In the summer term I carried out a senior leader appraisal. I interviewed a number of this leader’s colleagues during the day, and one of them, a newly appointed business manager who hadn’t worked in a school before, asked me a question which made me thoughtful. He said: “Can you tell me whether this is normal? It seems that everyone here works themselves into the ground in term time. By the time the holidays arrive, they’re in a state of near-collapse. They rest and recover during the break, but then the new term starts and it begins all over again. Is this just what teachers and leaders in schools do?”
In my thirty years working in schools, and the nine years supporting schools and educators since then, I have known a handful of professionals who probably didn’t work hard enough. However, I have known a huge number of individuals who, I would say, risked working too hard, exhausting themselves in the process. Holidays are important: they give us the opportunity to refresh and re-energise so that when school resumes we have what it takes to do what we feel needs to be done. I was always able to ‘compartmentalise’ work. I did work hard and I was committed, but I knew I needed to look after myself and to find a sustainable balance if I were to do the job sufficiently well. I have written here about how important holidays were to me during my years working full-time, and the advice I would offer others about making the most of holidays. I have also written about safeguarding your wellbeing in school leadership, and about supporting those you lead to do the same.
However, the business manager’s question made me stop and reflect. Does the fact that we do have longer holidays, in which we can rest, recover from the term which has just gone and begin to prepare for the term ahead, mean that we may be driving ourselves unreasonably hard throughout the term? Is there actually a danger that some of us aren’t able to relax sufficiently in holiday periods because we are wound so tightly by the time they arrive? Do we need to rethink how we pace ourselves and prioritise our commitments during our working weeks in order to derive more benefit from holiday periods?
Two articles published recently in tes contributed to my reflections. In ‘Put your mind at rest this summer’, Zofia Niemtus explores the concept of ‘rest’, and the difficulty of ensuring that we are, truly, resting. She looks at the research into the subject, and the recommendations of author Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, who “believes the key to rest may be moving away from the idea of its being about “not work” time. Instead, we should weave rest into work periods to ensure both rest time and work time are maximised.” Pang concludes, “Rest is a skill; it’s something that we can actually learn to get better at…Rest is something that we can learn to better incorporate into our daily lives.”
The second tes article I thought was relevant was this one: ‘Are school holidays bad for teachers’ mental health?’, in which teacher Alex Waite discusses how difficult some teachers find it to relax and properly unwind in the summer break, which can consequently become quite stressful. The differences between the manic term we have just finished, the busyness of the term about to start and the relative emptiness of the summer break can mean that the process of adjustment is taxing. The lack of routine in the holiday can be something some staff find hard to adapt to and can lead to feelings of guilt and lack of purpose. In Alex’s view, shorter but more frequent holidays might enable us to focus on the idea of better spaced rest alluded to in the Niemtus piece.
So, as you start work again – a new term, a fresh academic year, might it be worth giving some thought to how you can pace yourself effectively so that when the next holiday arrives you are not exhausted? Might the holiday be more restful and energising if you weren’t so drained at the start of it? Can you build in rest breaks during the term – and if you are a head or a senior leader, is this something you can prioritise in order to ensure your colleagues work effectively, with the mental energy to do the best possible job they can? What do you think?
Incidentally, much as I loved my job, I always felt gloomy at the end of each long holiday when faced with the prospect of resuming work. Once I was back, I was fine – I actually found settling back into the routine quite therapeutic, and remembered how much I enjoyed what I did and the company of the staff and the students. But after several weeks of more sleep, more choice and freedom, going back to early starts and days regulated by bells didn’t initially appeal, and I reflected that if anyone had ever said, “Would you rather be at work tomorrow, or on holiday?” the answer would never have been in doubt! And yet I know I was a conscientious and committed teacher and leader. Was it because I never mastered the concept of ‘spaced rest’, I wonder?
Thanks for reading.
Photo credit: Sun, sea and sangria – John Berry