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School’s out: marking the last day

Amidst all the upheavals caused by the pandemic, one that was particularly significant was the loss of the rituals to mark the last day of school. I remember the mood in my A level class the day after the news broke that exams had been cancelled and we were about to go into lockdown. Some students were tearful, others numb. ‘We won’t be able to have our end-of-year party!’ one exclaimed. In the end, we improvised with a Spotify playlist and a packet of biscuits, and somewhere on the internet there’s probably still a video of my Year Thirteens bopping along defiantly to I Will Survive.

Rites of passage matter. Students spend a long time with us – up to seven years – and that’s a huge chunk of their lives. Some will create their own ways of marking the occasion: schoolbooks and uniforms will be burned in a huge cathartic bonfire and they’ll take off into the future, never to look back. But for others, feelings will be more mixed. So how can we, as teachers, help them through this transition?

  • Offer a range of opportunities. Some students will look forward to big, high-stakes events like proms, with all the glitz of dressing up and hiring a limo. Others will appreciate smaller goodbyes, marking the last lesson in a particular subject or the last form period. 
  • Do something creative. Pre-pandemic, I used to get my A level students to decorate gingerbread people for each other. We’d pull names out of a hat, sit round a table with sprinkles and tubes of icing, and chat while they made elaborate biscuit creations. Last year, we drew pictures instead. It was a lovely chance for people to swap memories and talk about what they’d enjoyed about the past two years. 
  • Make sure there are quiet spaces. The end of school and the changes in routine can be overwhelming for some students. There can also be lots of pressure to do what everyone else is doing. Maybe you don’t want your shirt signed. Maybe doing a conga down the corridor isn’t your thing. That’s absolutely fine.
  • Be prepared for tears. School represents a welter of experiences and emotions. There’ll be memories of difficult times, hard lessons, friendships and rivalries. There’ll also be a sense of loss – for some students, the first big loss they’ve ever experienced. Keep your box of tissues handy. 
  • Put boundaries in place. There will inevitably be pranks, but you don’t want the chaos of a full-scale muck-up day. Fancy dress? Fine. Stink bombs and supersoakers? Definite no. Keep an ear to the ground and make sure you’re aware of any plans.
  • Think about support. Students who’ve needed help during their school years – someone checking in to make sure they’re okay, a trusted adult to whom they can turn – can feel particularly vulnerable when school ends. How will they manage once this scaffolding is no longer there? It’s worth preparing them for this. Can they still contact someone at school if they need to? How do they do this, and what procedures do you need to put in place to make sure this contact is safe for all concerned?

But most importantly:

  • Make sure you do something. One school I worked at had nothing to mark the final day of school. There was a prom once the exams had finished, but the last day before study leave just fizzled out. You don’t necessarily want to end with a bang, but you don’t want a whimper either. Remember that rites of passage are an important part of just about every society on earth, and give students and staff the chance to say their goodbyes.

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