Teachers get too many holidays. How many times have I heard that one? I don’t even care to count. Worse, I’ve heard it from people who are a part of my life when complaining about having to sort out what to do with their children on pupil free days. The ire these days cause, you’d think we were sitting by the hotel pool sipping cocktails, laughing about how we’ve tricked everyone into giving us another day off. Or the other argument I’ve heard, “Can’t you do your job properly during the term?” I don’t want to start ‘that’ argument, but I do want to ask some questions about how we teachers can work smart and look after ourselves a little better.
You see, the thing about holidays is that I look at them as a chance to finally get some work done. And I know that I’m not alone. When I started teaching, I worked until 11pm to midnight most weeknights just to survive. There are plenty of articles out there depicting the alarming statistics when it comes to teacher burn-out and drop-out in the first few years, and it’s plain to see why. When you are building a repertoire of strategies and lessons that work, there is simply no way that the non-contact time during school hours is anywhere near enough. Add on to this marking, pastoral care, administrative work, parent communication, extra-curricular, and all the myriad parts of teaching that have nothing to do with actually teaching, and there is never enough time. I accepted this when I started. I wanted to deliver quality lessons and I wanted to make a difference, so I put in the time. As I have gained more experience, the time I need to spend planning lessons decreased, but the workload did not, it just changed focus. Being all things to all people, all the time, is part of the juggling act that is teaching and it’s not going away any time soon, as far as I can see.
What concerns me is that we rarely take time for ourselves and we are often working in such heightened stress conditions that it’s unhealthy. As I said, I am currently on holidays and I have spent the first half working, and plan to finish off with a few more days to be ready for next term. Weekends are similar. I always bring work home on the weekend, that is a given for me, and it is not a good thing. In theory, I would suggest to not take work home at all and to keep school and home completely separate as I believe that to look after ourselves, we need to switch off when we get home. However, I am terrible at following my own advice on this. To avoid taking work home, I try to maximise my time and my productivity. A wonderful mentor of mine shared with me the Stephen Covey’s quadrants for effective time management which has changed the way I prioritise tasks. I have set this one as a background in my OneNote planner and take some time at the start and end of each week planning and reviewing my actions.
Email. A necessary part of work, and I keep up-to-date with mine so it doesn’t get out of hand, but in line with Covey’s quadrant, I avoid checking emails until after I have completed certain tasks in the morning. I know for me, once I start getting into emails, I can be there for an hour and not achieve anything. As for checking emails at home, my advice, don’t, and certainly don’t reply. Again, advice that I do not follow most of the time, although I am getting better at it. Thankfully, another colleague of mine has shown me how to delay delivery on email so that even though I may have read and replied in the evening or on the weekend, it is not delivered until working hours, so that I avoid being available 24 hours a day, and avoid drawing others in (as I know the ones who are checking emails at night just like me).
Don’t feel guilty. There will always be more to do and you will always get done what you need to get done. Taking time for yourself is a necessary part of doing your job well, so we shouldn’t feel guilty about it. If we are stressed, we won’t be at our best so we won’t be delivering our best. If we are sick, we need to take a day off to get better. I remember in my first year, I was unwell for about a month but kept pushing myself to go to work every day as I didn’t want to let my students or the school down, or leave my classes for someone to have to cover. Eventually I made myself so ill I had to take a few days off to recuperate. If I had have just taken one day off earlier, it would have been less problematic for everyone.
As for holidays, we do need to take time to rest, otherwise we will burn out. We need to actually take a break, get away and recharge. However, I think in some ways we may have too many holidays in the sense that too many of us look at holidays as having all this free time to do more work. If we had fewer weeks off, would we use them more wisely? Would we appreciate them more and use them as actual holidays? I really don’t know.
Do you have more to add to this conversation? Please share in the comments below.