How will I spend my summer? Battling holiday guilt

The break isn't free time, it's part of our pay and conditions, but holiday guilt still strikes, says Yvonne Williams

teacher buries head in sand over holiday guilt

The Tes most-read articles of last week reveal a concern about the problems posed to teachers' mental health of adjusting to six weeks’ holiday. While a large part of the concern is down to loss of structure, I wonder how much of the problem lies with the excessive conscientiousness that teaching cultivates in us all.

I thought I was immune to holiday guilt, the syndrome that causes us to justify our time off whenever anyone asks us about how we are going to spend our hard-earned six weeks’ holiday over the summer.


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But I noticed the first symptoms when two very nice parents asked me whether teachers would be back in school during the holidays. As I responded that teachers were into school at least twice for results days, if not more, to do further preparation, I realised that I was undergoing a major attack of holiday guilt. To compound matters, I went on to describe the time teachers would spend preparing material they would be teaching the next year.

What was I thinking?

Empty the mind

I’ve been looking forward to this free time for so long. Even describing it as “free” is problematic. It isn’t free: it’s part of the pay and conditions package. The pay is far from as rewarding as it used to be, especially after years of restraint. The holiday itself is a reward that has been eroded since I started teaching, by emails, results analysis required by the end of August, and by higher expectations of planning, to name but a few of the culprits.

At one level, some school-based focus isn’t a problem. I love reading and being creative. Time off is a chance to empty the mind of the day-to-day clutter of busy school life. Such time is golden because suddenly things click and the intended curriculum for next term takes on a rational shape. Sadly, it can quickly unravel when road-tested in the classroom, but that’s the nature of teaching. The best-laid plans of mice, men and teachers…

At another level, I wonder whether I am trying to assuage holiday guilt. I felt unreasonably embarrassed to be taking holidays, as if I’d had some massive stroke of good fortune, denied to the rest of the population.

Sleep-work-sleep-work

Of course, in term time, no one wants to shoulder the 56-plus hours of some working weeks. So tiring is the regime that the sequence of sleep-work-sleep-work becomes working in our sleep and needing to sleep at work. 

But, in my paralysed holiday guilt state, it didn’t seem polite to talk to the parents about the invisible stuff that’s the deal-breaker for too many teachers in the first five years in the profession. In social situations, it’s better to concentrate on the pleasures of teaching.

So how do we deal with this holiday-wrecker?

Coping with holidays

  1. There are the numberless unpleasant household chores that have been put off until the holidays. So, if we really want to feel productive, they can be top of the list.
  2. We can read more books. Being better-read makes us all better teachers. For several years, I’ve been reading the works of Wilkie Collins. In my relaxed state, reading crime fiction is my not-so-secret vice. I square it with my English-teacher conscience on the grounds that it's wider reading for teaching Sherlock Holmes next term.
  3. Have family to stay. Sorting out meals, meeting points and car parking – not to mention the sheer happiness of the reunion – is guaranteed to keep holiday guilt at bay, while keeping social, pastoral and caring skills well-tuned.
  4. As the holiday progresses and the ties with school loosen, going for long walks with a friend or taking up jogging are good replacements for trudging up and down stairs. The scenery is more relaxing, too.
  5. Sleep longer. It's not self-indulgence: it compensates for the many five-hour term-time nights last academic year, and for those in prospect next year.
  6. Enjoy driving scenic routes. You can, after all, justify the travel and expense as keeping your hand in for the school run.
  7. Keep in with the gossip at home – then you won’t feel so bad about missing out on the various updates on students. The bonus is that you don’t have to record all the details.
  8. Make sure your self-maintenance programme is up to date, with hair appointments, dentists and the like – and enjoy the time around them at a leisurely pace.
  9. Meet as many friends as possible, so that you can maintain your meeting schedules and you don’t get out of practice.
  10. Take lots of photos to put in store for the cold November and January days. After all, good record-keeping is a skill that needs to be maintained.

And, if all else fails, just grit your teeth to get through the withdrawal symptoms of the first two weeks, relax and enjoy the third and fourth, and begin to get ready in the late fifth and sixth weeks. That’s what I used to do, before holiday guilt became so problematic  

Yvonne Williams is head of English and drama at a school in the South of England

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