A few years ago, I had a teacher request a week off from work in February to take a family vacation.
I could tell the staff member was nervous asking for this time. Educators have a common understanding that family trips should be planned around three breaks: Summer Break, Winter Break, and Spring Break.
In many school districts, when asking for extended vacation time in February there is a good chance the employee will be denied. Furthermore, there is a good chance the employee will be considered crazy for making the request.
This teacher explained she was hoping to take her children to see their grandparents. She explored going during winter break but couldn't find dates that worked. Additionally, her children's sports commitments limited her spring break options.
The teacher indicated she had two personal days to use. The last three days she would need to take as unpaid leave.
I knew this teacher was well. Not only did I realize she had a solid attendance record, I also knew she was good with numbers. She had obviously done the math by calculating 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!
Most importantly, I knew this teacher well enough to understand this trip was important to her and her family.
I considered the request for another moment and then said three simple words:
“I trust you.”
If only you could have seen the look on her face - 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 be allowed to take vacation when school is in session. I understand this perspective, as there is a positive correlation between student performance and teacher attendance.
However, I would argue staff happiness and engagement are two metrics that are difficult to beat.
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.
George Curous discusses this topic in his book The Innovator's Mindset: "If you are not trusted to make a common-sense decision, why would you go above and beyond to become innovative? As leaders in education, our job is not to control those whom we serve, but to unleash their talent by creating a culture where trust is the norm."
Our school district has a core value which reads: We create an atmosphere where staff feel valued, trusted, and respected. By showing empathy when staff request time away from work, we inch one step closer to fulfilling this ideology.
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.
My experience is the more trust employees are showed, the less employees try to work the system.
Upon returning from her vacation I saw this teacher standing outside her classroom. When I asked her how her trip went, she immediately grabbed her phone and flipped through several pictures. 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 has been more engaged ever since.
While we lost one week of effective teaching while the teacher was gone, we gained years of commitment and motivation when the teacher returned.
Looking for a great book discussing the psychology behind taking vacation time? Consider reading Happy Money by Elizabeth Dunn & Michael Norton.