With a two-month-old baby at home, it’s become a fairly common topic of conversation on the playground of a morning for parents to ask me if I’m feeling tired. Of course, the answer is yes, but not only because of the trials of new parenthood. There’s a small part of me that wants to reply: “It’s December – we’re all on our last legs here!”
But the sympathy would, no doubt, be short. School at Christmastime must be a joyous place to work, everyone – perhaps rightly – presumes. What could you possibly have to complain about? Tell that to the schools being visited by Ofsted this week, as they try to coordinate rehearsals, preparations for parties, school fairs and celebratory assemblies without appearing to take their eyes off the educational ball.
It’s made all the worse by the differences between teaching and the "real world". Everybody finds the grey and wet weather this year a drag. Work in an office and you’ll probably find it a bit disappointing not to be able to get out for a lunch in the park like you did all summer, but that’s nothing like the chaos of having your classroom overrun by cooped-up juniors desperately trying to make the tallest Jenga tower on the classroom tables and arguing over Frustration in the corner.
Then there are the hours. As the gloomy nights draw in, everyone starts to think about Christmas shopping. Shops open late to allow everyone to get to race around town after work and be done with time to spare. Except staff at school can’t take advantage of the late-night shopping – they’re too busy with the late-night nativity play or the late-night Christmas fair.
And that’s not where the evening differences end. For, despite all the times we’re told to emulate the private sector, you can guarantee that the Department for Education doesn’t intend us to celebrate Christmas like the neighbouring firm of solicitors. While those with partners who work in other industries are dragged along to all-expenses-paid nights out in London, or Christmas parties at posh hotels, you’re more likely to find school staff paying for themselves at the local chain pub.
They won’t be getting too drunk, though. Even if you manage to get a party on a Friday night, chances are the weekend won’t be spent nursing a monster hangover. Not when there’s next term’s planning to get underway. If you really want to spend the whole Christmas holiday with your family, then every weekend in December is a prime opportunity to get prepared for January’s lessons.
All jobs have deadlines – but December seems to be filled with them in schools. Nativity rehearsals compete with the choir and the Christmas fair for hall space; the school pianist hammers out melodies of Christmas carols on an almost endless loop, as performances become a central part of the calendar; and someone on the SLT thought it would be a good idea to start collecting data at this time of year!
There’s no doubt that we’ll all be ready to drop by the time the holiday rolls around – it’s always the same. For all the talk of winding down, only those who work with children know that December is largely a case of them getting increasingly wound up. The excitement and anticipation is just something else to contend with. The end of the autumn term is inevitably chaotic and exhausted.
But then, it could be worse. There are plenty of highlights. And if we weren’t doing all this, we’d have to have boring office jobs the rest of the year round, too.
Michael Tidd is headteacher at Medmerry Primary School in West Sussex. He tweets @MichaelT1979