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Easy does it

Pace yourself this summer, says Julie McGuinness

Are you counting the days as you crawl to the end of term? Longing to linger over morning coffee and the papers, or potter in the garden? Or are you already dismayed at the school tasks and home projects that are piling up for the holidays? While the last thing you want is to timetable every moment from now until September, it's important to shape your summer if you're to make the most of it.

Jenny Blount, director of training at the Teacher Support Network (a national charity that provides practical and emotional support to teachers, lecturers and their families), says:"The value teachers put on their holidays is significant. Professionalism means seeing that time off is as important as time on. Looking after your wellbeing will make you more effective in the classroom."

Finishing term properly is a good start. A day or two back in school in the first week of the holiday tidying up and putting things in order can pay dividends. "I like to do these jobs while they're still going round in my head," says Christine Beckett, head of modern foreign languages at Ockbrook school in Derbyshire. "I can't relax properly until I know they're done."

Being able to sort things out without interruption can also provide therapeutic space for some final reflections on the year. According to Jenny Blount, "tidying up can be an important way of bringing closure".

The first week off is also the time for gently unwinding. This is when you may suddenly feel extremely tired and run-down. As your body lets go after being on the go all year, you might find yourself sleeping late, feeling irritable or even, as one teacher put it, "incapable of making a decision".

Roy Page, senior deputy head at High Wycombe's Royal grammar school, says "it's foolish to go away immediately". He recalls once taking his main holiday as soon as term ended, only to spend a week of it ill in bed.

It's important to give your body the care it missed out on as you hared around frantically during term. Make a conscious effort to refocus on healthy sleeping and eating patterns, and replenish depleted energy levels with a balance of rest and exercise.

Unwinding time will vary according to how stressful the year has been, but once you've regained some equilibrium and done the finishing tasks at school, it's time to cut yourself off from work and to get out of teacher mode.

According to Ms Blount, setting firm boundaries is essential. "You can end up having a drip-feed involvement with school right through the summer if you're not careful. You have to stay out of the place, and not bring work home. If you do, do it within set hours and make sure you can shut the door on it."

Giving yourself permission to have time out is vital. "Professionals shouldn't be on duty all the time. Decide what you're going to do and what you're not," says Ms Blount. She advises teachers to throw themselves into whatever they enjoy, from decorating a room to reading a trashy novel - whatever they know they can't do once term restarts. And it's important to savour unscheduled time, free of the demands of bells and timetables.

As well as catching up with friends, Judith Derby, who runs the unit for children with moderate learning difficulties at Woodfield primary school in Newton, Chester, values extra time with her family. "My husband also works in education so we can both feel stressed throughout the year. Around the middle of the holidays, we start getting on better as a couple and talking more deeply about things other than school," she says.

Mrs Derby divides her holiday into "blocks", with time away squarely in the middle of the six weeks, and would never consider leaving less than five days between ending a holiday and starting term. "You need to sort out washing and shopping without having to go straight back into school.

Besides, at the end of the school holidays, I start winding up psychologically. I begin to feel guilty if I haven't got books out," she says.

It's important not to spend the whole summer under autumn's looming shadow, but you need to start term reasonably prepared, which means venturing back into school territory before the first day. "Facing a class of youngsters is a high-level skill. You need to go into term ready, not only practically, but also in your mind," says Ms Blount.

So when should teachers cross the school threshold? For some, such as Mr Page, it is mid-August, when exam results are released. He offsets this early start to duties by taking a long weekend away at the end of the summer. "It means I'm not jaded before I start the term proper," he says.

Judicious preparation shortly before teaching begins can do more than ease up the first days. Ms Beckett finds sorting out her long-term planning and organising her resources frees up time later in the term. "Doing jobs such as updating schemes of work means less stress later. You can't mark coursework ahead of time, but getting ahead with some long-term deadlines gives you the odd evening off during the week to relax or do something different."

When you reach September, it can be satisfying to feel you've used the time wisely. "It's good to look back and feel you've achieved something - got somewhere with a hobby, done some reading or sorted the garden," says Mrs Derby.

But don't feel you have to justify every moment of your time off. "If you're doing what you want it's never a waste, even if it's not meeting a target," says Jenny Blount. "For once, take time to be, not just do."

The big chill

How to get the most out of the holidays

* Finish term properly: tidy that chaotic cupboard while you still remember what you threw in it

* Detox from teacher mode: do what you want, not what you have to. Allow yourself to forget school

* Give your body an MOT: pamper it with rest, and replenish it

* Set firm boundaries: decide when to go into school and when not to - literally and mentally

* Reconnect relationships: take time with friends and family

* Relax: enjoy getting absorbed in something without having to produce an outcome

* "Deschedule": take off your watch and don't look at the clock

* Revitalise the parts school squeezes out - perhaps by doing something less mentally taxing

* Think ahead: what can you do now that might ease some term-time pressure?

* Prepare for action: re-acclimatise yourself to the classroom before it's full of pupils

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