5 ways to beat the 'Sunday dread' - even in a pandemic

The new approach to teaching required by the pandemic made Mark Enser feel like a beginner again. But he shares his tips for overcoming the dread

Mark Enser

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I wonder if there has ever been a teacher who has gone their entire career without feeling the Sunday dread? Who has never had a sleepless night on the last day of school holidays? 

For me, the dread would always start shortly after breakfast on a Sunday when my mind turned to all the work I hadn’t had time for all week, telling myself I would do it at the weekend. 

Now it was the weekend and there were piles of marking, pieces of admin in my inbox and lessons to plan for.

The dread would steadily build throughout the rest of the morning and afternoon as I made a small dent in the workload and by the evening my mind would be racing with all the things I needed to remember for the next day: people I needed to speak to, things to check, lessons to update, paperwork to complete…

Then I’d head off to bed and spend most of the night glaring at the clock. 

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Over time, it got better. Things started to become automated. I no longer needed to spend as long thinking about lesson planning, as I had taught the topic dozens of times before.

I’d found ways to give feedback that didn’t involve piles of marking and behaviour management improved as I found systems and approaches that worked and so my mind wasn’t taken up with the gnawing fear of that class and the stress it would bring. 

For the last few years the Sunday dread has been largely absent, but then 2020 and 2021 happened. 

Over the past year, the context of teaching changed. Old certainties about what we were doing and how we were doing it were gone. Rather than relying on well-worn habits to get me through the teaching week I was having to constantly adjust and think again about what I was going to be doing.

And so the Sunday dread started to creep back in. Luckily, after all those years of practice, I was able to get on top of it much quicker.  This is what I found to work:

1. Make a list 

Much of my Sunday dread came from a feeling of panic caused by an unseen tidal wave of work surging up to overwhelm me.

I’d find that I was spending the evening mentally running through all the things I was going to need to do as soon as I got into work the next day.

Because I was holding it all in my head, it meant that I might be thinking of the same task a dozen times and everything felt urgent. 

Now I write a to-do list every Sunday evening. It pins everything down and makes it look much more manageable. I can also see what genuinely needs to be done straight away and what will wait.

Rather than obsessing about a new job that pops into my head, I add it to the list and then forget about it until morning.

2. Place limits

Teaching is a job that will expand to fill any time you allot to it. If you see your Sunday as a day in which you will work, you will find work to do.

The job is never done. If you think you are going to work on Sunday and then don’t, all those things you would have filled the day with now feel like things you have missed and have to now do on Monday - and here comes the dread.

So don’t say you will work on Sunday. Or be very clear about when you will work, make it manageable and stick to that. 

3. Prioritise

It is very easy to think that everything is urgent in teaching. Once you have a clear list of what needs to be done and a clear idea of when you are going to be working, it makes it much easier to prioritise tasks.

Give everything a number and then work through in that order. Anything not done gets placed on to the next day’s list and gets reshuffled according to new priorities. It is amazing how much work eventually just drops off the list. 

4. Don’t catastrophise

I love teaching and I think teaching is really important. But, if I don't do some marking, no one dies. If I miss a deadline or forget to put some data on a spreadsheet once in a while, people will understand.

When the feeling of panic wells on a Sunday night, I find it helps to just ask: “What is the actual worst that could happen?” In almost all cases the answer is, nothing very much. 

5. Remember the feeling of calm

It is weird. I can lay awake in the early hours of Monday morning, my mind racing with everything I need to do, but as soon as I step into the classroom later that day I feel completely calm.

I think it is because at that point all the abstract worries become concrete and I can start doing something about them.

One thing I have found helps with the sleepless nights is visualising myself walking into the classroom and experiencing that feeling of calm. 

Mark Enser is head of geography and research lead at Heathfield Community College. His new book, Powerful Geography, is out now. He tweets @EnserMark.

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Mark Enser

Mark Enser

Mark Enser is head of geography and research lead at Heathfield Community College. His new book, Powerful Geography, is out now. He tweets @EnserMark

Find me on Twitter @EnserMark

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