It's pretty hard for teachers to write something personal to children - above and beyond what they would normally put in an exercise book. A fondness for comment banks and the numbers and letters of key-stage levels largely prevent teachers from ever writing anything personal.
And the passing of the handwritten report (in the state sector at least) means that teachers can no longer simultaneously take up the pens of truth and diplomacy and craft those sentences between whose gentle lines great sermons could be read. If you want to write personal comments to children, you have to wait until Christmas.
We are told not to send Christmas cards to colleagues - give a donation to the school charity and sign the card in the staffroom; and quite right, too. Yet writing a personal Christmas card to everyone in my tutor group is perhaps one of the last ways in which I can demonstrate to my star slacker that I see in him something more than a D that needs to be turned into a C. Don't be insincere: you'll never get away with that. But if you give each child just a few minutes of contemplation, you will find you won't need to be.
The sort of things that I have penned sound ridiculous when repeated: a brightly coloured scarf that cheered the winter gloom; a tiny but wonderful act of kindness, presumed by the perpetrator to have gone unseen, but now immortalised six months later; a thank-you for a knowing smile; the whimsical use of a pet's name; a telling-off rehearsed. Any teacher will understand when I say that you had to know those for whom these trifles were intended.
One thing I did observe, though, was that they were always read, often more than once, and often by more than one person. Children are highly responsive to anything from their teacher that indicates more is remembered about them than just their key stage level and curriculum target.
No less responsive are many of their parents. One was moved to tears by a message in a card to her very quiet and beautifully modest daughter. What sensible parents want more than anything from teachers is to know that those teachers a) know who their children are, and b) appreciate the subtleties - good and bad - of their children's characters.
Surely one pleasant thing can be said about even the most obstreperous Jonny Scrotum.
Even if you can't look back to a single positive instance, there is goodwill in admitting as much: "Jonny, I don't think either of us could view our past year together with anything approaching genuine fondness, but nothing lasts forever. Have a good Christmas, Mr Scrotum, and I'll see you next year."
Why give yourself another job to do this Christmas? You don't have to, and there is no Ofsted-derived mandate on card-writing. Don't miss this once-a-year opportunity to send home a personal, written message. It will probably be the only card they receive this year with more writing in it than a couple of names sandwiched between a "to" and a "from".
James Andrews teaches geography in a secondary school in Cornwall and is author of The Bitter Root: Educating the Wayward Scholar.