'Summer holiday: the perk that dare not speak its name'

Why can't teachers just enjoy the long summer school holiday without feeling guilty about it, asks David James

Teachers, don't feel guilty about the long summer holiday - there is more to life than school, writes David James

Feeling guilty yet? How long has it been now? Two weeks? Three? Or, if you work in the independent sector, I dunno, two months?

I’m talking about the H-word: the perk that keeps us perky through summer term’s Eliot-like hundred revisions and revisions (before the taking of GCSE). It is, for us teachers, the leave that dare not speak its name. 

Yes, the summer holidays are fully upon us. Across the country, Year 11 students, like periodical cicadas, slumber before emerging, fabulous and formed, after 17 years of sulky hibernation.

But teachers are, as I write, beginning to feel the familiar, encroaching guilt that comes when they are away from their classrooms. We find ourselves justifying these halcyon weeks, to ourselves and to all those Normals in other jobs. They nod or grimace, as we explain at length why we’re able to shop during the morning, wear pyjamas into the afternoon, and grow stubble all day.

Teachers' summer holidays

We know they’re jealous, not of the work we do, but of the workless times we now luxuriate in. They would like to breathe out as long as we do, to recuperate in this “blissful cloud of summer-indolence”.

The academic year is an anachronism: an outdated, uneven draught-excluder, which keeps the gale of exhaustion momentarily at bay. It fills a need, but doesn’t solve the problems. It hinders more than it helps. It’s like doing non-stop HIT in the gym, before gorging yourself on cake and wine for weeks on end. And then starting again, ad infinitum.

We seem to move from burnout to guilt with metronomic predictability, and such a pattern rarely ends well. If we were planning a pattern for optimum learning, a schedule for sanity and success, it wouldn’t look like what we have now. But it is what we have and, regardless of whichever secretary of state we have this week, it is what we will always have.

Given the pressures of the job we do, why are so many teachers so rubbish at relaxing? You don’t have to go too far on Twitter to read of teachers virtue-signalling to each other in what must appear to an anthropologist like the early stages of a new and baffling tribal ritual. They humblebrag about which books they are reading, on spaced learning or retrieval practice. Meanwhile, spouses tut, brie melts, wine warms.

There is more to life than teaching

Surely these teachers, and their students, would benefit more if, instead of obsessing about pedagogy, they lived for a little while outside this all-consuming profession, curious about everything other than teaching.

Because, as much as education is important, we also need to show our students that there is more to life than school. There is a world of infinite wonder, which begins in the classroom, rather than is explained or contained by it. I pray to God that, for my students, these are not the best days of their lives, but only the start of something richer. We need to live that other life as well.

As I was reading the David Nicholls novel Sweet Sorrow last week, it dawned on me that teachers are actors, and this “eternal summer” denies us of our audiences for what seems like an age.

Some teachers cherish this long interval. But for some those rowdy groundlings (or Year 9, as they are also known) are missed. The catcalls and encores all affirm and validate what we do and why we do it.

Now, as the weeks stretch out, we feel that, like Prospero: “We are such stuff/As dreams are made on”: weightless, transparent, we wait to be grounded by the sharp cacophony of the knelling bells, beckoning us back to this new act.

But, while that time is somewhere over the horizon and the curtain still down, let’s try to create a temporary hinterland: a place where we can forget the detritus of the job. With luck, we will rediscover the many other pleasures of living beyond work: of reigniting forgotten fires of interest, talking to friends rather than “colleagues”, avoiding “challenges” and “tasks”, and allowing us to shrug off the guilt that saps us every day. And then maybe, beneath it, we will find the sun-like gold of a deserved summer holiday. 

David James is deputy head (academic) of Bryanston School, an independent school in Dorset

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