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Summer break not really a break for teachers

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

It’s the old familiar refrain: "Oh, you’re a teacher? It must be nice to have those summers off." Or, the more sneering version: "You know, those of us in the adult world have to work the whole year."

Although these comments are frequently dripping with condescension, I’m personally more offended by their sheer untruth. I personally didn’t know a single teacher on my 7th grade team who truly had the summer off. We were all either teaching summer school, leading youths on service learning projects in Costa Rica, participating in professional development sessions, or, in my case, coaching new teachers.

Most teachers will tell you that we get those summers off because, well, we need it! I personally work about 60 to 70 hours a week. It’s more than I’m contracted to work, but I willingly do it because in teaching, it’s just a given that you’re going to work outside of the school day. (Some of you in the aforementioned "adult world" call this "overtime pay.") And when I’m working, I’m working.

There’s not really a lot of sit-at-your-desk time as a teacher. That’s for after school. I have to be "on" all day long, and if on a particular day I don’t feel like being "on," then oh well! Thirty students are depending on me to teach them, and the quality education they deserve will always trump my own personal moods and whims.

Furthermore, like many other jobs, education has become a very goal-driven field. The structure of the year provides a very clear beginning, middle, and end, with time to recharge in between (that would be the summer). For some teachers, like my aunt (who has taught special ed in suburban Chicago for over 20 years), this means making a clean, temporary break from the profession to recollect and rejuvenate. Some teachers need this to avoid burnout. Other teachers use this time to engage in projects and undergo training (like my colleagues who participated in service learning and professional development) to enhance their practice during the year; such activities need at least a few weeks of focus in order to be truly meaningful for the instructor. Finally, some teachers need this month to earn extra money to pay for things like grad school debt and family expenses.

To speak of my own experiences, I had a somewhat grueling summer coaching 16 new teachers with Teach For America. It was hard work (16 hour days, to be exact), but some of the best professional development I’ve ever had. There’s nothing like reviewing 80 lesson plans a week and observing eight-plus hours a week to hone your instructional craft.

It was an opportunity that I would never have been able to pursue without a summer off. In spite of this, however, I’m still tempted by the idea of a year-round schedule, like the one currently being tested out in Chicago’s public schools. When I was at home in Illinois a few weeks ago with my family, this was quite the hot topic in the news. Initially, the idea seems counter-intuitive – won’t students and teachers become exhausted by a seemingly never-ending cycle of schooling?

Malcolm Gladwell, author of Outliers, would disagree. He includes a chapter on KIPP schools in his book, which chalks up much of the charter network’s success to its longer school year. Gladwell argues that our current outdated school calendar allows students’ growing minds to lie dormant throughout much of the summer, thus failing to retain most of the gains they worked so hard to achieve during the year.

I can’t say his argument is without merit. As we approach the beginning of the year again, I’m a little anxious to see how my students from last year fared over the past few months. I’m not even sure how ready I feel to begin the year, and I spent all but one week this summer in classrooms! Luckily, we assigned a rigorous summer reading assignment that students’ families were very much behind, but what about the schools who are not in such a fortunate position?

As a teacher myself, I think I could get behind the idea of year-round schooling. The idea of getting slightly longer breaks throughout the year is attractive to me. I think that such a schedule could actually increase the sense of urgency during the year – with 180 days broken up into smaller chunks, I think students and teachers alike will more acutely feel the limited time we actually have during the school year to make huge gains. And anyway, it’s how the "adult world" works, after all.

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