“Ah, you teachers with your 3 o'clock finishes and your massive holidays, eh!”
Don’t punch me, please. Instead, read on: here are three answers to the most misguided of passive aggressive digs.
What a teacher does during term-time often dictates the quality of the break they have. If a body literally doesn't stop for weeks – perhaps months – on end, then halts all of a sudden, the reaction can be a pretty intense shutdown. Some teachers spend the first days of a holiday in bed, completely useless to the world, lacking the energy or means to complete even the simplest of tasks. While their partners and families expect euphoria, instead they get a zombie from the walking dead.
Mentally, there can also be a slump, the intense adrenaline generated by being surrounded by children with boundless energy each and every day can be followed by a vacuum once isolation hits. When teaching in the UK, I tended to spend the first few days of my holiday in a very "empty" state, before gradually building to what one could consider normal. What people often fail to understand about teaching is the performance nature of the job: this isn't "work" as you know it. We wouldn't expect a West End performer to get straight back on stage and do it all again, five times in a single day, but we expect that of teachers. Often the classroom can be as high-octane as the stage. Mistakes are scrutinised, chinks in the armour exposed, teachers have to be on guard all the time, maintaining that professionalism. Actors and actresses stagger backstage and often break down in tears, wiping the sweat from their brow. Perhaps a grandiose example, but teaching takes a level of concentration and commitment sometimes misunderstood, often understated.
Holidays are fantastic. No teacher would ever deny that, but it's also right to say that without them, the physical and mental strain would simply be too much. To anyone who wants to dispute that, please teach for a term without any holiday and report back.
You don’t get paid
Teachers are paid for 1,265 hrs of work a year. That’s 32.5 hrs a week for 39 weeks. ‘Holidays’ are unpaid time. Just like the extra 20-plus hours a week many do. Teachers are paid for the "work" they do and that is defined as time in school. There is no “overtime” in teaching but there is never a shortage of it – much of it essential. There’s always more to do: planning, marking, assessment are all “open-ended tasks”, providing the average teacher with the ever-present temptation, even demand, to do more. After all, it’s the future of the child on the line.
To confound this, teachers are poorly paid compared to the other professions. Take a junior doctor versus an NQT. A junior doctor will start on £27,000, doing a 40-hour working week – with all hours between 7am and 7pm Monday to Friday, respectively. However, any hours’ doctors do outside of this, they qualify for overtime. So, for example, any work on a Sunday will be time plus 30 per cent. Any extra work between 9pm and 7am will also receive overtime. In other words, that £27,000 will most likely be significantly supplemented, particularly given government requirements for a seven-day NHS.
Let’s compare that to the average NQT outside of London. They will start on £22,000. For the teacher with no desire to take on extra responsibilities, the most they can expect to earn at any point in their career might be between £34,000 and £37,000. It will take them a long time to get there, too: perhaps 10 years. They are paid that £22,000 to work 50, 60, even 70 hours a week. Holidays are unpaid leave. Some will hate me for saying this, but there is no holiday pay entitlement for teachers.
You have to work
When I took to Twitter to ask 636 teachers how much they intended to work over this half term, 63 per cent said they expected to work more than two days of the “holiday”. When I was teaching in the UK for nine years, I can’t remember any holiday, including the summer, where I didn’t partake in some work, much of it completely necessary. I recall half terms where I spent two or three days in school, after the “recovery period” I aforementioned. I drove into school on many occasions and was camped out at my desk. I remember glancing at the sign-in sheet on the way in and out and seeing teachers who’d been in there all week, some who’d hardly left since the “holiday” started. This is the reality for many educators.
The long holidays are one of the best perks of a teacher’s job – no one can deny that, but I do think society needs some dose of reality. We need the break: without it, the job would be unsustainable.
For more columns by Tom, view his back catalogue