A few years ago, a teacher requested a week off from work in February to take a family vacation.
For those outside of education, this sounds like a reasonable request. Winters in the northern half of the United States are brutal. February is an ideal time to travel not only because you avoid some of the harshest weather, but also because it's the midway point between holiday break and springtime temps.
However, for those inside education, this reasoning is chastised. Teachers are supposed to work when school is in session, meaning most school districts deny these requests. Making matters worse, there is a good chance this employee will be labeled as "uncommitted" or "pretentious" for vacationing mid-quarter.
The staff member was visibly nervous while asking for this time. However, she did a great job explaining that she really wanted her children to see their aging grandparents. She explored going during winter break but couldn't find dates that worked, and her children's sports commitments limited her spring break options. Finally, she clarified she would take three days of unpaid leave.
I knew this teacher well. Not only did I realize she had a solid attendance record, I also knew she was good with numbers. She obviously had calculated the price of the trip plus the cost of not getting paid for three days of work. This was not going to be a cheap vacation!
I considered the request for another moment and then said three simple words:
“I trust you.”
The look on her face said it all - she was grinning ear to ear! We continued to discuss the trip and the activities her parents had planned for the grandkids. When our conversation ended, she was nearly in tears. I’m sure she couldn’t wait to share the good news with her family.
In education, there is a prevailing opinion that employees should not take vacation when school is in session. This perspective is understandable, as research outlines the connection between student performance and teacher attendance.
However, one can argue there is another, more important metric at play in this decision: staff happiness.
Allowing staff to make decisions about taking time off is just one action that leads to staff wellbeing. When we say "I trust you" to take the time off work, we are also saying "I trust you" in all aspects of your job.
If staff are not trusted to make a personal decision - such as the best time to take vacation - then why would they go above and beyond in their everyday job? As leaders, our job is not to control staff, but rather to create an environment of trust.
I’m not saying districts should allow employees to abuse the system. When approving extended absences, leaders would be wise to document the absence and note that similar future absences may not be permitted. Furthermore, employees with poor attendance histories should not be given the same freedom as their colleagues.
Our school district adopted a core value which reads: We create an atmosphere where staff feel valued, trusted, and respected. By approaching conversations about leave time with empathy as opposed to skepticism, we inch one step closer to fulfilling this ideology.
Upon returning from her vacation, I saw this teacher standing outside her classroom. When asked about her trip, she immediately grabbed her phone and flipped through several pictures of her children with their grandparents. Her family created memories that will last a lifetime.
Not only did the teacher have a noticeable bounce in her step for weeks, I believe the teacher was more committed to our school than ever before.
We may have lost one week of effective teaching while the teacher was gone, but we gained years of motivation when the teacher returned.