Are school holidays bad for teachers' mental health?

You have six weeks with no professional practice, and then you're thrown straight back in again in September. This can't be good for stress levels, says Alex Waite

woman looking sad, on park bench

The school holidays are upon us. Six weeks without early starts, without queues at the photocopier, hurried lunches, late evenings, meetings or pupils. Plans will have been finalised for vacations, time will be put aside to spend with loved ones, and much-needed sleep and relaxation will provide a welcome break.

But, despite the positives, there are downsides to having six weeks with no pupils to keep us busy.

Although many teachers still catch up on work throughout the holidays and go into school to prep for the year ahead, having six weeks over the summer without the opportunity to practise your professional skills makes for a difficult return in September. To quote a former colleague, the first month feels like “you’re on some kind of drug”. 

I recently discussed the holidays with a friend of mine, who works as a plumber. He explained that he wouldn’t have a clue where to start if he had six straight weeks off, followed by a return to work.

Adjustment

We may be refreshed after a long break, but having to adapt so quickly, despite having one or two inset days, is not easy. Returning to a professional environment after weeks of managing your personal and social schedule can be challenging, with deadlines, preparation, meetings and the worry of new classes suddenly cluttering our time.

The unique nature of teaching also makes returning from the holidays difficult. In fact, adapting from an extended period of holiday to an environment that is immediately stressful and demanding surely cannot be good for stress and anxiety levels

Lack of autonomy

In any other profession, you would be able to recognise if you were feeling sluggish, tired or overwhelmed and plan time off accordingly to recuperate. Not having this autonomy and having to wait for holidays to come around can be detrimental to teachers’ health. Each end of term often feels like an eternity away, especially when you’re in the midst of a challenging term and have to contend with a hectic schedule, difficult class, parents or visits from Ofsted.

Loneliness and isolation among pupils during the school-holiday period has been publicised recently. But this feeling can apply to teachers too. 

For many, friends and family do not have the same holiday schedule, which can lead to long periods of time alone to overthink and worry. Also, immediately stopping and having little or no work for the summer can create a loss of purpose. Of course, some may have children and family to look after, or a close group of friends to spend time with. However, if this isn’t the case, then the holidays may not in fact be a welcome break.

Freedom to choose

People from other professions often claim that teachers have too much holiday. It is certainly important to have these breaks to provide some respite for pupils and teachers alike – imagine spending 365 days a year with your class. Holidays also allow much-needed time for reflection on our own and pupils' progress and give us all time to rest and recover from the daily demands of the job. 

But having shorter holidays and the freedom to plan a few days or weeks off during the school year, or to schedule a break if things become too overwhelming, would be an ideal situation for teachers. The practicalities of such an idea would be difficult, but would perhaps alleviate the numerous pressures teachers face during the school year. 

Alex Waite has just finished working as a Year 6 teacher in South London, and will be working as a supply teacher from September

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