With the winter holiday season rapidly approaching, students everywhere are counting down the days until they can stuff their textbooks into their lockers and not think about them until “next year.” It probably goes without saying that a lot of teachers are doing the same thing.

Though the thought of taking some much needed time off is a great comfort, many teachers also use their break time to grade and plan. Here are a few ways in which you can best prepare for and make the most of your much deserved winter vacation time.

Plan Accordingly                                                                     
It’s always so tempting to save your grading or lesson planning for that nice chunk of vacation time. Worse, I’ve known teachers to actually collect essays on the last day! “I’ll have loads of time to get it all done,” you say to yourself. Yet again, you have allowed yourself to believe the annual holiday break fallacy that you will spend a couple of hours each day tackling schoolwork. You romanticize rising out of bed in the dim hours of early morning, pulling out your bag of work, selecting a few papers to grade or a few chapters in the textbook to outline while sipping your coffee, glancing outside the frost-covered windowpanes, the snowflakes delicately coating the tree branches, holiday music playing softly in the background. It’s that long-awaited time you’ve been dreaming of where you’ll finally get caught up with all of your work. Sound familiar? Trust me—I used to tell myself this same story every year­. Winter break does this funny thing to a teacher’s mind where year after year, you forget that most of your break time is spent shuffling the kids to their various activities, traveling out of state, visiting family, preparing food for holiday celebrations, gift shopping and wrapping, and the countless other minutiae that take up all of that “free time.” As it happens every year, you will wake up one morning and curse yourself with the realization that break is over in two days and you haven’t touched that stack of papers, which is still sitting in your bag by the front door where you dropped it on the first day of break.

I am here to tell you to STOP THE MADNESS!

As the holidays approach, really take stock of all of the things you need and want to accomplish over break. Think about how much time you will be spending on the aforementioned obligations and chores, and plan accordingly. Before break starts, try to get some grading done so you can enjoy your time off without that nagging voice in the back of your mind telling you that you should be working. If you need copies made for lessons you plan to implement once break is over, make them now so you don’t have to worry about it in the haze of the first day back. Lastly, treat those 10-15 days off like a long weekend—what can you feasibly get done in 3 days, because that’s about all of the time you’ll actually have to work.

Treat Yourself
You’re one third of the way through your school year by the time the winter holidays roll around. Let that sink in for a minute.

You’ve spent every day since late August talking, planning, commenting, guiding, disciplining, emailing, grading, motivating, standing, meeting, praising, and so on all in the name of other people’s education and fulfillment. It is time to treat yourself!

According to the American Psychological Association, not taking vacation days can be detrimental to your health. “To avoid the negative effects of chronic stress and burnout, we need time to replenish and return to our pre-stress level of functioning.” So, when you are given time to disengage from your work, do exactly that. If you don’t take some time to yourself—no matter how selfish that may feel—you could be doing lasting damage to your mental and physical well-being. This, in turn, will make you less effective over time. Use some of this break time to kick back and properly decompress, “so you come back to work feeling reinvigorated and ready to perform at your best,” says the APA.

Take at least a few of these precious days off to do the things you want to do. Arrange a play-date for the kids while you unabashedly sit on the couch sipping hot cocoa while catching up on your favorite Netflix series. Schedule an afternoon visit with friends you haven’t seen in a while. Plan a date night with your significant other at your favorite restaurant. Splurge on a relaxing massage. Feel guilt-free about spending a couple of hours at the gym or walking in the park. Order takeout for dinner one night so you don’t have to cook or clean up afterwards. Turn off your cell phone and take at least a day-long break from social media. It doesn’t matter what you choose so long as the choice is completely your own. No compromises. This is your time. Take it!

Getting Back into the Swing of Things
As with all vacation time, it ends far too quickly. Still, if you managed your workflow by “preparing accordingly” and relaxation time by “treating yourself,” you will feel recharged and ready to tackle the next few months ahead. Having said that, it can be a little tricky reaffirming those daily patterns. A few days before the break is officially over, be sure to do the following to help transition back into your regular hubbub with ease.

  • Wake up when you normally do for the school day
  • Go to bed when you normally do for the school day
  • Lay out your clothes the night before so you don’t waste time thinking about it in the morning
  • Prepare meals you can freeze and reheat easily
  • Take a look at your schedule for the first week back to remind yourself of any meetings, emails, or situations that need addressing
  • Have a clear idea of your lessons plans
  • Organize your school bag
  • Organize your kids’ school bags
  • Once you’re back in the classroom, establish that it’s business as usual

Remember, you’ve earned this time off. Spend it wisely… and try to remember this for next year.