Six weeks of sanity | Education Support Partnership

Six weeks of sanity

Andy Sammons, Head of English at a large comprehensive explains why it’s vital we embrace ‘the slow’ during the summer holidays.

Before I started my first teaching role, I was asked into my school to do some tutoring. A conversation I had with a deputy has stuck with me ever since. Unthinkingly, I said to him: ‘what the hell am I supposed to do for six weeks?’ A tired, warm and wry smile spread across his face. His response: ‘nothing.’

Ten years on, I get it. Really get it. I’ve been very open about my own mental health struggles in a previous post. Last year, the holidays gave me the chance to stop. They gave me the opportunity to decompress, to take stock, and to find some peace.

I always liken humans to pressure cookers: in any walk of life we need to find ways of decompressing. For me, it’s as inevitable as the laws of physics. Unfortunately for human beings, though, too often we are encouraged (or just simply not aware enough) to not find ways of releasing the pressure.

Yes, there is a certain amount of discomfort that comes with an adjustment of pace. We’ve been wired for weeks to build up to the crescendo of the year end (in financial sectors, it’s April, in education, it’s the June/July exam season which comes again when we have to get everything ready for the following September). Put simply, you can’t expect to turn your systems off at the click of a finger: there’s always going to be a need to be mindful of slowing down and re-integrating with the rest of humanity.

My book refers to the Compassion Focussed Therapy model, a model which asserts that the brain has three parts: a threat, a drive and a soothe. We need these three parts to be chuntering along at suitable levels if we are to live a mentally healthy life. The summer allows us to work on our soothe; it allows us to spend time with people that - like it or not- we have less opportunity to spend time with during the school year. There are profoundly positive - and proven - aspects to this in terms of the long term. Just like the hormone cortisol pumping round our body has destructive effects on our minds, long-term oxytocin pumping through our bodies is a seriously good thing.

It’s inevitable that when term starts we’re going to be swept up in the ebbs and flows of the school year. That’s not to say that we simply revert to type when September comes- it’s to say that we should seize the opportunity to enjoy a period of time when things wind down over a substantial period of time.

We owe it to ourselves to have self-compassion and awareness to learn about the things which help us to be calm and peaceful is an exceptionally powerful thing to have in our armoury to combat poor mental health. For me, the summer holiday provides an ideal opportunity and space to (re)-learn about this.

People wince when I say that I’m going to be doing some work over the holidays: they don’t understand that it’s the aspect of my work that I love. I’ll be reading about Shakespeare, Child Psychology and generally how to teach English better. I’ve also got some geeky data analysis to do: the key for me is that it’s stuff I enjoy or stuff that will make me feel more confident and energised for the new term. Again, self-awareness is everything- if we’re motivated by the things that make us happy and give us soothe and drive, then all well and good. However, if we’re under pressure from ourselves or even people we work for to do things to save our self-image or even our jobs, then I think that’s another consideration altogether.

Andy Sammons is author of The Compassionate Teacher (published by John Catt). He is a current Head of English at a large comprehensive school in Yorkshire.