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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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Jenn's picture

Jeff,

You got the doctor analogy wrong or perhaps it's because we have a different medical system here in Canada (perhaps we have a different education system too). Comparing a doctor providing additional testing would be the same as expecting a teacher to have a specialized software program to get the job done. What do you think doctors or teachers were expected to do when there was none of that in days gone by - as I said they would be required to provide the most optimal outcome within their means. So, again, you've missed the point. As I expect a doctor to come with current medical knowledge to my annual physical, a receptive attitude, an updated understanding of the latest pharmaceuticals, and an implicit joy in his calling, dedication to his work, a continual honing of his skills to his patient's benefit, and integrity and ethics above and beyond what I would expect of my plumber (according to his oath), so do I expect the teacher teaching my child to have the same. Those qualities are all within the person and have nothing to do with any above and beyond. And yes like any good employer I do demand the utmost for the salary I pay. As a parent it is my absolute right to have high expectations of my child's teacher while she is in his classroom, five days a week, ten months of the year. Tell me Jeff, do you really want to look back on this generation of children and say "Yup, we taught them the basics, that's all we were paid to do"?

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

Yes, my analogy was based on the US healthcare system, but my understanding of the Canadian system is that your doctor does the utmost of what's available given the realities of funding, availability, etc., and if you want anything beyond what's available, you have to go elsewhere. (Some wealthy Canadians do go to the US to pay for treatments that are above and beyond what's considered medically necessary.)

Jenn writes:
"And yes like any good employer I do demand the utmost for the salary I pay."

In my school, the salary you pay includes seven hours of face time each school day, plus one additional hour per week availability for extra help, plus two additional hours per month for meetings. It also includes whatever time is necessary outside of the school day to prepare lessons, tests, homework assignments, grade papers, etc. A good rule of thumb is that it takes a minimum of half an hour of prep time per hour of instruction. I happen to spend double that because I provide pre-written class notes on my website for every class, but that's above and beyond what's required. (Of course, if a teacher has three sections of the same class, the prep for that class only needs to happen once.) It takes about twice as long to create and edit a homework assignment or test (including trying all of the problems and thinking through the different ways students might approach them) as it takes for the students to complete it. It takes about 3-5 minutes per student to grade a homework assignment or a test, and maybe twice that for an essay if the teacher is efficient. On an average school day, the typical mediocre "who cares?" teacher you're describing probably needs to spend eight to ten hours on school-related work. I think that's pretty a pretty fair return on the salary you're paying.

Also, remember that teachers are blue-collar union laborers, not white-collar professionals. It's much more apropos to compare teachers with plumbers than with doctors, so your comment of "As I expect a doctor to come with [list of requirements] above and beyond what I would expect of my plumber (according to his oath), so do I expect the teacher teaching my child to have the same." is inappropriate. Perhaps the problem is that your expectations align with your misinformed impression of what you think the teaching profession is "supposed to be" instead of aligning with the profession as it actually exists.

Jenn writes:
"As a parent it is my absolute right to have high expectations of my child's teacher while she is in his classroom, five days a week, ten months of the year. Tell me Jeff, do you really want to look back on this generation of children and say 'Yup, we taught them the basics, that's all we were paid to do'?"

I do much more than that for my own students, and I have no intention of looking back and saying "that's all we were paid to do". I also have no intention of looking back and saying, "If only people like Jenn had realistic expectations of what's possible and worked with teachers instead of just maligning them every chance she got, maybe a higher level of collaboration between parents and teachers would have been possible. Oh well. I tried, but it didn't work."

No, I don't intend to do that. Instead, I'm trying to help you see a point of view that you're steadfastly refusing to consider, in the hopes of turning you from an adversary into an ally. Clearly, it's not working, but just as I wouldn't give up on your daughters' education, I'm not about to give up on yours either.

Jenn's picture

To Jeff and all disgruntled teachers near and far who are like-minded,

You just don't seem to get it so I really do give up :)

I would like to end on a pleasant note - so here's to all you amazing teachers out there and here's to your summers and Christmas breaks and Spring breaks off. Cheers!

The Teacher's Oath

I swear to fulfill, to the best of my ability and judgment, this covenant:* I will respect the hard-won gains of those educators in whose steps I walk, and gladly share such knowledge as is mine with those who are to follow.

* I will apply, for the benefit of my students, all strategies known to be effective, avoiding busy-work in favor of work with real meaning to the students and their families.

* I will remember that there is art to teaching as well as science, and that warmth, sympathy, and understanding may outweigh the textbook reading or the multiple choice test.

* I will work with my colleagues to inspire one another to achieve excellence. I will not be ashamed to say "I know not," nor will I fail to call in my colleagues when the skills of another are needed to help my students.

* If it is given me to enhance a life through teaching, all thanks. But it may also be within my power to cast a shadow over a life; this awesome responsibility must be faced with great humbleness and awareness of my own frailty.

* I will remember that I do not teach a lesson plan, or a reading deficiency, but a human being, whose skills may affect the person's future family and economic stability. My efforts will aim to teach the whole child, and help that child develop in mind and spirit.

* If I do not violate this oath, may I enjoy life and art, respected while I live and remembered with affection thereafter. May I always act so as to preserve the finest traditions of my calling and may I long experience the joy of teaching those who seek my help.

Apposite's picture

Jenn -

"Dear School Administrator,

For the past 13 years I have observed and interacted with and sought out ... "

Complaints all legit in my eyes:) Just don't paint us with one one brush!!!

Apposite's picture

Jenn!

Get yourself a teaching certificate. You seem to know what's wrong. - We need you:) Come in and set the example!!! We can learn from you!

Jenn's picture

This brilliant student hits the nail on the head...though sadly I bet it changed nothing for the lady sitting at the head of the room. Hope I can get the right youtube link here. If I lose you, it's called High School Student Wrecks Teacher. My 14 year old was shown it by a school mate and passed it on How pleased I am they recognized the importance of the message. http://youtu.be/xsoLIpRmQTw

Emily Edwards's picture

This blog post completely resonates with me today. Last night the panic attacks started with the thought of, "Holy Cow I have one 3 weeks until school starts.... I have so much to do!!!" And then the long list of random thoughts poured out onto a notepad making me even more anxious for the start of school.

I do know teachers that have summers off and I just don't understand how they do it. I don't like teaching the exact same thing every year. I would get bored and become a mediocre teacher. I need the summer to rejuvenate myself. I teach art so I spend my summers making art, visiting art museums, taking art classes and visiting with other art educators. I need this sharing to get inspired. If I am not inspired, how can I ask my students to be?

A couple of points in this post that really made me go... "OH YEAH! I do that!".... were:
1. Every bookstore or shop I go into I seem to be looking to add to my library or random boxes of supplies.
2.I try to reflect in the school year as much as I can, but there really isn't enough time revamp those lessons unless you work in the summer too.
3. I too feel like I am crawling towards the finish line by the end of the year with all of my energy completely spent from performing all day long for ten months.

And most of all... I'm sick of that comment that says, "Oh, you are a teacher. Must be nice to have summers off."

Thanks for sharing and thank you for reminding me I am not alone.

worried's picture

It's not "summer's off." It's not possessive or a contraction. It's just plural.
It's not..."is there really a 'them?'" The question mark goes outside the quotation mark if the question mark applies to the whole sentence.
I was searching the web for encouragement to become a teacher, but now I'm discouraged again. Every teacher essay I've encountered just seems to point out how beleaguered they feel and how superhuman they are. Sorry for the nit-picking, but bad punctuation drives me crazy.

Laura Thomas's picture
Laura Thomas
Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal

Hi worried-
Don't despair. Teaching (like many jobs in the service professions) CAN be exhausting. It's also exhilarating and joyful and the best way to change the world. Check out these links for a more positive outlook:

Young People: Don't Be Afraid to Become a Teacher!
http://www.edutopia.org/blog/young-people-dont-fear-teaching-career-elen...

Why We Teach
http://www.edutopia.org/blog/teacher-appreciation-why-we-teach-margaret-...

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