TM4T NQT - A Teachers Guide to Winding Down

Changing Gear: How to Wind Down

Imagine a car with only two gears: first and fifth. It might go fast - in fact it might get you to your destination quicker than a regular car - but would it be efficient? Nope. Could it cope with rough terrain or unexpected obstacles? Definitely nope. Yet that is how many teachers live their professional lives - using only two gears. They take term-time in top gear; full speed and no breaks. Then at end-of-term, the breaks, oops... brakes do go on - hard. Now I know this works for some people. Just like those annoying nonagenarians who credit their longevity to booze and fags, some teachers simply thrive on a binge-and-purge lifestyle of non-stop-activity at school and then inactive-torpor at end of term. If it works for you, fine, but it really isn't the best way for most teachers. It is far better to have more than two options - a few more gears between really-fast and dead-slow. To help you extend your flexibility, here are our top tips for winding down at the end of term.

1. Trivia Day

One valuable technique which is almost never used in schools is triva day (it goes by different names in business). This involves doing a half-day's work with only two rules: (1) You must work hard and (2) You musn't do anything really important. This might be a time when you clear up your filing, delete you old e-mails, or work out how the photocopier works. This technique has a number of benefits. Firstly, you can get things done which you have been meaning to get done all year. Secondly, you can prioritise the things which are really bothering you, rather than those deemed important by the school leadership or your over-active conscience... and, most importantly, you can remind yourself what it feels like to work without any real external pressure or deadline. Frequently, any undirected time on the last day of term is one of the few chances in the year to have a trivia day.

2. Don't Plan; Plan to Plan

If you are going to do any schoolwork over the Xmas break, it's best to plan it in advance - but you need to plan it in the right frame of mind. Teachers don't always appreciate that a person's personality and mood can dramatically influence how effectively they plan. Don't make your plans on the last day of term if you're feeling exhausted or exhilarated - you are likely to either under-commit or over-commit yourself. Give yourself at least two days of complete break from any school-related activity, then-and-only-then consider how much work, and what kind of work, you should be doing over your vacation. Put that date and action 'Plan any Xmas work' in your diary and that's it for now. If you don't do your planning in the right frame of mind, then you risk coming back to school tired out “I should have tried to relax a bit more” or behind schedule “I wish I'd done a bit more Xmas planning and bit less Xmas pudding”.

3. Remember E-Mail.

Yes, 'remember' e-mail, because 'forget e-mail' rarely works. Teachers who try to cut themselves off entirely risk frustration or missing-something-important. This applies especially if you're one of those teachers who can pick up their school e-mail at home. You need to set up rules which mean you don't-need-to and aren't-going-to look at or check e-mails every day. This might involve a number of things: unlinking your school e-mail account from your personal e-mail account; adding an auto-reply to your school e-mail account, or just imposing some self-discipline regarding when and how often you log on.

If you are genuinely 'on holiday' then you should never check your school e-mail routinely more than twice a week, and you should actively discourage any routine communication during the holiday. Prepare your polite push-offs in advance: “Thanks for your e-mail, but I won't be able to look at this till I go back to school in January - please feel free to remind me about it then.”

4. Plan to Relax

If you do intend to do some work this Xmas, then make sure you plan the important stuff - family, relaxation, enjoyment, sleep - FIRST. Make your family and health your unequivocal priority, then plan any school-work around any time that's left over.

You should also consider what pattern of work works best for you. Most experts advise a clear separation between working and not-working: this means that each day you will be doing either one or the other, and never mixing the two. However, quite a lot of teachers prefer the opposite approach: flip-flopping hourly between work and relaxation. It's your holiday - you decide.

5. Plan to Reflect

Many of us didn't set out to be teachers. We were athletes, bilbliophiles, scientists first. Holidays are a great time to remind yourself of where your heart lies academically and to update your subject knowledge and refresh your subject interest. That doesn't necessarily mean that you have to study in the academic sense, or to develop lesson resources; simply invest some time in whatever subject you have chosen to specialise in. Just do it for yourself.

6. Rainy day projects

This is a really good habit to get into during term-time: if there are things on your to-do list that you can't do during the year, don't abandon them completely. Create a 'rainy day' list at the back of your planner, consisting of valuable but time-consuming things which you would like to do if you had the time.

Well, during your vacation you do have the time, so revisit that list now. Sometimes, you will remember with a rush of enthusiasm and tackle it with vigour; other times, you will wonder why you wrote it down in the first place and cross it off your list forever. Either way, you build up a sense of achievement and a mental belief in your own ability to do what you planned to do.

7. Tackle your worries.

Some teachers go back to school with the same worries as when they left, having studiously avoided thinking about school during their vacations. This is not, for most people, a good strategy. Again, don't tackle this on the last day of term; give yourself at least a few days to unwind and unworry. Then think, reflect, discuss, analyse and decide. Sketch out mentally what you are trying to achieve, what choices you have, what resources you need, what you could and can't do, what your preferred approach is, and what your fallback options are. Make sure you go back to school better prepared, with a clearer mind and a more positive outlook than when you left.

8. Rebuild Relationships.

There is no universal rule that teachers must like each other, and sometimes things do go a bit sour. Xmas and New Year offer gilt-edged, rose-tinged opportunities to put the past behind and to work together better.

If you've missed the opportunity to mend bridges over the mince pies, then use the New Year to offer peace (or a least a truce) in any staffroom squabbles.

9. Resolutions

Back to Point 2 (Plan-to-Plan). It's difficult to do New Year without making resolutions, and it is even more difficult to get to Easter without breaking them. The key trick is knowing when to make resolutions, and making them at just-that-time. You need a calm, happy time - moonlit seashores are good - and make your resolutions ones that you will achieve, and which will you will enjoy achieving.

10. Smile

Remember, if you are in any doubt whether to work or relax over Xmas, then the answer is almost certainly: 'smile'.