Administrative Tips for Being Productive Over Breaks Without Losing Your Mind
It's a scene familiar to any battle-tested school leader: the last bell rings, horns honk, and tires squeal in the parking lot. Students wish their teachers a fond farewell. Summer, spring, winter, or fall, breaks are (almost) universally celebrated in schools.
The question is, how can you enjoy the breaks, recharge a little, and refresh for the next semester while still being prepared to hit the ground running when you return?
School's Out! Get Out!
It may be tempting to clear off your desk or answer a few last e-mails before leaving, but it will all still be there when you return. Your family needs you. Go home. If you linger, you'll just be tempting fate and end up having to resolve some situation or another. I tend to wander out to the cafeteria and always end up going all Ted Knight on groups of remaining students. That's not healthy. I should just go home, and so should you.
Americans are well-known workaholics, and one study indicates that almost half of us don't take all the vacation time we are entitled for one reason or another. School leaders are notorious for this, as we are in a child-centered business and are often the public face of our schools.
Don't worry, it will be there when you get back. Students will show up. School will run. For the school to run to the best of its ability, the school needs a leader who knows when to go home and recharge.
Get Back In ... for One Day
I build my school's master schedule. It's generally a thankless, extremely time-consuming task, and I often need hours of focused, unencumbered time to even begin to get it right. That rarely happens when school is in session, and it almost never happens when I'm at home with the kids. That's why one day, just one glorious, quiet day at school is usually all I need to stay ahead of the game.
If you are lucky enough to have the option, you may want to dedicate one day over a break to making significant progress on a major work project. As a bonus, you should be able to count that day as a "calendar day" at the end of the year and gain a day of summer vacation. Don't be a martyr, though. One day can easily become two or three if you let it. Set a limit, and set concrete goals for that time.
Schedule Check-In Time
Our work worlds have changed. An "out of office" message is no longer enough to placate the public in an age of instantaneous communication expectations and a concomitant dearth of patience. And although it is certainly your right to do so on non-work days, I find that it's more of a hassle to play catch-up after a vacation than it is to maintain some level of connectedness while on break.
The key is to stay connected without losing your mind. I like to schedule short time blocks of about fifteen to thirty minutes at a regular time—usually over my morning coffee—to check e-mail. After that, I'm unplugged for the rest of the day, working around the house or spending time with my kids.
Dr. Suzanne Gelb encourages people to have a healthier relationship with their e-mail at work, including removing push notifications and checking it only at set times during the workday. On a break, these strategies can and should be taken further.
Read Something Professional, Read Something Fun
I never get a chance to read as much as I would like to during the school year, and by the time the kids are in bed, I'm just too tired to read more than a few pages of something. To sharpen the saw and stay current in the literature, I have found that breaks are an outstanding time to binge read. I have to give up some TV time to do it, but it's worth it.
My goal is to read at least one professional book, at least one professional periodical, and a pile of "fun" things during every break. Most recently, I curled up with Building Equity: Policies and Practices to Empower All Learners and learned about a framework for assessing and acting upon equity issues in our schools. I then skimmed issues of Educational Leadership that had gone neglected during the busy school year. This freed up the rest of my break for some lighter reading unrelated to my job. Treat professional reading as a part of your pleasure reading routine, and it may be more enjoyable for you too.
Work Only If It Doesn't Feel Like Work
I have a simple rule when taking work home over a break: if it feels like typical workweek drudgery, I stop doing it. For me, completing work tasks over break should feel like a hobby and not a part of my job.
If I wake up, well-rested, feeling alert and energized, that's a good time for me to quickly hammer out a teacher evaluation that is due upon my return. I find that the work gets done in less than a third of the time it would take me to complete it at my desk or after school on a typical day. I can then bank those hours and make sure that I spend them on family or personal time.
Find the Balance
If a complete and total shutdown works for you, by all means, do it. If, like many (most?) of us, you are required or feel the need to work during a periodic recess, try to schedule short, productive activities that don't feel like you are working. That way, you'll stay productive over the break and still feel re-energized when you return.