So long, farewell, auf Wiedersehen, adieu

25th July 2014 at 01:00
Primary teachers are a significant force in their pupils' lives - but then the summer term comes and it's time to say goodbye

I've never been great with goodbyes. Whether I am bidding farewell to a friend heading for a far-flung destination, a favourite television show or even my childhood pet Posey the gerbil, I understand that change and moving on are important parts of life. But that doesn't mean I am all that keen on them.

It may seem odd, then, that I have ended up as a primary school teacher, a profession in which 32 annual goodbyes are almost as certain as death and taxes. In fact, for me this time of year is not just about stuffy classrooms, endless games of rounders and teachers with Sats-based anxiety weeping in cupboards; it also engenders a certain philosophical wistfulness as I bid farewell to the small souls whose welfare has been my responsibility for the past year (at least during the hours of 9am until 3pm during term time).

After all, it's a rare job that every summer involves a complete changeover of the people you spend most of your working life with. And the truth is, after a year of pep talks, conflict resolution, shared experiences and school trips, it's hard not to become fond of even the most challenging class.

The spiel you give the children about working as part of a team becomes true as you grow used to each other's quirks and routines. My terrible drawing skills on the whiteboard were a running class joke one year after a particularly memorable rendering of an elephant, which looked, as one child rather eloquently put it, "like a cross between a basset hound and a hippo". Even the pupil who once pushed an entire packet of Blu-Tack up his nose starts to take on a certain fuzzy glow when you think about how far he has come and how much he has matured. (It's strictly Blu-Tack in the ears these days.)

Of course, if you teach in the last year of primary there's even more significance to the July farewell, as the children are moving on not only from you but from the school - and the last real phase of their childhood, too. I've seen three classes through their final leavers' assembly now, "shining morning faces" full of promise as they move on to pastures new. And although a few will return to visit, the truth is that some of those children you have nagged and joked with and comforted and told off you will probably never see again.

It is an odd thing to be briefly entangled with these young lives and to see them at such a significant point in their development and then to bid them farewell. It's a bit like reading the first chapters of 30 different novels and never getting to find out how they turn out. Will Jemima become a famous writer? Will Jerry play in the Premier League? Will Donald ever get over his morbid fear of banana skins?

Time marches on

Even when it's a pretty standard, business-as-usual summer in your own life, seeing a fork in the road for the children you teach can't help but give you a feeling of significance by osmosis. The last couple of weeks of term often take on an undertone of solemnity, somewhere beneath the shirt-signings and parties and squealing. When you see children grow up before your very eyes, you realise the poets were right about carpe diem and gathering rosebuds while ye may. Time is a visible, palpable thing when you spend the summer term in a primary school. And it marches on, dressed in school uniform grown too tight.

In my experience, the final day usually means tears. If you haven't heard a year group's worth of 10- and 11-year-olds wailing in unison, then you have no right to use the word "cacophony" in any other context. But there's something rather touching about it, too, because even children who have spent the year pouting their way through maths, scowling through literacy and prowling the corridors like caged beasts cling to the safe and familiar sights and sounds of their old school. Perhaps it's because they intuit what seems obvious to their teachers: that life is about to change, and that very few children manage Peter Pan's trick.

But if that final day of the summer term we've all just experienced is the merest hint of things to come for the children, as an adult it's more of a slap in the face. Every year we get older, but the children we teach don't. In fact, as wave after wave of pupils come and go, you could be forgiven for thinking the children don't change much at all. There's always the sweet, quiet one whose future at secondary school you worry about; there are the macho little boys with the swagger that comes from being big fish in a small pond; the hard workers, keen to stretch their knowledge beyond the limits of the primary curriculum; the artists; the jokers; the budding superstars. They are all unique, of course, but all alike too, caught in a universal moment of growing up.

I, however, have changed irrevocably since I sent my first bunch on their merry way. Then I was barely an adult myself, still young enough that being asked for ID in the supermarket was more of a hassle than a thrill, still at home, still trying to find my way through the maze of my twenties.

This year, I'm so grown up I have even got married. "Miss Townshend" has been replaced with the infinitely more mature "Mrs Bradford". I wonder how many more classes I'll say goodbye to under my new name.

Kate Townshend is a teacher and freelance journalist based in Cheltenham

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