Holidays and Health 3: Why Teachers need a Summer Holiday

A few years ago I wrote a post about the impact of the summer holiday on my health called Holidays and Health. I followed this up with a second post in 2018, Holidays and Health Revisited, after my move to museum education, where I showed that my health seemed to be better over the summer, even though I was working running a Summer school for part of the time. I concluded that teachers might need the six-week summer holiday for the sake of their health.

This year there was some discussion about whether there should be a long summer holiday. Some argued that children had already missed a lot of school time and that a shorter holiday would be an opportunity to ‘catch up’. Proponents of this view Often didn’t seem to take into consideration that schools had not closed, remaining open to children of key workers, and teachers had worked harder than ever.

This made me think about my old blog post and whether my two year comparison might have been a fluke. I decided to gather data from my Fitbit over the last two years. In 2019 I had been working part time in a secondary school and part time in the Education team at The Bodleian Libraries. This had included a writing school for young writers (14-18) from local state schools during the summer holiday. 2020 started with a similar pattern, but in the spring I moved to working full time for the University, splitting my time between the education teams at the Bodleian and the Museum of Natural History. A planned summer school was converted to the virtual Six Legs of Summer resource, but we did work with children at summer school run by a local community association who wanted to help local parents and carers get kids ready for school in September.

My resting heart rate over Summer

As the graph shows, it looks like the 2018 graph wasn’t a fluke. My resting heart rate has remained lower that when I worked full time in school and does not seem to vary much across the holiday period. Perhaps significantly, it is lower than at any point during any point in the summer of 2017.

Resting heart rate is only one measure of health and these results are from only one individual. It would be interesting to see wider research in this area. Nevertheless, this data does seem to support my original view that teachers need a lengthy summer break in order to experience a positive impact on their health.

On the other hand, maybe it’s not the length of the holiday that’s the issue, but what happens in term time that requires six weeks to recover!

Why do we get sick in our holiday?

It’s the half term break and my Twitter feed is full of the usual story: teachers falling ill as their long awaited holiday starts. Is this just coincidence, people get sick all the time, so some will in their holiday, or is this a real effect? Are teachers actually more likely to become ill during the break from school? More importantly, if it is real, what can we do to prevent it?

Leisure Sickness

This term ‘leisure sickness’ has been coined by Dutch psychologist Ad Vingerhoets to describe the widespread anecdotal experience of becoming ill when we have a holiday. This isn’t a condition formally recognised in medicine but while there isn’t a straightforward mechanism to explain a link, we do know that illness can be induced by the effects of stress. It’s not the holiday itself that makes us ill, but the impact of stress in the run up to the holiday on our immune system.

Stress and Illness

In 1984 Janice Keicolt-Glaser demonstrated a link between exam-related stress in medical students and reduced immune function. Sheldon Cohen then demonstrated that people who reported stressful events in their life were more likely to become infected when intentionally exposed to cold viruses using nasal drops and were also more likely to develop clinical cold symptoms. Cohen’s research later showed that a range of chronic stressors (ie persisting for a month or more) increased our susceptibility to the common cold. The most significant stressors investigated in this study were those related to work.

So there is good evidence that chronic stress can impair immune function and increase susceptibility to infectious disease, but what about teaching? In a study of almost 300 US teachers, Dworkin et al (1990) found that illness increased proportionally to job stress. This supports the idea that workplace stress in schools contributes to teachers becoming ill.

Since a half-term is typically 6-8 weeks, workplace stress for teachers typically persists for over a month at a time, falling into Cohen’s definition of ‘chronic’. This is enough time for our immune system to become impaired do that we become more susceptible to infection. Add to this the incubation period for most cold viruses, and that’s the right timescale for teachers to begin coughing and sneezing just as their holiday starts!

What can we do?

The good news is that research indicates that there are several things we can do to reduce our chances of becoming ill.

1. Looking after our work-life balance during term-time rather than waiting for down-time in the holiday. We need to balance the demands of work with our health needs all the time. Easier said than done! Significant steps include being able to switch off from work and getting enough quality sleep.

2. Looking after our health. This includes making time for exercise, eating healthily, and avoiding things which have an adverse impact on our ability such as smoking. Cohen’s research shows that all these have a protective function. Initiatives like Teacher 5 a day can be a big help here.

3. Looking after each other. There is good research evidence that social support can provide protection against the effects of stress. If we all take some time to look out for each other, perhaps especially towards the end of term, we will all fare better. Those in leadership positions may have a special role to play: Dworkin’s study found that there was significantly less stress-related illness among teachers with a supportive School Principal.

You might also be interested in my posts on holidays and health which explore differences in resting heart rate during term-time and holidays.

Image: Pixabay

Summertime and the living is easy?

School has broken up for Summer but I’m on the bus to work.

School has broken up for Summer but I’m on the bus to work. That’s because this year included a momentous change for me. After over 25 years of teaching in secondary schools, I left to work as education officer at Oxford University Museum of Natural History. I’m still teaching children, but visiting different schools, rather than working in one. You can read more about this here.

This Summer, we’re working with a charity that organises holidays for children. We’ll also be running our own summer school.

Not surprisingly, there are many differences between my old job and my new one, but as I read all the end-of-term posts by teachers on social media, the long school holiday, which is no longer part of my terms and conditions, is uppermost in my mind. Not because I’m missing it, but because I’m not.

Don’t worry, I’m not about to start moaning about teachers getting long holidays! That struggle to the end of term is all too resonant in my memory, together with that weird paradox whereby the number of tasks you have to complete seems to multiply exponentially as the time left to do them dwindles. I know that teachers absolutely need the Summer holiday, and so do the children they teach. What I’m wondering is why education is run in such a way that teachers need at least six weeks every summer to recover from the academic year?

From the perspective of my recent job change, I think there are three main reasons.

1. Relentless pace

This won’t be a surprise to any teacher, but the pace of work – by which I mean that there is often too much to do in the available time – inevitably means that teachers end up using their evenings, weekends, and ‘holidays’ to work – planning and assessing. We do this because we want to do a good job and do the best for the children in our care, but the danger is that we end up chasing the horizon, too frazzled to be effective and on our knees by the end of term.

In my new role, I find that my team leader insists that the work we plan is sustainable. My line manager is concerned that we build in enough time for admin tasks in our schedule, that outreach visits are timed so as not to exhaust us, and that sufficient priority is given to reflective evaluation. Staff are encouraged to take a proper lunch break and we were recently reminded to set ‘out of office’ messages on email when we aren’t at work.

The result of this is that I’m s much more effective teacher, the children have a much better learning experience, and the next day (after spending quality time with my family) I have the energy to do it all over again!

2. Too few opportunities to collaborate

One consequence of that unremitting pace, is that there is too little time to hone our practice. I believe the best way to do this is through collaboration. As Robert John Meehan says:

The most valuable resource that all teachers have is each other. Without collaboration our growth is limited to our own perspectives.

We can spend so much time trying to stay on top of the work, that collaboration and improvement get squeezed out. Worse still, we can come to resent meetings as a distraction rather than fantastic opportunities to create better ways of working.

Each week, there is a wider team meeting and a specific project meeting. Both are opportunities for colleagues to share updates on projects, encompassing both strategic and operational elements. There have been several occasions where input from others has been significant in moving the project I work on forward, both through ideas and practical assistance. I hope that on occasion I have been able to help others.

3. Lack of control

I believe that one of the key sources of stress within the teaching profession is lack of control. Teachers are given a lot of personal authority in their classes, but often it seems that it’s everyone else and their dog telling us how and what we should be teaching! This can leave some wondering why, when they were appointed for their individual expertise and creativity, they are then treated like programmable automatons. For schools the challenge is to achieve a consistency of pupil experience without stamping out the individuality of teachers. I think the answer is supported autonomy, creating conditions where teachers can thrive. Others have written eloquently about this topic, including this recent blog post by John Tomsett on solving the recruitment & retention crisis.

in my new role I and my colleague have experienced this by being given freedom, within the objectives and budget of the project, to plan and implement outreach days. That doesn’t mean our work isn’t open to collaborative input, evaluation and constructive criticism, but it does mean that we have ownership of it.

The result of addressing these three elements, ensuring workload is manageable, that there is effective collaboration, and that team members experience supported autonomy, is that the project is proving very successful, with significantly positive pupil outcomes and excellent feedback from participating schools, and that I’m happy on my bus ride into work, looking forward to the day ahead. Even during the school holidays.

Exams: Use the motivation, lose the stress

2021-22 Update

I have updated this popular article, originally posted in 2018, to include links to advice from the GCSE / A Level exam boards on examinations and stress.

Teachers look to balance ways to motivate our students to perform at their best, with awareness of how to avoid damaging stress or anxiety. Parents and carers also want their children to succeed, but may be worried by the pressure placed upon them. The pandemic has led to increased anxiety in many young people and disruption to both internal assessments and external exams means that they have had less practice preparing for and working under exam conditions.

With the move to norm-referenced GCSEs, there is an increased focus on terminal examinations but we do not know with any real certainty where grade boundaries will be set. Students who in the past would have been able to ‘bank’ a proportion of marks from centre-assessed components, coursework, or modular exams, must now pitch all their effort into a few summer weeks.

Here, I have extended previous posts on exams (based on an exercise I developed through teaching psychology) to produce this guide to maximising motivation while beating exam stress. I have also included further links to helpful information.


Ten tips to beat exam stress

  1. Get organised. Make sure you know what exams you have for each subject and which topics are covered in each paper. Get to know which kind of questions to expect for each subject and paper. Make sure you know when each exam starts and where it will be. Your school should give you a list – stick a copy up at home or transfer the information to a family calendar.
  2. Manage your time. Your time is precious, so make the best use of it. Draw up a revision timetable to help you do this, breaking up your revision into manageable chunks. Many people like to plan in terms of an hour – 50 minutes of revision and a ten-minute break. Make sure you build in breaks between sessions to maintain your effectiveness. You might find it helpful to set a timer with an alarm to help you stick to your schedule. Block out any time on your calendar when you have to do other things, including some time when you can step away from revision and re-engage with friends and family (see No.8).
  3. Stay in control by sticking to your plan. Use it to review what you have already achieved and what you need to do next. It’s a good idea to spend the first few minutes of each revision session reviewing what you covered in the last one.
  4. Create the right environment. Work somewhere that is light, has enough space, and is distraction-free. Visual input from TV, screens & social media will just distract you, so it all needs to be switched off and put away while you revise. You may feel that listening to music is OK, or even helpful, but some research suggests that this can also reduce the effectiveness of revision. If finding a place to revise at home is difficult, ask your teachers about what school can do to help.
  5. Boost your confidence. Use a revision journal to record your progress. Recall things that have gone well in the past and the areas you have covered in your schedule. Make a note of things which you were unclear about but now understand. A journal is a good way to note any questions for your teacher the next time you have a lesson. You can also use it visualise your success.
  6. Eat healthily and stay hydrated. Build proper meal breaks into your schedule and time for exercise, even if it’s just going for a walk. Don’t forget to drink to stay hydrated while you revise. Avoid ‘energy’ drinks: they may give the illusion of alertness but actually impair your performance. People may say they help, but ask yourself why you never see an advert saying ‘Drink Red Bull: it helps you revise.’ It’s because it doesn’t and making such a claim in an advert would break the law.
  7. Get enough sleep; don’t stay up late revising; a tired brain does not work well, either at the time, or the next morning. ‘Energy’ drinks or tablets are not a substitute for sleep.
  8. Friends & family. Let them know you have exams and need to revise. Keep in touch during those breaks you planned into your revision, but be strict with yourself about keeping revision time for revision.
  9. Avoid life changes. Stay on course with your revision. It’s quite normal to find that things you don’t have to revise become suddenly interesting, but avoid distractions and stay on track. Now is not the time to start a new relationship or plan to run away to the circus (however tempting that may seem).
  10. Understand your body and the signals it sends you. Recognise that signs of exam nerves like ‘butterflies in the stomach’ a dry mouth, or sweaty palms are nothing to worry about. They are just symptoms telling you that your body is preparing for action. Actors sometime use a technique to tackle stage fright. They tell themselves that these feelings are of excitement, rather than fear. You might try the same for exams – they are a chance for you to perform, to show the examiner what you have learned.

Helpful Links

Many organisations provide advice on revision, preparing for exams, and tackling exam stress. Here are some of the most accessible:

  • Students can get more help and advice on student life in general, including specific advice on taking exams, and the impact of the pandemic, from the Student Minds website
  • These pages from the Mind website include a handy downloadable PDF document as part of their student Mental Health Hub.
  • The Teen Mental Health website has more information about the stress response, the ‘myth of evil stress’ and a range of strategies for healthy stress management.
  • AQA provide advice for candidates on Managing Exam Stress. They also advise talking to parents, teachers or a school counsellor.
  • Edexcel/Pearson have advice on Exam Stress and Wellbeing including tips for a calm approach to revision ans mindfulness.
  • OCR have tips on Looking After Yourself and guides on time management and avoiding procrastination.
  • WJEC/CBAC have advice on Exploring and Eliminating Stress, including recognising & combatting signs of stress written by Dr Rachel Dodge.
  • Parents and carers can find advice about supporting their children through exams on this area of the NHS Choices website

I hope you found this post useful – feel free to use and adapt it as you wish. If you know of other useful resources, or have your own advice, please let me know with a comment.

Image: Wikimedia