The run up to Christmas is always a mixed blessing for teachers. Mired in the cold and dark of winter, sinking is swathes of marking, we are slowed by a brain thumping, limb stiffening tiredness. This is twinned with the blessed prospect of a two week holiday. For so long in December it all feels so near, yet so far. It can take a concerted effort to stiffen the resolve and willpower and to remember Christmas as the season of good will, kindness and charity, but try we must.
Acts of kindness can be cultivated in a culture of a school. It can start with the school leaders exemplifying the ethos of kindness. This article, from the Harvard Business Review, captures nicely the tangible benefits of being a kind boss. As you may expect, kind bosses can elicit greater commitment and greater productivity by being altruistic and kind. Performance related pay – eat your ash-filled heart out! As Khalil Gilbran said, “Tenderness and kindness are not signs of weakness and despair, but manifestations of strength and resolution.”
And yet, ultimately, we must be kind to ourselves during this cold festive season. School leaders are few, teachers are many. I have written before about the back to work blues that descend as we alight back at work in September. Though the nights are darker, the key principles of beating back the blues and managing our own well-being are the same at the end of the summer holiday and as we near the end of the autumn term. With a seasonal flavour, here is a my Christmas list of principles for teachers:
Be kind. There is a well-known phenomenon for those who do charitable work – known as ‘Helper’s High’. Teachers too can feel this altruism-induced high. A shot of dopamine and a rush of endorphins hits us when we commit small acts of kindness. With this in mind, let’s fend off the tiredness induced Scroogery and be conscious about being kind. It could be a Christmas lunch; a secret gift; an easing of a marking deadline; a word of unsolicited praise and many more. In short, be kind, while there is still time.
Celebrate the festivities with colleagues. The staff Christmas party is an annual rite that is derided for sending too many of us into the pits of a prolonged hangover. But it has a tangible, important benefit for teachers too. An intriguing study of NBA basketballer players showed that tactile communication – yes, that Christmas drink-fuelled dance even – promotes cooperation, soothes stress and builds trust. If that isn’t an evidence-based excuse for kissing under a mistletoe branch I don’t know what is!
Sleep, lots of sleep. Most teachers’ bodies are not crying out for sleep – they need something more like hibernation! Yet, we too often see our daily tiredness and stresses spill into the evening. Fight those sloppy standards of the end of term and give yourself a sleep schedule. Perhaps you need an hour more? Take it. Stick to the schedule. Aim to hold off on the mulled wine as much as you can near bedtime, beyond a small glass with your evening meal. Be self-aware about your levels of tiredness and that of others. Our willpower, despite all the festivities, can be like a tinder box if we are short of sleep and over-stressed.
Exercise. Frost-bitten nights; bleak and black mornings – frankly, there is little time or will for exercise. But bursts of exercise can be essential for your well-being. Find creases of time. Take a walk at break time or lunchtime for 15 minutes. Go for a brisk jog through the mellow mists of Sunday morning. Your body will thank you for it.
Food – Tis the season. Tiredness drains away our willpower. A million diets begin in January in response to the hazy and lazy excesses of November and December. Fight the urge. The advent calendar isn’t a cue to gorge the entire month of chocolate treats; too much Christmas pudding will send you into a food coma. Remember, an apple a day can help keep the teacher awake and the Christmas spirit is not brandy – it is kindness!
Look out for your friends. Christmas is the time of good cheer, but of course, good cheer too often comes in finite supply. For many teachers, Christmas is a signal for financial pressures or the unrealistic expectations provided by a hoped for holiday. Keep an eye out for colleagues who are low. Perhaps they are missing loved ones, or stressed by the expectations of family, or by work creeping into their holiday. The tiredness and darkness, coupled with these issues, is a recipe for a lonely, festive-less time. Take care of your fellow teachers and students too. It will prove of more worth than any grand Christmas gift.
Ray Bradbury in his great dystopian story, Fahrenheit 451, captured the power of kindness at Christmas (or at any time) in our schools:
“We cannot tell the precise moment when friendship is formed. As in filling a vessel drop by drop, there is at last a drop which makes it run over; so in a series of kindnesses there is at last one which makes the heart run over.”