At schools aross the land, decorations are going up and the Christmas card postbox is being dusted down.
In the case of primary schools, many teachers are trying to rally dozens of children to learn their lines for a play depicting threatened infanticide, childbirth and various farmyard animals.
It’s a time for making memories. Children will forever talk about the time they were chosen to be Mary – or a palm tree.
Their parents will not only smile at the heartwarming story of new life, but at heartstoppingly funny misquotes.
But, while teachers may be busy helping pupils to shine, some will miss out on seeing their own children on stage in Christmas plays.
Because, for a profession dedicated to supporting children, teaching can be surprisingly hard on family life.
The growing demand for more part-time work may have caught the government's attention, but what if you want the odd term-time day off – perhaps because your child’s school has decided to have an inset day?
Or what about a day off to run festive errands? Tes has come across at least one school giving every teacher a "Christmas shopping day".
The post above attracted the inevitable criticism about 13 weeks holiday not being "enough" for some teachers. And a few years ago, Kings Langley School, in Hertfordshire, was forced to defend a so-called "Christmas shopping day" – a day off given to teachers in November to break up the long autumn term – after parents complained.
Headteacher Gary Lewis told the Berkhamsted and Tring Gazette: “Teachers have always accepted that they are going to attract public stick because of this perception of extended holiday.”
But Laura Darley, a Year 6 teacher at Parklands Primary School in Leeds, has taken time off for Christmas shopping in the past, as well as for a hen do, and visiting family. She says the flexible approach taken by her school makes her more willing to put in extra-curricular hours.
Parklands schedules a teambuilding day during the summer holiday, and teachers attending the voluntary activity can then claim a lieu day.
“If there’s anything I need to do, I know I can take a day off and it’s not an issue,” says Darley. “It is nice and I feel that I’m more willing to give more now. Staff really appreciate it, you don’t panic about having to ask because you know they are going to say yes."
These lieu days need to be booked – but can be used for any reason. Staff can also build up lieu days by attending continuing professional development (CPD) at the weekend, or by going on a residential trip.
“If they have given up their Saturday to get more creative in the classroom, they get a day in lieu,” says Chris Dyson, head of Parklands. “We have a very young staff here and there are lots of weddings and stag dos and hen dos.”
Mr Dyson enables this by employing two full-time higher level teaching assistants who help to cover classes. As well as lieu days, there is some flexibility to have a few hours out – which the management team can cover.
'No one is doing it to get out of work'
The policy has helped staff to feel valued, and has reduced sickness rates, Mr Dyson says.
“I don’t get thank-you cards, as such,” he explains. “But at dinner time, someone went to Greggs and got me a Greggs’ sausage roll.”
Darley says: "If you work hard, then Chris is willing to give you those days back. No one is doing it to get out of work.”
But being a teacher is a particularly public position and – with long holidays and an insistence that children cannot take the odd day off – some heads may worry that parents may take a dim view of seeing teachers in the shops instead of their classroom.
Darley doesn’t think this would be the case. “Even if I was seen in town, our parents would know that their children are in school and getting a good education, whoever is teaching them.
“I would be very surprised if they said anything. Our parents are very supportive.”
But not all schools offer this kind of perk: teachers have also recently shared stories of being refused compassionate leave for funerals or similarly upsetting events.
John Tomsett, head of Huntington School in York, spoke for many when he put forward his view as a school leader.
'Immensely positive' for morale
It isn’t as if teachers aren’t working hard.
Department for Education research published earlier this year that found classroom teachers and middle leaders were putting in an average 54-hour week.
And workload has been cited as the number one reason why teachers quit.
However, unlike in some workplaces, in which staff are easily able to shift their hours a bit, make up time in the evening or weekend or absorb the odd one-day holiday, teaching has a problem with flexible working – so much so that the government has had to step in with its own plan to persuade schools that flexible working is possible.
How flexible should schools be?
"'Flexi-time’ obviously can’t be offered very often," Nansi Ellis, assistant general secretary of the NEU teaching union, says.
"It takes a lot of planning for the leadership team, and in these cash-strapped times will usually mean senior leaders stepping in to cover classes. But the impact on staff morale and their feeling that they can cope with the busy-ness of the run up to Christmas in primary schools in particular, is immensely positive.
"Good school leaders try many different ways to promote staff wellbeing; staff may have very creative ideas – the best thing to do is to ask staff what would work best for them and accommodate practical suggestions where possible."
So perhaps a little bit of flexitime can help make the job seem more doable, whereas rigid rules on taking time off can have the opposite effect.
Setting an example
Sometimes, being able to take some time off is a nice extra; sometimes, it is a necessity. But there some people in schools may feel they can never take time off – particularly senior leaders: the DfE survey that found teachers were working a 54-hour week also found school leaders were putting in 60 hours.
“Headteachers feel very guilty about prioritising themselves," Viv Grant, director of education consultancy Integrity Coaching, says. "But it comes back to that old adage of putting your oxygen mask on first. If heads don’t look after themselves first, they put at great risk what they’re trying to achieve.”
And when a headteacher is working all hours, it can mean staff feel reluctant to ask for any flexi-time. If they aspire to leadership, it can give the impression that is how things have to be.
Grant points out that such working practices don't just make things difficult now, but can store up problems for future recruitment. “It’s hard enough for people to become leaders. If they look upwards and see what some heads are doing, they think, 'That’s not for me.' We have to change the narrative."
Grant is a former headteacher who set up her coaching business for school leaders after experiencing the isolation and vulnerability, that being a headteacher in a high-stakes accountability system can bring. She suggests that, rather than relying on ad-hoc informal flexi-time requests, a formal policy – covering all staff – is put in place.
“It is about having an open policy,” says Grant. “Everyone in the school needs to be taken care of. It is not just about one-off flexible working, we need to see it in the round. I see it as part of a whole-school wellbeing policy which includes leaders as well. If it [flexible working] is seen as a one-off thing that you’re doing for some staff, then that doesn’t support heads making time for themselves as well.”
Tomsett agrees: “It is massively important to set an example,” he says. “I go home at 4pm if I want to. People work differently at different times. If people leave at 3.45pm, I don’t mind, if they have got the work done. If people here are free in the afternoon, they can go home.”
But it took a heartwrenching moment for him to realise that he, too, needed that time.
As an ambitious deputy headteacher and then headteacher, Tomsett put his work first. He described in a blog in 2014 how he not only missed meals with his family but started even resenting time spent at U9 football matches.
Then one day, he started crying during an A-level English class, when reading Arthur Miller’s depiction of a father and his estranged son in Death of a Salesman.
“I decided on that day that if either son ever asked me to do something, I would do it, no matter how much work I had – and I’ve stuck to that principle fiercely,” he wrote.
He has stuck to it – and his family, and staff, have benefited.
Some teachers feel they cannot ask for time off, whether or not they are made to feel this way by senior management.
“I used to work as a research scientist,” says Emma Benson, a Year 5 teacher at Hartford Manor school in Cheshire, and mother of 14-year-old Ellie and 8-year-old Ethan. “There was a lot of flexibility in that job, you could just take a half-day or day off.
“I became a teacher four years ago and I became the mum-that-was-never-there. I missed Ethan’s assemblies. I presumed it wasn’t an option, but then he got a main part and so I promised him I’d ask my headteacher – who said it was fine.
"I went to the assembly and was back in school by 10am – but the difference it made to Ethan...I hadn’t told him, just in case, and when I walked in, his face lit up, it made his week!”
At Hartford Manor, headteacher Simon Kidwell is happy for staff to have time off for their children’s sports days or nativity plans, university open days and graduations – and planning, preparation and assessment time can be done at home.
For some classroom teachers, there may be an element of "if you don't ask, you don't get".
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