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Christmas: The Best of Times, The Worst of Times

We are well into the run up to Christmas in all our schools. I have been thinking about this time of year from a school leadership point of view. This can be very much a best of times, worst of times,  for schools, their staff and the leaders. So let us consider the benefits and some of the possible pitfalls.

This period should definitely be the best of times for our learners, especially if like me you work in primary education. They get more and more excited as we head towards the holidays and the big day itself. It can, and should, be the best of times for them in school as well. Not because, as some seem to think, we are all winding down, with the pupils spending all of their time watching films, playing games, colouring Santas and having parties. Admittedly some of this might happen , but the reality is that this is a very busy period for pupils and teachers alike. This time of year is actually one of the busiest times in schools, especially primaries. We can have Christmas shows or performances, Christmas concerts and Nativities, Christmas fairs and Christmas Services to organise, plan, rehearse and deliver in a jam-packed few weeks of relentless activity. All such activities place demands on pupils and staff in our schools. They give our pupils the chance to shine and help us showcase the talents they possess and which we have been working hard to develop in them. They get the chance to shine and to employ so many of the skills and attitudes they have been developing across the full curriculum, and beyond.

Christmas Fairs give our learners opportunities to be creative and to plan and develop enterprise skills and behaviours. They will be utilising maths learning in a real-life context as they design and make products, they do cost and profit analysis, they begin to further understand marketing and use a variety of language skills to organise and promote the event. They will engage with a range of individuals to ensure the success of the event and will consider how to use profits to benefit the school and others. We are very much developing in them the four capacities of curriculum for excellence through these events. They are becoming more confident individuals, effective
contributors, successful learners and responsible citizens. Importantly, we are doing this in a meaningful way and a real-life context.

And so it is with our Christmas concerts. Pupils get to utilise skills and attitudes developed across the curriculum and their learning experiences to put on a performance for parents and others. We involve all our pupils and give further opportunities for some to shine who might otherwise not stand out or take centre stage in the classroom. (Forgive the pun!) It is one of my joys in these performances to see those reticent and quiet individuals from the classroom begin to blossom when they have the opportunity to be a 'sound engineer', 'lighting technician' or 'stage hand.' Everyone can make a contribution and be proud of the result.

This year we are asking our senior pupils (P7s) to plan and organise our Christmas Service in the local church, as we recognise the valuable learning they get from such experiences and responsibility.  It is also a way to give different pupils the chance to lead a contribution to the life of the school and the local community. They also help plan and organise their Christmas party, as we'll as helping with the parties of the younger pupils in the school.

All such activities are crucial in constructing the school 'community' culture and ethos. They bring it to life and make it real for everyone. They are key to building and sustaining relationships with parents and the wider community in which the school sits. They showcase the school and help maintain and develop the school's reputation and standing. They bring everyone together for a common purpose and provide many different contextualised learning opportunities for all our  learners , that is why they should be the best of times.

However, they are very demanding on staff and can only work and be effective with the co-operation, commitment and collaboration of all those staff. Which is why they can be the worst of times too. By the time the holidays do come around, staff can be exhausted by all of the events taking place, the extra hours and the demands of being 'on show' for so long. As well as the demands they place upon themselves to make sure everything goes well for the school and the pupils. This can be the time of year when tempers are more frayed and impatience with each other comes to the surface, as people become more tired and stress levels rise. School leaders need to be aware of this, anticipate and prepare for it. We need to ensure we are being reasonable in our expectations of our staff, and ensure we do not place unrealistic demands on their shoulders. We need to spread the load and ensure any extra workload is not falling on a few shoulders. This is a time of year where you really do need to be out of your office and visible. You need to be amongst the staff and pupils so that you are able to measure the emotional temperature and well-being of everyone.

In my experience, staff can be their own worst enemies and will often take on, or try to do, too much as they strive to provide the very best experiences they can for their learners. They are often their own harshest critics as they want everything to be perfect. Leaders need to ensure that they understand that this is not your expectation and that they keep a realistic perspective on what they are doing. We need to watch for those who are over-stretching themselves to the detriment of their own health and well-being. We sometimes have to step in and protect people from themselves and this is an important supportive role for school leaders. The poorest leaders just stand by and watch as committed individuals place unrealistic demands on themselves. The best step in and stop this from happening.

You should keep your expectations reasonable and be clear about how you are going to support staff, as well as giving them the space and time to deliver these experiences for the pupils. I usually start December with a demand that we all look out for each other at this very busy time of the year. I remind them to keep everything in perspective, count to ten and to keep smiling. If staff are stressed and short with each other, I can guarantee that will transmit itself to the pupils. Then no-one enjoys what should be a joyous time.

If, as a school leader, you get the levels of support right, and you get the atmosphere right, then this is a fantastic time in schools, which give our pupils and staff experiences and memories they will carry for life. Get it wrong and it becomes a nightmare that everyone wants to get over and then forget. I want the best of times, not the worst!

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