'Tis the season to despair

Things are falling apart again. My life feels like one of those 1970s disaster movies where the ship flips over or the building explodes, and the only thing standing between you and certain death is Gene Hackman in a dog collar and a hysterical middle-aged woman who turns out to be a former Olympic breast-stroke swimmer with a knack for marine engineering. The only problem with this is that I am the hysterical middle-aged woman and I can't manage a length in the public baths without getting my hair wet and running for a towel.

This term is a nightmare. To begin with, my HoD wound up last week's departmental meeting by announcing the official start of the Secret Santa season. Apparently, the top secret slips containing our partners' names are already in our trays. Now, this wouldn't be a problem if we worked in Educating Essex's Passmores Academy, where a Fray Bentos pie wrapped in turkey foil holds the same festive panache as a brand new iPad 2, but unfortunately in my school we set much higher gift standards. So much so that I'm going to have to spend every Saturday from now until the end of term fighting the crowds in John Lewis in a quest for upmarket toiletries and costly designer wrapping paper. If last year is anything to go, I'll end up buying a posh lipstick, an overpriced gift bag and a tube of arty recycled papyrus, rolled between the thighs of Egyptian virgins. And even then I'll have to nip back in on Sunday to pick up the matching bows.

And to make matters worse, we're drowning in work. Four of our seven year groups are sitting public exams in January and the responsibility is weighing us down. The fact that three of the exams are on new specifications doesn't help; I've been looking at past papers, and since the rubric seems to be written entirely in Esperanto I'm not holding my breath for the kids' results. Given an Enigma machine, or a few more free periods, we might have cracked the success code, but as it is the students will just have to muddle through.

It strikes me that entering kids for these early exams is like putting your horses in for the Grand National: it's a high-risk strategy that produces unexpected casualties. In subsequent race meetings we might whip a few long shots into the winners' enclosure, but with so many kids under starter's orders in January, it's going to be hard to avoid the pile up at Becher's Brook.

One reason we are struggling to cope is that there isn't enough time to prepare students properly. We recognise that one of the key issues influencing their exam performance is effective Assessment for Learning - but for every set of mock exams we manage to mark at home, there's another set lying around ignored and unmarked in school.

Of course, we can try to botch this up with a bit of guided peer marking, but with exams so close the kids want the real McCoy. I am also dreading making the difficult call on who gets the final places in the last-minute revision lifeboat: my Year 10s, whose innocence and inexperience pulls rank, or my older Year 13s desperate for their university grades.

Sadly, all this extra work means I'm running out of time for my own festive plans. So unless I can get hold of BlackBerry's new Traversing-Wormholes-in-a-Tardis app, my own kids will spend their Christmas Day arguing over a second hand copy of The Poseidon Adventure while I catch up with my marking.

Anne Thrope (Ms) is a secondary teacher in the north of England.

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