It’s half-term; do you know where your teacher is?

Karen Edge

In my house, our teacher of importance is my partner. He is a late-entry, career-changing primary teacher in an inner-London school. As our son is still in nursery school, my partner remains the teacher-of-note in our family. He is OUR teacher and like thousands of teachers across the UK, he is on half-term.

However, if someone had asked me yesterday, “It’s half-term, do you know where YOUR teacher is?” my answer would have been simple, straightforward and a little strained: ‘OUR teacher is AT SCHOOL!‘ The nuanced tone of my voice would not have expressed pride or enthusiasm but a slight sense of frustration.

I would have preferred our teacher to be taking a day off, enjoying some rest or recovering from his seemingly mandatory half-term cold/illness. However, along with at least half a dozen teachers from his school, he was at school voluntarily: planning, preparing and working. On behalf of the students in his school and their local community, I am proud of our teacher and his colleagues.  However, this situation does raise questions about teachers’ work and work-life balance… especially in half term.

Question 1: Why do so many teachers and leaders get sick during half-term? This question, is of course, selfishly motivated. Our teacher is sick! He is not alone. Many of my other school-based colleagues quickly succumb to the half-term flu. There is a term for this illness, though it is still actively debated within the scientific community: leisure sickness. It refers to the physiological reaction to the rapid reduction of stress and slowing down often associated with vacations from work. The key here is that discussions of leisure sickness are linked to highly work-pressurised individuals or those with work-related chronic stress. Could this be the issue for teachers?

Question 2: Has teaching become an extreme job? Teacher workload studies regularly find that teachers work substantially more than their much-publicly-debated contractual hours – often upwards of 50 or even 60 hours a work week. While this may seem shocking in the shadow of current public discussions of teacher workload, in our Young Global City Leader research, we work with leaders who often even exceed these hours, with some young London-based headteachers and deputies stating their first years in post had them working between 80 and 90 hours a week.

In the corporate sector, there is a growing discussion of extreme jobs, defined not by extreme physical conditions or danger but the sheer number of hours required of professionals in post. While there are often discussions of the challenges of teaching, specifically in urban locations, I have yet to hear of teaching as an extreme job. Perhaps if teacher workload studies also included half-term and other holidays, or specifically focused on the early years of teaching and leadership – when professionals are putting in longer hours as they develop their expertise – our school-based education professionals may be entering ‘extreme work’ territories.

So, as yet another half-term edges to a close and our teacher is working quietly on planning at the other end of the table, I would like to set out a few wishes for the next school break for all teachers and leaders. For the most part, they are drawn from our emerging evidence, but also from my own home-life of living with a teacher.

First, if you are like our teacher and working in half term, I hope you can plan your next break to really take some time off! The leaders in our study who are finding a work-life balance say that recharging and stepping away from school are essential for enabling them to sustain term-time efforts. They suggest creating clear boundaries around work to protect your life and if you can’t see a clear way to do this, ask colleagues. Second, for teachers and leaders who have managed to find a way not to work during breaks, share your strategies with your colleagues. Be the work-life balance role model that our research participants say are integral to their pursuit of their own better way to work.

Next half-term or school holiday, I hope the answer to the question, “do you know where YOUR teacher is?” is met with a resounding “TAKING A BREAK!”

 

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Posted in Karen Edge, Leadership and management, Teachers and teaching assistants
5 comments on “It’s half-term; do you know where your teacher is?
  1. chriswq says:

    As a semi-retired teacher, when working full time I never expected all the half terms and holidays to be ‘mine’ or to be free of planning/preparation. Considering the number of face-to-face hours teachers work, far less than the long hours required by many other jobs, I used to consider half the holidays to be for me, half to be for planning/prep. I also worked long days in term time. I am sure I could sometimes have worked smarter, and although I tried to do so, I still found myself working very many more hours than I would have done in a different, comparable job. The compensating rewards of seeing the progress of the children was enough for me.
    Whinging about a heavy work load is counter-productive – those in teaching understand, but are as tired as the whingers, those not in teaching see the long summer holidays, plus 2 weeks at Christmas and Easter, plus half terms and dismiss the complaints as rubbish, neither attitude altering the situation at all. Address your own work load and find ways to save time – share planning and resources, etc. and speak to your head if its all too much, and if you can’t find a way to get a work/life balance, perhaps you are in the wrong job, or could work part-time instead. I worked at several jobs before training to teach and can realistically compare teaching with them, and its not all bad. I decided to work 4 days a week so as to stay in teaching and not drown in overwork, cutting down on extras to manage on the 4-days pay. This will not suit everyone but it was right for me, I did planning and prep on my ‘day off’, as well as, quite often, one of the weekend days, but it meant at least one clear day free each week – bliss.

  2. Karen Edge says:

    chriswq: Well said. I don’t think many teachers do think their school ‘holidays’ are for their personal use. However, of late in the press, it seems there is much more discussion that assumes teachers have all the time in the world for their individual non-school/work pursuits.

    Your experience of going down a day to do unpaid work is quite worrisome. It is great that it worked for you but as a profession, we need to be clear about the work that needs to get done and how much time there is to do it. We recently heard, in our own research, of teachers hoping to work mornings only for pay, and then volunteer their time to tend with marking/planning etc, so they could be home for their children in the evenings. While there are issues with the affordability of that option for most, there are massive issues related to a profession where that is even being considered. Much to discuss and debate!!

    Other jurisdictions are openly addressing these issues with large scale research studies (in Ontario for example) or public discussion (in Hong Kong). Both are ‘world leading’ systems, and both are clearly aware of the issues that not tending to teacher/leader workload issues will have on sustainability of the professional workforce.

    Thanks for your comments. Always happy to discuss!!

  3. Jessica says:

    I took a break from sobbing into my marking to read this. Work load is a hot topic right now and I just attended a union meeting today about it. It seems like an almost insurmountable issue to me. In order to really cut down to the 35 hour paid work week something would have to give. I don’t think many teachers would be willing to cut back due to the negative impact on students.

  4. MisterW says:

    To me there is a difference between tasks that I want to do and tasks that I have to do. Tasks that I have to do, such as marking exercise books, I try to avoid doing during holidays and I find that if i do these during holidays I feel resentment. But, there are some tasks which I want to do such as putting up a new display in my classroom or going the extra mile to plan a really interesting sequence of lessons on a particular topic. I often enjoy such tasks, and since I know in the back of my mind that I am only doing this since I’ve chosen to do it it doesn’t cause any resentment. Therefore I would advice teachers to think carefully about the type of task they schedule to complete during holidays. If you’re not early on in your career and you have to put in hours and hours during the holidays just to stay afloat then you really need to ask whether you could work smarter during term time.

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