Originally written on December 18, 2015. Each year, I expand on this.
I still remember my first winter break in my first year of teaching. I scratched out Christmas Eve and Christmas as true “days off,” but then I worked the rest of the time. I read two books on teaching. I took home a giant box full of papers to grade. I planned out my first three weeks of lesson plans.
Don’t get me wrong, I did this leisurely, between cups of coffee and . . . more cups of coffee. To be honest, I enjoyed it.
When I started back, I felt ready to roll. I had used my time productively. But then something happened in late January. I felt restless and tired. I yearned for a break — not just from my classroom but from the daydreaming of projects and the incessant lesson planning in my own head. I wanted to watch a movie and read a novel and hang out with friends.
I needed to be unproductive.
So, months later, when I sputtered into Spring Break, I treated it like a break. A real break. A totally unproductive break. I gave myself the permission to avoid grading. I avoided professional books and blogs (unlike the summer when I would immerse myself in professional reading). I didn’t feel an ounce of guilt from the people who complained that “teachers have it easy” (not true) because of how much vacation time they get.
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Teaching is Exhausting.
Teaching is exhausting. There’s the sense of presence you need, the constant energy you bring, the give and take between students, the conflicts you have to navigate, the sense of pressure about the tests and the tension between what you believe about learning and what the system requires of you.
This is especially true for introverted teachers like me. We work in a profession with constant communication and collaboration. It’s beautiful, yes, but it’s also disorienting to introverts. You can hit a place where you feel lost. And, even if you love teaching, it can feel draining.
Sometimes it’s more than simply exhaustion. There’s often a perfectionism in teaching that can lead to an unhealthy striving and lack of contentment. Sometimes you need to break up with busy:
When Teachers Rest, We All Win
People say that teaching is a marathon and I think they’re right. Even when you finish a marathon and you cross the finish line and you receive that metal and you crazy proud of what you’ve accomplished, you still find yourself collapsing on the ground in exhaustion.
That’s winter break right there.
I mention this because I sometimes see a narrative that the “good teachers” are the ones who spend their summers in professional development or in committees planning out lessons. It’s easy, as teachers, to get sucked into the martyr syndrome, believing that you should selflessly give everything you have because you’re doing it for the children. I call this the “superhero myth.” It’s an idea I explored in this video I co-created with my friend Trevor Muir:
Martyrs aren’t any good to kids. Students need teachers who are energetic and patient. However, this requires rest and restoration. Moreover, students need teachers who are passionate about the content they are teaching, which is why it’s a positive thing when teachers spend part of the summer geeking out on history or art or math or science. If we want kids to fall in love with reading, it helps to have teachers who spent a part of their summer lost in their own fictional worlds or playing around with the ideas they read in a Malcolm Gladwell book.
Teaching is an exhausting gig. It’s okay to take a break for a week or two (depending on your school calendar). Read a book. Watch movies. Go hiking. Swim. Binge watch Stranger Things. Kick the soccer ball around with your daughter. Go hiking. You’ve poured your heart and soul into this gig. You shouldn’t feel guilty for resting. It’s what your students need.
In fact, there’s a ton of interesting research in the book Rest, that suggests we are more productive and more creative when we spend time resting.
This idea is echoed in an article, where author Thomas Oppong wrote:
According to research, the brain gradually stops registering a sight, sound or feeling if that stimulus remains constant over time. You lose your focus and your performance on the task declines.
When faced with a long creative problem, it is best to impose brief breaks on yourself. Brief mental breaks will actually help you stay focused on your task and improve your idea generation approach. A structured downtime can help you do your best work.
We tend to generate redundant ideas when we don’t take regular breaks. If you’re hesitant to break away because you feel that you’re on a roll, be mindful that it might be a false impression. Your brain needs downtime to remain industrious and generate better ideas.
I love that idea. We need to rest. We need restoration and renewal.
Seven Strategies for Finding Renewal on Winter Break
There’s nothing wrong with doing professional reading or lesson planning or any of that during the break. If that’s your thing, please ignore this entire post. But if you want to treat the winter break as a true break, here are some strategies you might want to try out. For the last week, I’ve been talking to current classroom teachers and adding their strategies to those that I’ve used:
- Take some time for reflection. This can be tricky, but I’ve found that it can help to take a day (or even a half-day) and review student surveys and take an honest look at what’s working and what needs tweaking. If you’re someone who spirals into guilt or feels shame easily, take a different approach. Do end-of-the-semester surveys a little earlier and then spend this reflection time thinking about what went well. One activity would be to list 30 things that you are doing well. In other words, ask yourself, “where am I crushing it as a teacher?”
- Take nothing home. Ditch the grading. Avoid the lesson planning. One of my teacher friends said that he works extra hard two weeks before the break and makes sure everything is ready for him the moment he walks into his room after the break. His philosophy is to “sprint through the finish” by spending a few extra hours on Monday and Tuesday before the break so that his materials are ready and his lessons are planned for the first two weeks after winter break.
- Find inspiration from other domains. Read a book. Watch a movie. Go hiking. Take a real vacation. Spend time doing what you love. Some of my favorite ideas have been inspired by things I read in unrelated books. I got into Genius Hour after reading a book on Google. I changed my feedback process after reading a book about Pixar. I regularly reshape my design by reading works from UX designers. I’m constantly being inspired by podcasts I listen to as well.
- Keep a brainstorming space. Sometimes the slack you feel on your time off can lead to creative breakthroughs. You have those brilliant ideas when you go to bed or when you’re in the shower or while you’re on a walk. It can actually help to record those and then walk away from it. I’ve always kept a notepad where I can jot down ideas for projects, lessons, or activities I want to try out.
- Do something creative. Paint, draw, make friendship bracelets. Okay, maybe not friendship bracelets. But there’s power in doing something truly creative outside the domain of teaching. It helps build empathy with your students as they do creative work while also allowing you to hit a state of flow.
- Spend time with people you love. This is obvious, but it’s something that came up over and over again as I talked to people. They described times when they failed to be fully present with people because of the lesson planning or grading that was looming over their heads. I talked to one teacher who said she felt like she totally missed out on her children’s early childhood years because she couldn’t “turn off the teacher planning brain.”
- Practice mindfulness and meditation. I have a friend who taught for over thirty years and is now teaching again after being retired for a year. She takes part of the winter break to do meditation, practice mindfulness, and keep a journal. She schedules a time at an abbey and treats it like an important business meeting.
Note that these aren’t recipes or requirements. They’re simply ideas you might want to experiment with on your time off. In the end, the more renewal and restoration we experience, the more creative we will be in our teaching. And that, in turn, is better for students.