleasures.

So it is January, and very soon we will start looking forward. With coursework completed, we prepare for exams and proms and holidays. Soon Groundhog Day is coming and the treadmill rattles on, your life mapped out on to an inflexible calendar. We will assess our progress and, like eager penitents, we will embrace self-review and punish ourselves, for we will have sinned and our targets will again remain unmet.

And yet Sarah still answers the phone. Again it is her new best friend, Darren. He is sorry that Sean is late for school. Darren got drunk last night and his false teeth fell out. They were eaten by the dog. "I can't go anywhere without my teeth. But don't worry, I've got them back and when I've washed them, I'll drop Sean off at school."

*All names have been changed

Geoff Brookes, Deputy head, Cefn Hengoed School, Swansea.

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