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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Give Educators a (Summer) Break

A teacher's plea for pause.
By Dan Ouellette
Credit: Brian Cairns

Year-round school? The idea is gaining popularity, especially with parents and policy makers who worry that kids, and our country, are falling behind in education. But for teachers, the idea is like asking a Broadway actor to take on a 300-night run -- and 50 matinees, to boot.

Every morning, when the classroom door opens, a teacher steps onstage and stays there until the last student exits. Unlike Broadway actors, teachers have no script to rely on, nor do they have a revolving cast of replacements. And an audience of students always senses when their teacher/actor is off his or her best performance. They may refrain from booing or throwing rotten fruit, but, in their own way, they can pen a scathing review.

I spent fifteen years as a middle school teacher, working hard to gain an understanding of students who vacillated between being needy children and insightful adults. I not only wrote curriculum tailored to my kids, I also resorted to improvisation when the story line broke down. That may have earned plaudits from my audience, but, by the end of a traditional school year, I was exhausted. Like my colleagues, I needed -- and deserved -- some extended downtime.

I'm aware that things have changed since I was a teacher. I know there are various approaches to scheduling a year-round school and that teachers are not expected to spend twelve months in a classroom without a break. Given a chronic shortage of good teachers, however, I can imagine the school year growing longer while the ranks of teachers fail to grow to keep up with the need for cast changes.

Friends of mine who are not teachers make the point that most Americans work all year, with only two or three weeks of vacation. True enough. But I respectfully submit that teaching is different than accounting, or marketing, or manufacturing. Teachers who approach their jobs creatively are artists who practice, every day, the fine art of teaching. Just as an actor needs time away from the stage to prepare for the next role, a teacher needs a breather to envision the next school year. Whatever you may call summer vacation -- a mini sabbatical or a hiatus, or simply a month or two of something entirely different -- it's essential. If you're moving too fast and your circuits are overloaded, you won't be able to create. You need to stop, dream, be renewed.

Those pushing for an expanded school year -- often, I suspect, people who have never experienced a September-to-June, face-to-face, and, at times, in-your-face relationship with a class full of students -- are quick to point out that teachers get more than two months of vacation in the summer, not counting breaks during the school year. What a cushy job; what a life.

Teachers know the truth. For them, the school year is an epic ten-month encounter that can be exhilarating and frustrating, joyful and miserable, progressive and regressive, and invariably physically, emotionally, and intellectually taxing.

The argument advocating the abolition of summer vacation holds that U.S. schools are losing traction worldwide because students here remain too idle for too long. During July and August, they lose momentum. Teachers, the premise goes, therefore need to be in the classroom for more days and longer hours, pumping the kids with facts and priming them with standardized tests so they can perform better. The curtain never falls. The show never closes.

Every parent knows that kids need to stop and play, unleash energy, or just lie back to watch clouds float by overhead. And teachers need downtime, too, to unplug, kick back, catch up on sleep, write poetry, read those books they started but never finished during the school year. Time off isn't about numbing your brain. It actually stimulates it again after a grueling ten months. You break the cycle. You step off the stage. In the process, you begin to see your upcoming school year with fresh eyes. You find the energy to bring something new to September's classroom.

The concept of a year-round school sounds like a script for a play with a predictable plot, certainly not one that encourages improvisation and artistry. So I say bravo to summer vacation; let's keep it sacrosanct.

Dan Ouellette is a former curriculum consultant for the San Francisco Unified School District who lives and writes in Shelter Island, New York.

Comments (2)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Life-long Nerd's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I know this article is ancient and I may be the only person who has ever read it online, but I am completely mystified by the author's lack of research. Year-round-school is nothing like the misery that is described in this article. Ironically, the very complaints that Mr. Ouellette has with the traditional school year are in fact remedied by year-round shool, which gives frequent breaks to tired minds and weary souls throughout the school year. Not only that, but an extended break (one and a half months) during the summer is exactly the
"simply a month or two of something entirely different" that he calls for. It really is a shame to see so many people so quickly and angrily dismiss something that they know so little about. I could go on, but I'll finish simply by saying that it would seem that someone in the educational field should know to do a little investigation before they so ardently choose a side.

Trisha's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I hear this all the time from all my teacher friends about how hard teachers work. As a registered nurse who faces back-breaking work, the risk of personal infection, verbal abuse from patients, families and doctors, issues like death and dying and the most stressful events in people's lives, I know a little about how hard work can be. And yet I do it year round, weekends, holidays and often at odd hours. I have to compete with other nurses to get a summer vacation so I can spend time with my kids who are off all summer. We all work hard and would love to have the prime months of the summer off to hang out at the pool. The original calendar for school was never designed this way to give the teachers and the kids a break. It was scheduled that way to allow children to work their families' farms in an agrarian society. Welcome to the 21st century where the rest of the world is working 24/7. Education is the only thing that hasn't caught up with the times. No teacher I know can give me a good, sound reason to allow kids' education to be interrupted for almost 3 months out of the year. I believe the kids should have shorter days so they can have a life outside of school Monday through Friday. So they can get some exercise, socialize with friends and family. Eat a leisurely dinner. However, I think there should be MORE of these short days. I agree that teachers are very defensive of their right to this extended time off every year, even though they know they will pay for it by getting kids back on track in the fall. By my estimation, my kids will waste probably more than a full year of useful instruction time by the time they graduate, just getting back into the groove every fall.

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