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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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The Myth of Having Summers Off

Heather Wolpert-Gawron

Middle School teacher by day, Tweenteacher by night

"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.

Originally Published April 13, 2014

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Apposite's picture

@ Kim - I used to think that way too and believe it's more common than we want to admit. Talk about a reality check though when I did begin teaching!

Jenn's picture

Hi Kim,

I am sorry you perceived my response as angry. Perhaps that over-sensitivity is where the initial problem starts when people merely comment how lovely it is that teachers get so much vacation time. All the best.

Dawn Lynch's picture

Jenn

You fail to think of the teachers who are also parents (like myself) that do all of those things you do (I stayed home for those first 5 yrs, worked 3rd shift AND instructed my children) and received NO PAY. And then, joined the ranks of teachers and do most of those things the writer mentioned for LITTLE pay. There are good and bad practititioners in ALL professions...teachers bear the brunt of crtiticisms because we serve all children (includng the ones from bad parents--there are those too) and any reasonable person would see it is very difficult to get into 180 minds on a daily basis....the BEST change comes from within. You sound like someone with lots of great ideas--how about joining instead of complaining?? You might be able to reach more than just your own.

Kim - 46662's picture

[quote]Hi Kim,

I am sorry you perceived my response as angry. Perhaps that over-sensitivity is where the initial problem starts when people merely comment how lovely it is that teachers get so much vacation time. All the best.[/quote]

A mere comment is easy to swallow...a tirade replete with insults is quite another. Anyway, no problem, you have a right to say what you want. I just felt the need to say that as a first year teacher, teachers don't deserve that kind of lashing, especially now that I've been in their shoes for a full year. I'm an upstander, what can I say? ;)

I have experienced what that job entails and I've never had a job where I had to make hundreds of split second decisions and detours with students and administrators at such a fast pace day after day. Safe to say, my stamina is kicking! Jenn, seriously, you should try it if you have the option. You've already indicated that you feel passionate about education. It opened my eyes so much to how students learn today versus how I learned in the 80s. I promise at the end of the year, you won't say, "Hey, I get too much vacation time".

Oh, by the way, you made a comment about having to pay for teachers' summer vacations. That's erroneous. See, they opt to get their 10-month pay out OR deduct income from their 10-month work schedule to cover a 12-month pay out. So we're only being paid for 10 months, no worries.

Jenn's picture

Hi,

I don't mean to kick a dead dog, but I will respond yet again. What you consider a tirade was a rebuttal to some outlandish statements made by another writer. In a public forum of dialogue, that is acceptable. I am not anti-teacher. I took abundant time out of my schedule to nominate a phenomenal one for a national award (Canada). I will never not give credit where credit is due. What I cannot tolerate are whiny teachers who seem to think their positions are so much more demanding than others and who will not admit to their perks. Celebrate your summers and breaks off, just don't pretend they don't exist. Having an over-achieving honours student in Grade 11 who has to constantly challenge some (not all) of her teachers to get results, and a grade 8 student who has been in a self-contained gifted class for the last four years who has had to endure mediocre teaching presented as something much superior, I have a growing list of frustrations with teachers who are just putting in the day, the week, and then picking up their pay cheques and racing out of the parking lot so quickly at 3:45 I cannot reach them on the phone to speak with them. There are AMAZING and UNFORGETTABLE teachers who are commendable. And some...not so much. The list of examples I could provide of consistently inadequate behaviour and skills would be lengthy and depending on one's mood, also humourous. I find myself often having to pick up the slack for these teachers on my time with my kids. By the way, a pro-rated pay allotment for the summer months is still payment. Hey, we have a new show in Canada called Mr. D, a satirical look at an underachieving teacher. Can't tell you how many occasions my older daughter has commented with a smile on her face that the character's irresponsible behaviour mirrors that which she sees at high school on a consistent basis. All the best.

David's picture
David
Currently working on an MAT in Biology, Chemistry, and General Science

I just have few comments without getting nasty. 1) If you think teachers are overpaid AND mediocore, how do you suggest increasing teacher quality at the current pay scale? If you cut pay to what you consider a reasonable rate, there are a lot of teachers that might just opt to leave the profession to be store managers and such. We have to pay off those student loans somehow. 2) I appreciate that you have above-average kids. I do, too. The problem is that teachers have to find someway to reach a broad range of kids (literally from genius I.Q.s to mentally rretarded I.Q.s) in the same classes. At least that's the way it is around here. So, no matter how you present the material, some kids are going to be bored to death and some aren't going to understand it because its way over their heads. Project based learning is supposed to take care of that. However, in my experience that lands you right back in the land of subjective grading that you seem to have a serious problem with.

Apposite's picture

No doubt you have bright children and are an astute critic where you see imbalance Jenn. As you know, in any profession or trade there is a continuum of best to bottom level and most teachers that I know are like what Rosemary and N Krause describe. They may start out with only basic knowledge but move forward as experience is gained. I think you said you home schooled? I was home schooled through third grade and other members of my family went to school at home longer than that. My own mom was very similar to you and made some of the exact same remarks. When it came to teachers in the public schools, as long as she saw and knew that they were trying and communicating to her, she was okay with them. However woe be to the teacher who was careless and didn't let her know if there were issues. Also, even though she could be a potential tyrant she always expected us to show respect and do our best work. There was no excuse for discipline issues albeit she might admit the teacher was dull or we were bored but that was never an excuse for bad behavior. She would look at our report cards and then assess whether those grades were ours or the teacher's. Usually, we owned the bad grades because we were not working hard enough or were not telling her we were having problems with a subject. However we were generally good students and if both parties were working hard all was okay, not ideal, but mutual best efforts were acceptable. Now, I am not saying a teacher gets a job and takes a static approach to his/her career. The comments I see here are merely an effort to explain just what does goes into teaching when it's done with heart, mind, and soul. I also believe that some onus is on the student to go the extra distance and communicate that they are not challenged. In addition there are (as you would know) gifted programs and other community organizations to deal with students such as your children. When teachers get the "summers off" comment it is just natural to try and communicate it isn't always what it looks like. That is what all these responses are about and of course we all know it is human nature to defend what is near and dear to us when challenged by negative remarks. Many teachers travel abroad to various national seminars in their subject or research area. I don't mean to be patronizing or condescending here, but I think we are only human like anybody else and work to be as good as we can be. Curiously and without guile or gambit, how would you define a good teacher?

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.

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