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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

"So you're a teacher, huh?" says the umpteenth Joe know-it-all. I know the tone, and I know what's coming. "Must be nice having summer's off," he sneers.

I don't know what mythical job this guy thinks I have, but I have never had a summer off.

I don't know who these teachers are who are supposedly laying around all summer sippin' sangrias without a thought of prepping for the year before them. But I'm not one of them.

In fact, is there really a "them?"

Bottom line is that every year since entering teaching, and you should know that I am a second career teacher, having come from The World Beyond, I have seen some of the busiest summer months of my life. This is for many reasons:

1. I generally have to work summer school because let's face it, who doesn't need the moo-la? And that's not just about the hours I spend with students, but the hours I need to spend prepping for them. I develop the lesson plans and set up my learning environment for a whole new slew of students that I'll only have for a month or so.

2. I attend or head Department and curriculum meetings that are scheduled during July and August. This summer, I'm working on developing the 8th grade ELA performance tasks for my district. But I'm not the only one. There are teachers all over my district, at every grade level, developing these assessments this year.

3. I develop and improve the curriculum that may or may not have worked over the school year, and summer's the only chunk of time to reflect and tweak those lessons.

4. I build a library of new lessons because, let's face it, I sure as heck don't have a lot of time to do that during a year that is packed full of high-energy, tightly paced, over-scheduled days. I go through my feeds and readers and pull resources to use. I create files to access during the school year. I develop Project Based Learning units to save myself much-needed time during the actual school year.

5. I learn the new technology or new curriculum programs I've been given. Once again, summer's the only time to learn them. So whether I'm being asked to pilot teaching with a class set of iPads (like last summer) or, having now passed those to another teacher, a class set of Chromebooks like this upcoming year, I need to spend my summer educating myself on the tools with which I will be teaching and guiding my students.

6. I write, I blog, I comment. In other words, I maintain my online relationships so that collaboration is easier throughout the school year. After all, not all answers will come from your own staff. You have to develop and maintain a VLC (virtual learning community) as well as a PLC. Resources come from everywhere.

7. I continue my own professional development. I take classes or attend webinars. I join Twitter conversations or Google Hangouts. It's a 24-7-365 education conference out there!

8. I heal and recharge my batteries for the next round of middle schoolers to come through my door. It's true. By the end of the year, teachers are limping towards vacation. And do the math: by the end of summer school, the mythical 2 months you are accused of having off really only amounts to 3 weeks or so until the start of the new year. And those weeks are filled moving your own student desks from the pile in the middle of the room, putting up your bulletin boards, shoving shelves back into place, planning, prepping, preparing, and scabbing over.

Teachers as Yearlong Learners

Back to my Joe Know-it-all: I really should've asked if he wanted to spend his year doing what I do. I spend my days, my minutes, and my hours existing at the pace of a middle schooler. Frankly, I deserve some time off after that. But the fact is, not only do I not get it, I don't know how I would ever function with it.

After all, thinking like a teacher never ends. And when you love teaching, you can't just turn it off at the end of June.

You still continue to search for books in every store to replenish your classroom library. When a big news story comes out, you immediately try to seek out that last copy of the New York Times to use as a primary document to refer to in upcoming years. You pick up props and realia to supplement your lesson plans.

The fact is, we need the breaks we get in order to do the job that we do 10 months of the year. And the other 2 months are spent doing other parts of the job.

Civilians don't realize the toll that teaching takes on a person, on their energy, their appearance even. You ever see the pictures of a president before their term began and after their term ended? Well, teaching's kinda like that. Adult humans aren't built to spend their days with hundreds of children each day. It takes a lot out of an adult to have their antennae up so high, so often, so consistently.

And yet we have troops of people willing to return to the classroom year after year, with no summer break, just for the honor of calling themselves teachers.

The least those civilians can do is acknowledge that while their children are at camp, giving them a break from parenting, we intend to do what we always do...be teachers.

Hope you are having a great summer.

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Jenn's picture

Hi David,

Before I respond to your statements, let me make a brief U-turn back to what the initial issue was in the article that brought us all to this current conversation, teachers becoming annoyed with laypeople presuming their summer vacations are just that, and according to the writer presuming incorrectly. So I'd like to share a facebook message from one of my teacher friends today that made me laugh in spite of all this turbulent activity about this issue -- I paraphrase that teacher's words: "Today is my first official day of summer vacation...I sat around doing nothing, napping and eating carbs, when I should be doing something to truly enjoy myself." A teacher's words - not mine. But was I surprised? No. To tell the truth, I was happy she was off for the summer. Now back to your statements you wish me to respond to. I am surprised the classrooms you know of run the gammut of genius I.Q. to highly-deficient I.Q.'s - sounds like a one room classroom from the pioneer days. No, in Canada our teachers do not have that range of learning abilities in the students in their classrooms. Kids like my young daughter who are fitted with a gifted designation can be removed to a self-contained classroom or given enrichment along with the regular program. For children with learning deficiencies that stay in the mainstream class, a support teacher is provided on a one on one basis. So, the abilities of the students teachers are teaching should fall within reasonably similar parameters. The teachers, and their subjective grading I was referring to, are teaching advanced, clever students, with many of the subjects being taught in French immersion or at an enrichment level. These are smart kids who turn in papers that challenge, innovate and excite and many teachers are not prepared to deal with that. I dare say some are even threatened by it. Instead of embracing brilliance, they try to cut it down to size or break it up into something that fits into their cookie cutter molds. Point in case : an English teacher requested of her grade ten class that an essay be written exploring how the father in To Kill a Mockingbird was an entirely selfless individual both in his morals and parenting. All the teacher wanted was a standard essay making an argument for this. My daughter rejected this thesis, explaining that from her point of view the character was completely selfish, although not in the conventional way the way teacher was thinking. At first the teacher tried to persuade her she was incorrect in her thinking, even mistaken, but my daughter would not back down. So confident was she that she could back up her opinion would proof from the text and just beyond the text, that after much ado, the teacher relented. Notice the word I've used. Not encouraged, not happily engaged, not got excited about this...but relented, because she knew my kid was not leaving the desk until the teacher respected her valid points of view. The article was written, was extremely clever and supported with good facts and arguments, and the teacher begrudgingly put a mark to it that was not representative of the kid's clever insight but of how far off her OWN opinion it was. That's worse than a mediocre teacher - that is, in fact, a poor teacher. We go through this over and over again with subjective marking. Hey we all remember those extraordinary teachers who brought life and knowledge to the classroom, who spoke words and taught things that we will never forget. Conversely, in a blur we can probably recall the countless others who were merely putting in their time - they made no mark or impression, they just fill up ours days of schooling. So your other question about how to improve mediocre teachers at their current rates without cutting their pay. Nobody suggested their pay be cut nor their handsome pensions, nor their enviable vacation times. As far as improvement goes, change the curriculum at teachers' college for a start, get it right from the get go, retest teachers periodically, and let them be held accountable to their students, their peers, the school board, and us parents at a high standard. And teachers: Be receptive to feedback. That's a biggie. One of the writers on this forum sent me a private message saying she wasn't going to take any more of my [......] (can't post the word she used here as the forum won't allow me - guess that's why she sent me a private message). Nice. She sort of summed it all up right there. We are having a dialogue on a public forum and because it rubs her the wrong way, she, in her hostility, deems my comments garbage except using the swear word the forum won't allow here. This speaks volumes about the initial problem in the article and the way some teachers ineptly respond to and handle issues that come up, including the benign comment at the beginning of the article "So you're a teacher, huh? Must be nice getting summers off." Well, isn't it?

Apposite's picture

Thank you Jenn:) Your latest post was much more revealing and specific!

Laurie H's picture
Laurie H
High school math teacher from California

I think you are using your limited view and experience to make generalizations about a large group of educators. The reality is, teaching is consuming and exhausting. I love it, though, because it is so important and I feel I connect with my students and their families and have their best interests at heart. I do listen to what they think and compromise when I can. Doing that for students is actually extra work on top of an already packed schedule because of the extra hours it takes in communicating with students and parents and its impact on grading, planning and fairness. When I offer extensions or changes to students, I feel I need to throw similar options out there to all my students. It's much easier to not allow choice when you have 150 students. Even if only 10 ask for or need a different timeline or arrangement that's a lot of discussions and individual situations to contend with on a regular basis. I think you should try to follow your own advice and try to understand the perspective of the teacher, too. Maybe give them the benefit of the doubt and try to start a conversation coming from a position of respect for the other human being you are talking to. Try to realize that teaching is a high burnout field because it is so difficult and consuming to be the kind of teacher that can keep academic standards challenging, engagement levels high, and maintain customer satisfaction. And then, at the end of the day, there is still that one whiny parent out there, ready to hurl insults your way because their 'gifted' child didn't get their way. It seems like you would turn any discussion into an argument.

FYI, I have two kids, teach full-time, have masters degrees in economics and in education and need my summers off. I would never be able to do this without the breaks. I do think about the next year, do some work and some planning, but I try to catch up on my reading, sewing and social relationships. My blood pressure goes down during the summers. I exercise and have time to do things with my kids. I don't fret about the laundry. I don't get time during the school year to do these things or feel deeply relaxed. Also, because of being on a school schedule, all vacations are taken during peak season, with peak pricing.

I didn't always teach. I used to work in the finance industry. Trust me, flying around the country and Canada, first class, with flexible hours and comp time, was much easier than teaching. I made more money, too.

Jenn's picture

Enjoy your summer!! Hope you're refreshed for September. Kindest regards.

Jeff Bigler's picture
Jeff Bigler
High school physics teacher in Lynn, Mass.

I really don't like the complaining that teachers do. It gives the profession a bad name.

One of the many reasons I went into teaching (as a third career) was because of the summer vacations--I think it's important as a parent to be able to spend quality time with my children while they're still of an age when it makes a tremendous difference.

Sure, I continue to do things relating to teaching during the summer. For example, this summer I'm finishing co-authoring a lab for the AP Chemistry lab manual, which the College Board will publish next spring. I also just (this week) announced and set up a wiki where AP Chemistry teachers can collaborate to write additional inquiry-based labs beyond the ones that will be in the manual. I'm starting work on a book about motivating and engaging students in the classroom. I'm upgrading my MOODLE online courseware site, which was four major software releases out of date. I'm editing 350-400 pages of class notes because my department head arranged for me to be able to use them instead of the textbook (because my students find the notes to be much more useful), and they need to be ready for the copiers. I am also revising my assessments to make them a little easier to grade. (This is because I'm going to have 165 students next year. If I can cut the grading time down to 3 minutes for each test, that will cut my grading time down to 8 hours per test. Yes, I could just give machine-scored multiple choice tests, but I get enough additional benefits from seeing how my students approach free-response problems and using that to inform instruction that it makes it worth the extra grading time.)

However, truth be told, I am enjoying all of these tasks. Every single one of them is something I have voluntarily chosen to do. I could easily have said no to any that I didn't want to do, or if I had been concerned about how much time they would take. As it is, I am enjoying the flexibility to be able to work on a few long-term projects for a couple of months. If I felt the need to complain, that would be a symptom of the real problem, which is either the choice of the tasks themselves or paying inadequate attention to the cumulative workload.

I also don't like it when teachers complain about money. Yes, I made significantly more money in industry; yes, it would be nice to make more money than I do currently; and yes, I think teachers are compensated less than many other professions for the quality and quantity of work that we do. But I have what I need, and the job satisfaction has proven to be worth much more to me than the additional money.

Gwyneth Jones - The Daring Librarian's picture

Is the title of my recent blog posting about this same topic! (Google title, first hit) ...Yet mine was more of a LOVE FEST than a defensive diatribe. Just sayin.
I can be an amazing educator, international speaker - presenting in San Diego & invited to go on a 3 city speaking tour of Australia, Tweet every (or every other) day, blog, and still relax, read, re-charge, and re-invigorate my practice enjoying my summers off! See? We have the liberty to choose how we spend it. I also spend great time pampering myself. I get a weekly massage, visit friends, go out to lunches, shop, and READ.
We have the BEST profession in the WORLD if you've answered a calling and are committed and passionate! If you're defensive and prickly...you'll be doomed to be bitter, unhappy, and stressed. Sad, really. Teaching is a joyous experience!...and SO IS SUMMER!
Cheers!
~Gwyneth Jones
The Daring Librarian

Laurie H's picture
Laurie H
High school math teacher from California

Sometimes I get defensive, but I would not agree that that means I am doomed to be all the things you mention. I think I'm just human and was motivated to respond to Jenn's many posts about her general dissatisfaction with teachers. I certainly do a manage some worktime over the summer, but mostly I use it as a time to re-charge, refresh and enjoy family and friends. I am passionate and put a lot of energy into making math accessible and engaging for my students. I love what I do and certainly need the breaks. I don't feel I'm underpaid or overworked. But, the school year is consuming and I let a lot of things go in order to do the best I can. Hopefully, that best is under continuous improvement. :)

If you're actually responding to the blog post, I would agree that this blog gives an exaggerated picture of summer work activities for most teachers. Truly, most people I meet are very positive and complimentary when I say I'm a teacher. Plus, we get discounts at bookstores and craft stores. What a great perk!

Sarah's picture

First, to clarify, We don't have summers off (paid vacation). Summers off is a dream. Summers off are a choice. Can I afford not to work over the summer: maybe, if my husband makes enough money. Or, if the daycare costs more than the money that I will make working. We have have a contract for the school year. In some districts, teachers are laid off every year (but they can't collect unemployment due to the promise of a possible job in the fall, if the budget passes on July 31st). So, whatever a teacher choses to do or not do is their choice. They are not paid for this time.

When did teachers stop being human beings? We aren't perfect. We are going to make mistakes. Teachers are people, too.

Teachers are often defensive: Generally, we put a great deal of time and effort into what we do. We have a personal investment in our students and in our classrooms. Caring about something deeply often makes one defensive. We are tired. We work hard. We work in a giving profession. Teachers bond with our students: "in loco parentis". Our students are our children. We care about what happens to our students. We want them to succeed. We are personally invested and are therefore often defensive. We are attacked daily by individuals, the government and the press. The negativity is oppressive. The anger is schocking.

On the different levels in the classroom: they exist. We have full inclusion. Pull outs are not allowed, per parent and state mandate. Plus, there are many more students needing special ed, Ell and other services. This is real. This is not every class or every classroom, but it is most in public schools. You also have to remember that this is only the academic level. The emotional intelligence and social intelligence levels are also divergent. Divorce, death, poverty, transience, trauma and society all have an impact on our children.

I am a teacher of 18 years. I love teaching. This is my first summer off since I began teaching. Every year, I have either worked two or three jobs, including summer school. I have chosen to take this summer off to teach my own children, childcare costs more than I can make. I will also be working on my curriculum and planning for the school year.

Sarah's picture

It sounds like you are very fortunate. Our gifted program was cut. We also don't have an individual aid for a student with special needs.

"retest teachers periodically": Why? I have taken and passed the PSATs, SATs, GREs, WV teacher test, NY teacher test, MA Math teacher test, MA teacher test, MA Engineering teacher test, etc... How many more tests must I take to prove that I can teach?

"let them be held accountable to their students, their peers, the school board, and us parents at a high standard.": We are held accountable: every day.

Business versus teaching: try having your products talk back to you and have an opinion the next time you are creating them.

"receptive to feedback": remember, we receive feedback from everyone. Many of the parents are not skilled in the education field or knowledgeable. Plus, people are generally out of the field of education for at least 20+ years prior to having a child in the school system. Do you think the ideas of someone who sat in a classroom years ago, a person that may or may not have had an interest in education, might be out of touch with how to educate a child?

Sitting in a classroom doesn't mean that a person knows how to teach or what it takes to educate a child. This goes for former students that are now parents and teachers.

Sarah's picture

Sometimes I think that we should change our day from 7 to 3 into 9 to 5. It would take away the perception that we don't work a full day.

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