Put your mind at rest this summer

With the holidays ahead, teachers are ready for a well-earned rest. But what does ‘rest’ really mean, asks Zofia Niemtus
5th July 2019, 12:03am
When You're A Teacher, What Is The Secret To Having A Truly Restful Summer Holiday?
Zofia Niemtus


Put your mind at rest this summer


At first it seems so far away, a mirage of peace in a desert of chaos. Almost not worth thinking about. But then it starts to get closer and you can hardly think of anything else. It's nearly the summer holidays. It's nearly the moment when you can finally rest.

Come that first week of the holidays, will you be fully starfished on the sofa, phone in hand, Netflix on in the background, surrounded by an array of snacks? Or perhaps you see yourself out in nature, walking up a hill, sweaty and short of breath, awed by the wonders of the landscape unfolding in front of you? Or maybe you are aiming for a beach with only the waves for company?

Whatever you have in mind, it needs to count. Teaching, by most accounts, has never been so stressful, so rest over the summer has never been more needed. Your next teaching year depends on your properly recharging.

But how do you know if you are maximising your time off? Unfortunately, you don't. Researchers are still struggling to define what rest is, let alone work out the best ways of doing it. Folk knowledge and gut feeling largely still rule. So with summer fast approaching, what are teachers to do?

Rest easy?

That there is no agreed definition of rest seems bizarre. The phrase "get some rest" is used everywhere, from doctors' surgeries to HR meetings, and in advice from friends and chats with your nan in her perfectly preserved 1980s lounge. If we don't know what rest is, then what use is there in any of us being told that we need it?

Anecdotally, we obviously do know what it means, in a general sense: a break, a distraction, a move away from whatever stresses us out. Yet in academic circles - where we would like to think someone is hard at work helping us to fine-tune our rest in the same way that they have fine-tuned health, diets, exercise and a whole array of other things - there is no agreed definition.

A 2015 study, published in the Journal of Advanced Nursing, started from the position that rest is "a physical, mental and spiritual human need, common to all humanity, and is frequently prescribed around the world as a treatment for many maladies".

The problem, according to author Esther Bernhofer, is that the concept of rest "remains subjective, is vaguely defined and is often confused with sleep, limiting its utility for research and practice".

She added: "Without a clear definition and understanding of rest and its parameters, its restorative benefits may not be realised and the advice to rest, based on little evidence, has limited usefulness and unknown risks."

Bernhofer's conclusion, after studying 27 peer-reviewed scientific papers from the medical profession, was damning. She reported that the "concept of rest remains immature, poorly defined, rarely operationalised and inconsistently used" and that more research was needed.

So teachers should just guess? Not quite. Thankfully, there is some research about how teachers might maximise their summer break.

Take, for example, the Rest Test, a huge online survey launched in the UK that asked the public what rest means to them, how they experience it and whether it has links to overall wellbeing.

Felicity Callard, now professor of social research at Birkbeck, University of London, and director of the Birkbeck Institute for Social Research, was principal investigator on the study when she was at Durham University. She says the difficulty in finding a definition of rest comes from the fact that it is "fundamentally a subjective phenomenon".

"It's not just about sleep," she says. "With sleep, you can get a much greater purchase on if someone's doing it or not, but with rest, so much of it is about whether someone subjectively feels that they are resting. And the fundamental problem is that what is restful for one person is often deeply unrestful for another person."

So, to try and find some consensus about what most people might find restful, Callard went for a crowdsourcing model.

Having launched the biggest-ever survey of its kind in the world, the research team heard back from 18,000 respondents in 134 countries. The major finding, perhaps unsurprisingly, was that the vast majority of respondents (68 per cent) said they felt they needed more rest than they were currently getting. Which, though interesting, is not particularly helpful.

But beyond that, the academics started to make some progress. Although the survey revealed a wide variation in people's preferred restful activities, reading emerged as the most popular (58 per cent), followed by being in nature (51 per cent) and being alone (52 per cent). Meanwhile, some 16 per cent said they found exercise restful.

"A lot of people find swimming or running deeply restful in the sense that they quieten the mind," Callard says. "Whereas for other people, exercising as rest is just impossible to imagine. And I think it's a really intriguing finding that reading is so restful.

"It suggests that there is something about the quality of an experience that perhaps pulls you out of thought."

Callard and her team also noticed that a lot of the things that ranked highly for being restful "involve people being relatively solitary or doing them in solitary ways". She says: "It seems as though, even for people who might be more interested in social interaction, rest seems to be about removing oneself from intensely social situations."

Isolating yourself in nature away from friends, and possibly with a book, does not sound like it will immediately strike everyone as restful. The thought of trying it, in fact, may cause some people much unrest. So what else could teachers do?

Escaping the rat race

Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, the author of the 2017 book Rest: why you get more done when you work less, 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 (don't worry, he's not trying to rob you of your summer holiday).

Pang was previously a high-flying tech consultant in Silicon Valley. It was there, he explains, that the concept of rest became especially pressing for him. The following description will be familiar to most teachers.

"Silicon Valley doesn't know anything about rest," he laughs. "After working here for about 10 years or so, I was getting pretty burned out, always feeling like I was behind in the work. It was never clear when I should stop working on something. And so I would reach the point where it felt like the only option was to do more and more of it. And that clearly was unsustainable."

For Pang, it took a sabbatical at the University of Cambridge to snap him out of his unhealthy habits. He soon realised he was working far fewer hours in a far more relaxed way, but still producing "fantastic work".

It got him thinking, he recalls, about the common assumption "that you've got to constantly work and accept the idea of overwork, and undergo this sort of heroic sacrifice of self and family and health to the gods of labour" and then crash and rest just so you can get back to work again. A bit like working for 10 and a half months and then crashing for six weeks over summer so you can just about stand come September.

His research led him to the idea of active rest. "One of the things we've learned from the psychology of creativity, and from neuroscientific studies of creativity in the past 20 years, is that a lot of the kind of divergent thinking that characterises breakthrough ideas happens when our minds are apparently doing nothing at all," he says. "When we're in these periods of what psychologists call 'mind wandering'. Something you often see with very creative people, very accomplished people, is that they structure their lives and their daily routines to give themselves plenty of time for mind wandering."

It's why, he continues, people such as Beethoven, Tchaikovsky and Darwin would work for a few hours in the morning and then go for long walks, during which "they would have some of their best ideas".

"Rest is any time that you spend recovering the mental and physical energy that you spend working," he says. "So rest can certainly encompass activities that we don't normally think of as restful. Recognising that rest is an essential foundation for creativity is an important thing."

What this means is that teachers should not just be longing for extended rest in the holidays but also lobbying heads for more rest during term time, with the promise that they will be better teachers for it.

While it makes intuitive sense, schools are highly structured and free-time-poor environments, so school leaders may take some convincing about providing regular "rest" periods. Here's some science to help make those discussions a little more persuasive.

Caswell Barry, a researcher from University College London's cell and developmental biology department, is working on finding out why this woven rest may boost memory. He's supervising studies on rats, and has made fascinating discoveries in relation to formation of memories.

In a trial, rats ran around a track for 30 minutes, then rested for 90 minutes, with their brain activity tracked during both. Barry and his team found that during rest, the rats were rerunning the track in their minds, but at 10 to 20 times faster than in reality. The rerun also happened in a different part of the brain, suggesting that the memories were being transferred from one area to another.

"Something is happening whereby the information is getting communicated to the rest of the brain during times of rest," he explains. "You're essentially replaying things you saw, fast-forwarding, and we think you're using that as an extra chance to extract the key features. It's a sort of consolidation. The essence of the things you learn are found, extracted and then incorporated into the rest of the brain."

As a teacher, regular breaks may make you more efficient, better able to decompress the variables of your workload. But does this mean heads will let you wander around the school field rather than go to your lesson? At the moment, it's doubtful. And it still does not tell us whether this would be any more restful than being in nature for six weeks.

So let's look at a third option. Matthew Edlund is a US-based expert on rest and body clocks, and he says that a reconsideration of how we view our bodies and brains can help us to better understand the nature of rest and how to get as much as we need.

"Rest is anything that helps the body regenerate," he says. "And what we really have to do is have a somewhat different view of how our bodies operate.

"We're not machines that break down. We're an information system that constantly has to update because the environment always changes."

The work paradox

One of the most regenerative things for people to do, he says, is to engage in "flow activities", where you're "so involved in what you're doing that you're not conscious of the time, not self-conscious, you're getting something done productively, that so engages you that you hardly notice anything else".

This could be a game of tennis, some DIY, or even - shock horror - work.

"That flow can occur in creative activities that occur at work," he says. "In fact, it often occurs more in work than it does in leisure activities, strangely enough. It's when people are using their heads and their bodies in a way that feels right.

"What I try to do is get people to recognise what their flow activities are and, in many cases, try to do more of them. What happens with flow is that people are just so engaged in it that they're not conscious of time. They're effectively in a more of a timeless state."

This gives you a measure by which you might monitor your own restful actions. And Edlund adds another question for you to ask: does it leave you feeling exhausted?

"At the end of the day, when people have done things that they really like and that they feel are productive and meaningful, they very often will feel not exhausted, but quite well rested," he says.

You can use your "work" feeling as a benchmark, Edlund explains.

"What happens a lot in work situations these days is that people feel exhausted at the end of the day," he adds. "Are they physically exhausted, and they've been carrying 100lb rice bags up hills? No, they're mentally anguished, mentally exhausted. And, oddly enough, an active rest activity, like taking a walk in sunlight, will very often revive them."

So there you have it: three quite disparate pieces of advice that appear only to confirm that pinning rest down to set activities is currently impossible. That said, there is much to ponder for leadership teams about the boom-and-bust nature of the school year and the importance of weaving more rest space into the year. But what should individual teachers take from this? Pang says that if none of the above appeal, then the following may be the best approach.

"No matter what kind of vacation you're on, the science tells us that the more we can disconnect from our normal lives, the better," he says. "People assume that the way to get the most out of a vacation is to do lots and lots of stuff all the time, especially if you have kids. Try subtracting a couple of things per day from your initial instincts. Leaving some blank space, some room on the calendar for nothing at all, is a smart thing to do."

So whether your idea of rest is sofa slobbing, getting lost in a good book or scaling a mountain, the important thing is to make time for it. And, says Pang, to keep working on getting better at the act of resting.

"Rest is a skill; it's something that we can actually learn to get better at," Pang concludes. "It's a bit like breathing. Breathing is totally natural. But if you're an athlete or a singer, you learn how to use your breath in order to go faster, or to project your voice farther. Rest is something that we can learn to do better and learn to better incorporate into our daily lives."

Zofia Niemtus is acting deputy commissioning editor at Tes. She tweets @Zofcha

This article originally appeared in the 5 July 2019 issue

You need a Tes subscription to read this article

Subscribe now to read this article and get other subscriber-only content

  • Unlimited access to all Tes magazine content
  • Exclusive articles and email newletters

Already registered? Log in

You need a subscription to read this article

Subscribe now to read this article and get other subscriber-only content, including:

  • Unlimited access to all Tes magazine content
  • Exclusive articles and email newsletters

Read more