One of the things I really try to do as a teacher is to make sure that my breaks from work are my time. I know that some of you are probably thinking this isn’t possible. Instead of visions of sugarplums dancing in your head over the break, you see visions of yourself hunched over a table at the local 24/7 IHOP grading papers and slurping down cups of bottomless coffee—all while families come and go, smiling and laughing and enjoying their time together. It took me years of teaching to force myself to take back my breaks and devote that time to my hobbies, my family, and myself.
It’s kind of like that airplane rule that says when you’re traveling with a child and the air mask deploys, you are supposed to put the mask on yourself first and the child second. Why? Why is this the FAA regulation? Well, because you can’t help anyone, let alone your own child, if you aren’t conscious. Teaching is the same as parenting in many ways. We need time to breathe, to exercise, to get our doctor’s appointments in and grooming done so that we can step back into the classroom renewed and ready to help our students meet success.
Did I mention that the last time I had a manicure and pedicure was in August? NOT KIDDING! You can guarantee that is the first to-do item on my list for the upcoming break… along with going to the dentist. There’s also a Bikram yoga place across the street that I’ve wanted to try, so I’m going to check that out over the break to see how I like it. And, of course, I can’t wait to see my family, spend time with my daughter, and have a conversation with the hubs that entails more than just “Hello. Goodbye” like a Beatles song.
But how is this possible as a teacher? Extended breaks offer up a significant amount of time to grade papers, to plan, and to catch up. It’s tempting to use that time to get ahead so that you are prepared to fall behind again. But you shouldn’t. Put the pen down. Put the papers down. I guarantee you that a single student will not miss out on life success because his 10th grade World Lit teacher didn’t get his essay graded until two weeks after the holiday break. And if you happen to teach a Paris Gellar-type who emails you over the break about that essay, she can wait, and she will survive. And now we know things turn out all right for Paris thanks to Netflix. But wait… why are you checking your email? Caught you!
So, how does a teacher set work aside and not think about teaching for two whole weeks???
The solution to taking back your holiday breaks all comes down to buying yourself time before and after the break to do the things that need to get done. In essence, it all comes down to planning. Here, I’m offering up some handy tips for buying yourself the time you need before and after a holiday break to get all the work done so that you can be stress free during the break.
These are the FIVE TIPS that I follow and build into my curriculum calendars every single year so that I can use my break time as my break time.
1. Build your curriculum calendar so that the weeks before and after break are for enrichment activities and projects.
Typically, the weeks before and after a long break see a higher rate of student absences due to common seasonal illnesses or families that take vacations earlier or later. It’s also a time when students as well as teachers are tired and mentally checked out. These are not great times to launch into a crucial unit or introduce a new skill because students are less likely to absorb the material and less likely to acquire new skills.
Instead, use these weeks for enriching your students’ cultural knowledge, or exploring a previous unit in greater depth. Just make sure that you aren’t taking any major grades because you are guaranteed to have students absent and will have to face makeups after break. I like to use these weeks to give participation grades, but remember that we do not have to grade every single thing that our students do. Our job as teachers is to audit our students’ work, to check in with our students every once in a while to see how they are progressing. But that’s another blog for another time.
These are fantastic weeks for group projects, and for teachers on the secondary level, this is a great time to allow your students the freedom to choose what they want to study. If you teach English, give them a free choice book club. If you teach Chemistry, allow students a chance to select their own experiments and report their findings back to the class. If you teach history, let students pick any topic of interest, research it, and present it to the class. It’s amazing what students come up with when they are free to choose what they want to do. This is where my Reggio Amelia and social collectivist teaching philosophy begin to show. Trust your students, release some control, and see what happens.
2. Make sure all major assignments are submitted about two weeks before the break.
I like to close up shop on any major graded assignments such as essays, projects, and/or tests about two weeks before break. This not only allows me a couple of weeks before break to get everything graded and get absent students caught up, but I find that it also helps out my students as well because most other teachers will have tests and major projects due right before the break. I have had students thank me for making the week before break a lighter load for them in English class because of the stress from their other classes. It’s a win-win situation!
If you can’t do it quite this early, try to get those major assignments in as early as possible before the break. Another added benefit of closing up shop on major grades this early before break allows you time to catch up students who have fallen behind. I will often take students who are failing or borderline failing and have them makeup work in class while other students complete an enrichment project. As a side note, I would also suggest not to have any major tests or major assignments due after break. I think our students need a break just as much as we do so that they are refreshed and ready to work hard when they return.
3. Do not introduce any new units or major assignments until the second week after returning from the break.
This goes hand-in-hand with the previous tips. With greater than usual student absences and burnt out students who are cramming for tests in all of their classes, it’s just not a good time to launch into something brand new before a long break—especially something that is a crucial new skill or unit. I’ve seen teachers do this, and all it yielded was frustration for both teachers and students.
Instead, enrich, enrich, enrich! When returning from the break, try to allot some breathing room that first week back (which is usually a short week anyway) before starting into a new unit. Allow yourself some time to readjust and to plan for this new marking period. I like to start a new unit the second week back from a long break. This gives me a few days to get my bearings and make sure my students are reengaged.
4. Give students time to reflect back on the first semester.
A great way to spend the enrichment time before and/or after the break is to allow students time to reflect back on what they’ve created and learned. You can have students go back through their notebooks, Writer’s Notebooks, journals, textbooks, folders, portfolios, etc. and see how far they’ve come. They can also set goals for the new semester and share their expectations for what they would like to learn. I have created a reflection question guide for the end of the semester that you can find as a FREE DOWNLOAD HERE!
The second day back from a long break is an excellent time for reflection. Students can see more clearly what they’ve learned once they’ve had some separation from the material over the break. They will come back with fresher eyes and a better sense of the goals they need to set for the new semester.
5. Reengage students after a long break with icebreakers like you use at the very beginning of the school year.
When you return from break, your students will most likely need some help getting their engines started up again. I suggest dusting off those icebreaker activities from the first days of school and doing some of them again on the days back from the holiday break. Using this time to reflect, complete icebreakers, and present findings from enrichment activities will buy you time as a teacher to wrap up any leftover grading and also plan the next marking period. On the secondary level, student schedules sometimes change at semester, sometimes significantly, due to semester-long electives, so you could find that your classes are quite different in the second semester. So, taking the time to reorient your students as a group is a good use of time. It’s also a good time to remind students of classroom rules and procedures. Chances are, the holiday break made them forget.