Thursday, 30 December 2010

Merry Christmas Johnny Scrotum
It’s pretty hard for teachers to write something personal to children these days – above and beyond what they would normally write 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 approaching personal.  Personal is dangerous and needs to be stamped out.  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.  No, if you want to write personal comments to children these days you have to do it in secret; you have to wait until Christmas. 
We’re 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.  But it’s different when talking about sending a card to everyone in the tutor group.  Teaching in the wider sense is all about building relationships, and 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 his rich humanity something more than a D which needs to be made into a C. And as it’s Christmas I’m sure I can find something pleasant to say, no matter how insignificant.  Don’t be insincere, though, you’ll never get away with that.  But if you give each child just a few minutes of contemplation, taking in all aspects of their rich and varied personality, you’ll find you won’t have to be.
So what kind of thing might the teacher write in these cards?  I try to remember the sort of things that I have penned but I find they 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 dear pet’s name; a telling-off rehearsed, to which time has lent a new and humorous aspect.   Any teacher worth the name will understand me when I say that you had to know those for whom these trifles were intended.   They were subtle and carefully pitched to fit a moment and a person, their simple magic does not survive the brutal, printed letter.
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; for it is a fortunate fact that most parents will read their children’s Christmas cards – even though it may be many months later, when the school bags are cleaned out.  One parent 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 – both good and bad – of their children’s characters.
Are you still struggling for something pleasant to say?  Surely one pleasant thing can be said about even the most obstreperous child, providing you start looking for it early enough.   Don’t leave the writing of cards too late as you’ll need plenty of time to come up with something pleasant to say about Jonny Scrotum - better start in September.  Remember, the teacher is servant to the child, and duty bound to be gracious.
What!  Still struggling?  Even if you can’t look back to a single positive instance, not one amusing exchange, not one noteworthy trait, there is goodwill even in admitting this 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.’  You can wish him a good Christmas, can’t you?  It would be a pretty sorry affair if you could not even do that, becauses you will see him next year.
The environmental reasons for not sending Christmas cards are well rehearsed, but perhaps there is a kind of card that really is worth sending this year.  Who knows, your Christmas message might just contain some tiny jewel that nestles deep into the soul of a child – it might just make a difference in the year to come.
Why give yourself another job to do this Christmas?  You don’t have to, and there is no Ofsted derived mandate telling you to, which is possibly why you might find yourself wanting to.  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 just a couple of names sandwiched between a ‘to’ and a ‘from’. 

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