The Cycle of Half-term: To-do lists and exhaustion

We always believe half-term will be a blissful time of doing nothing - but it never works out that way, says Laura Kayes

Laura Kayes

Teacher workload and wellbeing: The half-term holiday is a story of to-do lists and exhaustion, says Laura Kayes

There are many uncertainties within the teaching profession. It is impossible to know what unique challenges and triumphs each academic year will bring, what each term may offer or what individual students may bring to class on any given day. 

There are, however, a number of absolute certainties. 

You will spend every Sunday night paralysed with anxiety that your morning alarm will malfunction, which has obviously never happened before. You will be so worried about sleeping in that you will not sleep at all.


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At the beginning of every academic year, term, half-term and week, you will endeavour to save a significant sum of money by preparing lunches and flasks of coffee in advance. You will make a sad-looking salad and accidentally leave the flask on the kitchen counter. This will ruin your day. 

You will spend the money that the sad salad saved you on mountains of stationery every weekend to replace the superfluous amounts you begrudgingly donate to student pencil cases. Of course, your stationery spending will far outweigh your measly salad savings, so you are now broke. 

Being broke, you will now enter the "Cycle of Half-Term". I tried very hard for about 14 seconds to think of a catchier title, but it’s June, and I’m a very tired teacher, so Cycle of Half-Term is what we’re going with for now.

The Cycle of Half-term

The Cycle of Half-term involves staying at home. Not because Covid says so; this ancient tradition predates the pandemic. The Cycle of Half-term is as old as the teaching profession itself (Me, 2021).

The cycle begins around six weeks before the half-term break. This is when the fatigue is setting in and the need for mental and physical rest begins to cloud your every action. You will, of course, consider a trip away, but quickly remember you have bankrupt yourself purchasing caffeine and Paperchase shares, so will determine that a staycation is the choice for you.

There has been a slight modification to the definition of a staycation recently. For the purpose of this article, I do not mean a luxurious spa break or a prosecco glamping pod somewhere picturesque in the United Kingdom. No, no. In this context, a staycation will do exactly as it says on the tin. We will stay at home. We shall staycate and stagnate. We might venture into the garden, but mostly we’ll stay on the sofa or in the immediate vicinity of the fridge.

Now the countdown begins. Romanticise the minimal costs by imagining cosy time spent reading by a sunny window or wrapped in a fluffy blanket, depending which season this particular half-term is happening in. Mark the date on your calendar, doodle some celebratory scrawls around the date; a happy little sun, perhaps, or some cutesy Kawaii-style books that look pleased to see you.

About 48 hours before the staycation commences, those of us in further education will realise we haven’t actually logged our annual leave requests on the internal systems for approval, and an intense panic will commence. We will frantically tally up our remaining allowance and rush past colleagues in the corridor, all clutching their own leave calculations, all on a similarly fraught pilgrimage to their line manager’s office. On arrival, our line managers will be so mutually fatigued they will want nothing more than our radiating anxiety removed from their office space as quickly as possible, and so approval will be instantaneous.

The countdown resumes until finally, exhausted, we heave ourselves over the finish line into our anticipated sanctuary of half-term.

"Let the stagnation begin!" we cry, arming ourselves with home comforts and takeaways. We settle in front of Netflix, ready to sink into guilt-free relaxation. Instead, we seem to miss large portions of the storyline; almost all of it, in fact. Our dinner is rendered tasteless by the constant distraction of our to-do lists. In this strange time, suspended between work-mode and personal life, lists from both seem to merge. The washing pile has reached cosmic proportions over the preceding weeks, and the marking pile rivals its scale.

OK, plan B. We shall spend just the first couple of days hitting the to-do lists hard. We’ll power through these distractions, freeing up the entire remainder of the holiday to be beautifully bone idle. Best of all, we can bulldoze these bullet points in our own time, for we are not bound by timetables in this domain. We can interlace our exceptional productivity with unlimited snack breaks, nap breaks, loo breaks (the luxury) and even long, lazy morning lies. It’s flawless.

Come 6am on Monday morning, we are wide awake. The to-do lists await, and transpire to be burly and worthy opponents. They raise many objections, until eventually we come to blows and slug it out over the next five days. Some tasks will be easily conquered, others must be marked and stored for a later offensive. We will emerge more exhausted than we entered, but victorious nonetheless, straining with determination to overlook the fact that it is now Thursday evening. We are far too tired to begin relishing in inactivity now, so we’ll have an early bed and endeavour to enjoy the sloth life tomorrow.

We wake up at 6.30am on Friday. This is progress. We settle onto our hoovered sofa, eyeing the freshly stocked fridge, and rest our slippered feet on the polished table, breathing in the scent of freshly roasted coffee as we clasp the warm mug in both hands. 

By 10am we are mind-numbingly bored. This, dear teacher friends, is the crux of the cycle; when half-term really begins. This is where we gravitate towards the spaces that truly refresh our souls. Perhaps it’s the bookshop, perhaps it’s the vicinity of friends and loved ones, or a small, local cafe. Perhaps it’s the sea, or the forests, or long drives on country roads. Perhaps it’s a morning yoga class, a frappuccino, some shopping and a sunny beer garden.

Whether it’s in company or solitude, it is only now that teachers will find the headspace to revel in their own pockets of everyday joy. The remainder of our half-term (which is now essentially a long weekend) is ours for the taking. We will sink into the final moments of this leisurely privilege. We will wake progressively later, rouse more slowly and take our time in the smallest of moments.

For a grand total of 48 hours.

Sunday brings with it the final stage of this particular cycle. The anticipatory anxiety begins to seep into our cherished fragments of time. Our vision is cast forwards, towards the Monday morning alarm. The to-do lists begin to resurrect from their slumber, renewed and ready for round two. Once again two worlds collide on the Monday morning. This time our half-term minds scramble to catch up with the necessary working tasks, and we temporarily forget our roles, our responsibilities and, of course, our pre-prepared coffee.

And so the cycle begins again...

Laura Kayes is an advanced practitioner and performing arts lecturer across Luminate Education Group's FE and HE provision

 

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