Professional Learning

Teachers: Are You Taking Time Off This Summer?

Rest and relaxation for educators

July 6, 2012

When people ask me if I'm taking some time off while school is out, I respond, "a little," being intentionally vague. I'm embarrassed, actually, that I'm taking so few days off this summer (a total of eight, really).

"It's my choice," I add. "This is self-imposed." But is it, I wonder?

My "choice" to work straight through the summer conflicts with some of my core values: that people should prioritize down time, vacation, rest, fun and play and non-cerebral activities, with loved ones or alone. I believe in time-off. I have never felt guilty about time off. I wasn't indoctrinated into a Puritan work ethic; my family valued summers on the beach, happy hours, dancing, and planting tomatoes.

Recently I read Imagine: How Creativity Works by Jonah Lehrer. He explores what happens in the brain when insight and imagination are sparked and what kinds of external conditions foster creativity. This was a good read with interesting applications for education. What stuck in my mind most was how critical rest, sleep, vacation, and down-time is for creativity. I know this already -- I know that in order to be creative I need to do things like take long walks alone and disconnect from the audiobooks that I obsessively consume. But I seem to need validation from New York Times best-selling authors. I also like knowing what's happening in my brain -- the neuroscience -- when I spend hours sitting on my deck staring at the sky.

In this opinion essay in the New York Times called "The 'Busy' Trap," Tim Kreider writes,

"Idleness is not just a vacation, an indulgence or a vice; it is as indispensable to the brain as vitamin D is to the body, and deprived of it we suffer a mental affliction as disfiguring as rickets. The space and quiet that idleness provides is a necessary condition for standing back from life and seeing it whole, for making unexpected connections and waiting for the wild summer lightning strikes of inspiration -- it is, paradoxically, necessary to getting any work done."

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Here we go again with why we need to rest in order to work. But maybe that's exactly the dilemma I'm trying to find a way out of: the argument that we rest so that we can work or be creative -- not rest for its own sake. What would that be?

The summer after my first year teaching, I did a four-day training and took the remaining two and a half months off. Although I was completely broke and in debt, I knew I desperately needed a rest -- that first teaching year had consumed me. And it was a lot of fun and when school started again, I was reenergized.

The Reality

Something has happened since then and I'm not sure I like it. My summertime has dwindled every year and now I'm down to eight days off. This is my choice, I keep telling myself: I've been on an 11-month work contract for a few years, I'm finishing my book on instructional/school coaching, preparing to take on a new role next year, picking up a little work on the side, and there are books that I'm committed to reading this summer (like Punished: Policing the Lives of Black and Latino Boys, by Victor Rios, which is an extremely important book). But when I'm lying in bed on a Saturday morning, highlighter and sticky notes in hand, and my husband wakes up and looks at what I'm reading, even though he refrains from commenting, I know what he's thinking. I know he wishes I would read trashy Chic Lit. Or that I'd just sleep in.

Why can't I stop? Here's what I tell myself:

#1. I need the money. There's the mortgage and kid expenses, I should have a savings account, I would love a vacation next year, I like my iPhone and kitchen appliances and I like to buy lots of books and organic fruit. I live in the expensive San Francisco Bay area, my husband is a teacher, and I have chosen a lifestyle with a certain price tag.

Last week I thought: If I could forego the money I'm making this summer, if I didn't need it, would I be working? Easy answer: No. So do I really need the money? Or is this my choice? It's both, but this year the "need" feels like it outweighs the choice.

#2. I'm ambitious. I want to share my work, what I've experienced and learned and the conclusions I've drawn and the ideas that I have about how we can transform education. Writing the book is about this commitment -- the financial reward is pathetic -- I am writing it because I think it could help, it could be a contribution.

I scan myself for ego involvement, but really what I keep ending up at is that I think I do have some test-driven, effective strategies for making our schools more humane places, for impacting the lives of young people, for helping adults find happier ways of working together in schools -- and I yearn to share those ideas. In fact, I've often been tempted by the idea of publishing under a pseudonym -- and not because I want to publish stuff that a school teacher shouldn't be associated with, but because I don't really need to be personally associated with my ideas. "Ambition" is a term I don't like; maybe I'll find another frame to use like "commitment" or something else.

#3. I'm insatiably curious. I can't stop reading. I go on vacation with triple the number of books I can reasonably read. I've always been this way.

But I need a break. I do. I can feel the fatigue spreading inside my being like invisible mold. Ew. That's a gross metaphor.

The Goal

Here's what I can do this summer: I can make my eight days (two, four-day chunks) really count. I can be really off for those days -- no reading about anything related to education or social justice, or about children, no email or blog reading or tweeting. And I can plan for a full two weeks off in December. And I can continue reflecting on the choices I've made and the way I spend my time.

I guess right now that's all I can do aside from quitting my job, selling my house, and moving to an artist's colony in southern France. Or maybe Costa Rica where at least I have family and speak the language. Actually, that doesn't sound so bad.

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