We are at that time of year when in staffrooms across the country – maybe across the world – tempers will be visibly fraying. As staff hurtle towards the end of another year, there will be far too much to do, too many reports to write and too many events to attend before we slump, exhausted and emotionally battered, into the first day of the holiday.
Then, abruptly and almost unthinkably, the transition from term time – with its endless decisions, unmanageable deadlines and battery of interactions – will begin. At last, we will have space to reconnect with our partners and families, and those people we know as our non-term-time friends.
If we’re lucky, we switch off, escape and remind ourselves of why the people who are closest to us are the people who are closest to us. We especially savour those deepest parts of the holidays. The writer Henry James famously said that the most beautiful phrase in the English language is “summer afternoon”. Well, there will be plenty of those to enjoy before the subsequent tremors begin: the jitters of results season, those anxious dreams of classes out of control, and finally the mental shock of the return to work – what the French call “la rentrée”.
Before then, there’s a vacation to savour.
The butt of jokes
Teachers take a lot of flak about their summer holidays. I used to fall into the trap of being defensive when my captain-of-industry neighbours shouted sarcastic comments along the lines of: “Still on holiday, are we? Don’t worry, some of us will keep the economy running.”
I’d sometimes point to my preparation, the new texts I had to read for the year ahead, the residual marking I had to complete. But then I realised it was better to do the opposite – to be brazen in celebrating one of the great remaining benefits of working in education. Because however punishing the year we’ve just had was, the summer break will do what the summer break always does. It will refresh our reservoirs of optimism ready for the year ahead. It always does.
At a time of a worsening crisis in teacher recruitment and retention, the holidays are part of what we should publicly relish. Of course, after seven years of capped pay, the government needs to address teacher salaries. The public sector has taken the brunt of austerity for too long. Paying loyal public servants properly should be a non-negotiable in this brave new political landscape.
We need also to address the issue of teacher workload, which is, without doubt, pushing joy to the margins in too many classrooms. We need school leaders to be bolder not only in what they ask teachers to do, but also in what we ask them not to do. We need to free teachers up to teach.
But, most important, if we are to reclaim the professionalism of our profession and restore it to a position of unassailable attractiveness, we should better tell the story of why, even on the toughest days, teaching can feel like one of the most valuable roles in our society.
An urgent priority
To know that we have opened doors into new worlds for some children, given them skills and knowledge they wouldn’t get at home, imbued in them a sense of genuine aspiration that wasn’t there before – all of these are among the greatest satisfactions of being a teacher.
For those of us who are school leaders, helping more teachers to feel this effect should be our priority.
There’s an urgency to all of this. Those of us who love the sense of collective mission inherent in being a teacher or school leader, who love the sense of making a difference – we need to say it ever more loudly and more clearly. That’s because the haemorrhaging of teachers from the profession is as bleak as it is wasteful. Good, talented people are turning their backs and fleeing. We have to keep them.
We should celebrate the way holidays contribute to a family-friendly career. The annual gift of serious time for leisure should be part of why we say we love teaching. We work inordinately hard during term, across evenings and weekends. But the payback comes in part from a generous holiday entitlement.
So, whether you’re reading this from the early hinterland of your summer break, or are clinging on until the term finally ends, here’s to a great profession that has earned its right to a guilt-free holiday.
In the 10 weeks since I stepped out of headship, I’ve noticed just how much society looks to its teachers and school leaders to provide the social glue once shared with social care, youth workers and the Church.
Especially in the wake of terrible events, I see how schools provide the remaining vestiges of normality in the lives of children navigating a world that has fractured.
Schools and their staff do this with little reward or praise. Being there for our communities, for the children and families – this comes at a significant personal cost. No wonder this year we are more exhausted than usual.
So, once you get there, enjoy your holiday. And don’t forget to remind anyone who asks that, yes, the long summer break is one of the great enduring perks in a career that still, in imperceptible ways, transforms young lives and unites communities.
You’ve earned your break. Savour it.
Geoff Barton is the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders. He tweets @RealGeoffBarton