Education Column: Tears, fluffed lines and mishaps part of the school nativity’s haphazard joy

A school nativity in full swing as Mary and Joseph look for room at the inn
A school nativity in full swing as Mary and Joseph look for room at the inn

In a Sheffield primary school this week, parents and teachers looked on with a mixture of pride, expectation, hope and fear as the traditional nativity started.

Performed at schools across the city, the Christmas nativity is a wonderful community event that gives children a spot in the limelight and gets parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and friends of the young stars into school to celebrate their achievements.

The teachers, of course, need praise for their patient planning. The typical nativity may look as though it was thrown together the day before, but weeks of work has gone into it. Many classes will have started singing Away in a Manger and Little Donkey after returning from the October half term holiday.

The joy of the school nativity is its haphazard nature. Something is bound to go wrong. In the one I watched this week, things were going well until about halfway through. Mary and Joseph had given the odd wave to their parents as they made their way to Bethlehem. The wise men were sitting patiently for their cue, all but one managing to ignore parents thrusting iPhones in their direction. And, during the songs, the first few words of each line were a little subdued until all the lyrics were remembered and boisterous singing resumed. All to be expected in the run-up to the virgin birth.

But then one of the angels, complete with golden wings, started signalling frantically to the audience. Was she waving? No, it appeared not. Mum started signalling back, just as frantically, but by then it was too late. This fallen angel was sitting in a puddle of her own making. A teacher was on hand to help, ushering our angel out of the room and abandoning her own post as an assistant to the inn keeper. Five minutes later, the angel reappeared as a shepherd. She was much happier. And dryer.

Such little dramas are the bread and butter of school nativities as our five, six and seven-year-olds give it their all. Sure, there were tears. Yes, there were fluffed lines. And not everyone went to the toilet when they were asked to. But parents got memories and pictures that are priceless. Long may these wonderfully chaotic performances continue!

Stressful and rewarding. That’s what most primary teachers will tell you about putting on a nativity.

A few weeks ago, in this column, I mentioned how teachers didn’t get thanked often enough. The exception to this is primary school teachers at Christmas. A few days after the nativity has its final run out, the Christmas presents start arriving.

The average primary school teacher is inundated with bubble bath, wine, ale and chocolates at this time of year. At the posh end of town, there might even be a bit of competition among parents to give the best gifts; I’ve heard of theatre tickets and bottles of whisky being dealt out. That’s a bit too much, of course, but even a 99p bottle of shower gel has colleagues from secondary school looking on with an envious eye!

You see, sometime between the end of Year 6 and before the Christmas lights get switched on in Year 7, it suddenly becomes uncool to buy teachers a present. In junior school, the vast majority of the class will give a Christmas offering to their teacher. But at secondary school, where a teacher will encounter hundreds of students, most will go home empty-handed.

I knew a teacher who once had a Terry’s Chocolate Orange given to him. It was a good haul. The keen parents are missing a trick, of course. Whereas a £1.50 bottle of real ale might have blended in among 30 other presents a year ago, this simple offering in Year 7 will stand out like a shining beacon and win some real kudos.

And, make no mistake, there isn’t a teacher in the city who doesn’t deserve a pint of local beer at the end of this difficult term. Kids are tired as well and in need of a rest, although it’ll be pop and crisps for them instead.

Two weeks of hotly-anticipated holiday looms, and I would like to wish all Sheffield teachers and students a very merry Christmas. Primary school teachers will enjoy their cache of bubble bath and wine. And secondary teachers will just have to buy their own. But go on, you deserve it!

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