'Teachers' term-end cliff edge isn't healthy'

Working at 100% right up to the holiday and suddenly stopping isn't good, says Natasha Devon. Here she offers a few tips

Natasha Devon, World Mental Health Day, mental health

"You can’t carry on like this," said a family member to me a few weeks ago. I looked at her, quizzically, wondering what on earth she meant. "Every time we speak," she elaborated, "you’re dashing off to some school somewhere on five hours’ sleep intending to write a bit of your book and answer all your emails on the train journey."

"I know," I replied. "BUT…"

"…And I know what you’re going to say," she cut me off. "You’re going to say, ‘It’s the holidays coming up.' But is that healthy, really, to just stop?"

The answer to her question is, of course, that I don’t "just stop". It took me a good few years when I first started working in education – I would have what effectively amounted to a miniature nervous breakdown every year in late July – to realise that suddenly going from 100 mph to 0 isn’t healthy for anyone. As someone with an anxiety disorder, I have a huge surplus of nervous energy. A therapist once described it as "obsessive-compulsive drive" and explained that if I don’t have a project to channel it into, the anxiety will turn inwards.

Since learning this, I’ve ensured that I always have a few projects in place to keep me ticking over during the summer. I volunteer at Aberystwyth University’s summer school for sixth-formers and give myself some arbitrary deadlines for whichever book I’m writing or editing at the time.

Of course, as a person who works in mental health, I know that a lifestyle of frantic term-time chunks interspersed with large periods of almost total freedom isn’t ideal. I also know that I’m far from the only person living this way. So, to help education professionals navigate the time between now and September, I’ve collated some nuggets of wisdom from experts below:

Relaxation 'is a productive use of your time'

Eleanor Miller, from Mental Health First Aid England, says: “Believe you are entitled to relaxation and recreation and that this is a productive use of your time: using the holiday period to reset yourself is an important part of managing any stress levels that may have built up during the term time. For some, this might mean reconnecting with something you love doing but struggle to do when work gets in the way - hobbies come in many forms and are a great way to shift our focus and create enjoyment. For others, the holidays might just mean taking time to relax, taking the foot off the pedal and building in some family and friends' time – but at a pace that suits you, rather than your diary.”

Shahroo Izadi, author of The Kindness Method, says: “Think about how you want to feel when you go back next term and work backwards from there. If you want to feel rejuvenated and productive with a renewed patience, then take this opportunity to start making small changes in your daily routine that get you there: be that 10 minutes of guided meditation, a brisk walk, a daily journal or a healthy smoothie in the mornings. The summer holidays provide a great chunk of time to adopt habits you’ve been meaning to adopt with fewer daily stresses testing your resilience to keep them up. By the time the holidays are coming to an end, you can develop a whole new set of autopilot behaviours that positively impact your wellbeing.”

Martin Seager, a consultant clinical psychologist, says: “Bookmark the break with some preparation time so the holiday is narrowed a bit under your own control and the break in the middle can feel more genuinely free. Use the summer to reflect on what you have learned about yourself from teaching the previous term and what your class would want you to do more or less of if they were asked. It might help to imagine how it would be if you were a teacher in the place where you are visiting on holiday and if you were on holiday in the place where you teach.”

Sarah, from the charity No Panic, says: “Anything that you love to do boosts confidence and a feeling of wellbeing. Even if it is just half an hour each day; yoga, walk in the countryside, baking...anything that you have no time for during term-time. The six weeks will probably fly by, but don't spend the whole time thinking about what needs to be done before going back. At the beginning of the hols, write a list of things that need to be attended to and leave yourself a week to organise these." 

Dr Pooky Knightsmith, vice-chair of the Children and Young People’s Mental Health Coalition, says: “We can often feel a lot of guilt about the fact that during term time we are so involved with looking after everybody else’s children that we’ve often run out of time and emotional energy when it comes to our own family. Making time to enjoy our loved ones with real quality memory-making time can be brilliant. It doesn’t have to be big lavish holidays, it might just be frisbee in the park (a personal favourite). But just being together in an uncomplicated way can feel good after a frazzling term. (Conversely, sometimes we can just need space for ourselves and if you need a break from your kids, that’s OK, too. All feel like that sometimes, no matter how picture perfect other people’s families might look on social media!)”

I also threw the question out to Teachers on Twitter. Here are some of my favourite responses:

“Go on holiday asap after we break up – Empties my mind and fills it with flight details, new languages etc to create a new state of relaxed alertness.” @ottleyoconnor

“Sorting! Sorting out the cupboards where I have just chucked things since September. Sorting the clothes drawers, sorting the garden…..Always feels like a load lifted!” @phillipaleah

“I collapse entirely for the first couple of weeks and then spend the rest of the summer slowly learning how to be human again, just in time for teaching in September.” @Peritract

“I go camping as soon as school finishes. No technology, best friends, fresh air and the seaside – Feel recharged straight away.” @louise_druce

“I sit on an inflatable in the middle of the sea and throw red pens and last year’s lesson plans into the water.” @cockneyteacher

Happy holidays, all!

Natasha Devon MBE is the former government mental health champion. She is a writer and campaigner and visits an average of three schools per week all over the UK. She tweets @_natashadevon. Find out more about her work here

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