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Expert opinion from IOE, UCL's Faculty of Education and Society


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

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 20 February 2014

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!”