Everyday I meet people who say they just couldn’t do what I do. They tell me how much respect they have for anyone who has the patience to teach, and many express great curiosity about how I handle difficult children, manage irresponsible parents, and assess mountains of student work. Even after I assure my admirers that working with middle school students is far more rewarding than they could ever imagine, I still fail to recruit them to the profession. But I know there is one thing about teaching that appeals to nearly everyone, and that’s summer vacation. When friends, acquaintances, and even my dear husband begin to turn a faint shade of green as they contemplate the fun I must be having as I lollygag through ten weeks of free-time, I wonder if I could ever explain that getting a little time off may be vital to the teaching profession.
I sometimes think of each new school year as being very much like getting a fresh chance to swim the English Channel. There’s no doubt about the challenge that lies ahead. When the swim begins, the pier is lined with cheering fans, wishing me well, but about ten hours into my swim, when I’m lonely and cold, my arms and legs start to feel like lead, and I know I have about twenty more hours of swimming before I get to the other side. As I fret over how I’m ever going to make it, I just keep pumping those leaden arms and legs until, miraculously, I find myself on the shores of France. For those of you who’ve gotten lost in this metaphor, in the teaching world, reaching the month of June is the equivalent of swimming ashore in France.
Just like making it across the English Channel, excellent teaching requires lots of training and preparation. Of course you must be physically ready for the challenge, but mental preparedness may be the key ingredient that propels both the swimmer and the teacher. Summer break is my prep time; a time to increase my knowledge of how to be a better teacher. And even more importantly, it gives me a chance to restore my mental toughness, renew my creative juices, and get ready for the coming school year.
Naturally, I begin each summer break with a family vacation. The summer trips my family and I take are determined by how much we can learn from the experience. Is there some historic, cultural, environmental, or otherwise educational insight we can bring home from our summertime journeys? I’ve scoured gift shops at Alcatraz, Harper’s Ferry, and the National Archives for books, videos, posters and artifacts that will make their way back to my classroom. My husband and children are my partners and experimental students on these trips. As always, their patience and love sustain me as we all share in the fun of learning.
Summer is not an “off” time for me. Along with many teachers I attend workshops and conferences designed to refine my skills and send me back to the classroom at full speed, ready to guide students through joyful learning experiences. The more I learn, the more I am helping my students become the life-long learners demanded by the 21st Century workplace.
I admit that not all my summer break is spent preparing to swim the English Channel. During the school year, I never have a free weekend. There is always work to be done preparing good lessons, evaluating student work, and keeping parents informed of student progress. In the summer, I have the time to reclaim my rose garden, paint my son’s room, read some great books, and sometimes just wander mindlessly through a day or two.
I know it seems unfair that teachers get a whole summer to work and play in the relaxed environment of their homes, surrounded by their families. I concede that ten weeks is a bit much, and I would surely be happy with a little shorter break But I trust that those who truly understand the strength it takes to be a good teacher will also understand how the extended summer break helps us be the kind of teachers they want guiding their children. And for those who are still green with envy, maybe I can arrange to have them spend the day with twenty-five thirteen year-olds.