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Summer break not really a break for teachers

By Anna Weiss on Aug 25, 2009 02:42 PM

Some classes may be empty during the summer, but that doesn't mean teachers have the time off.

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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Comments (7)

Submitted by Samuel Reed III on August 27, 2009 11:12 am


Thank you for this very balanced perspective on teaching all year around vs. summer breaks. Like you, I was super busy with training and professional develoment this summer. Now that school is about to start, I will settle back  into my teaching routine, and recover from my -working- break.

Some points in your piece reminded me of the WHYY radio new broacast  which I appeared  How Teachers Cope With Burnout .


Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on August 27, 2009 2:10 pm

And besides the professional development, aren't teachers 10 month employees whose pay is spread evenly across the calendar year? There was a time when teachers weren't paid during the summer.

Submitted by Anna Weiss on August 27, 2009 2:01 pm

Well, I believe the trade-off to being paid year-round is getting a smaller paycheck than one would receive on a 10-month schedule. 

That's not really what I am talking about, though.

Submitted by Paul Socolar on August 27, 2009 2:00 pm

Hi, Anna - I think I understand the rationale for year-round school but it still makes me shudder. Alesha Jackson had a post a few weeks ago about how she discovered that summer school could be a "serene version" of the regular school year.  If that can be achieved, I suppose it's somewhat reassuring, but I still see a lot of issues.

I wonder if part of the impetus for year-round school is to provide more structure for the lives of urban kids and also wonder about the risks of going too far with that - just as some people would argue NCLB has pushed us to go too far in structuring the school day around the skills measured by standardized tests. I guess I'd be particularly worried about the fact that most schools aren't well equipped for sports and outdoor activities, nor are there enough safe spaces and opportunities for that in most Philly neighborhoods. You can probably make a similar argument about the arts. 

For older kids, where would summer jobs fit in with year-round school?

Submitted by Erika Owens (not verified) on August 27, 2009 6:00 pm

Something I am curious about with year round school is whether there is value in starting the new year with review. I know there are a lot of studies that show that students lose a decent-sized chunk of what they learn over the summer, and that this is particularly true for disadvantaged students. But, can't the beginning of the year be an opportunity to re-learn something you may have missed the year before? I wonder if kids who have year round school ever get that opportunity. That seems like a big thing to miss out on. Even kids in great schools miss out on stuff sometimes, and time every year set aside for review and reteaching seems really valuable.

Also, summer--camp! I get all of the arguments about year-round school, and as a dorky kid I was jealous of kids who got to go to school all year, but I just don't know how it would really work when summer is so ingrained in our culture. It's can be a pretty emotional response, yay summer, but as we can see in other political debates, those can hold a lot of sway.

Submitted by Anna Weiss on August 28, 2009 2:34 pm

Erika, that's a good point.  In a way, I think that in the same way that many teachers utilize their entire summer break improving their practice, somehow schools should help families assist students in preventing young minds from atrophying over the summer :)  Summer camp is an excellent opportunity for kids not only to have fun, but to have a chance to make new friends and have new experiences.  While I hardly think that schools should be held accountable for this, I do think that we need to be thinking about ways to support our students over the summer, as well.  At Mastery, like many other schools across Philadelphia, we do this by assigning summer reading projects.  When I volunteered with KIPP one summer, I was very impressed to see that they had an employee whose job was to ensure that all of their students were attending some kind of enrichment program over the summer.  If year-round school is not something bound to happen anytime soon, I think that this solution would be a great option. 

Submitted by Philly High School teacher (not verified) on August 28, 2009 7:46 am

Contrary to popular opinion, some teachers, like ourselves, do spend the summer taking courses /workshops, working on curriculum (without compensation), etc. Nevertheless, summer it is a luxury. Unlike most industrialized countries, and many "less industrialized" countries, the U.S. traditionally does not grant much vacation. Two - three weeks a year is not much time off - especially for parents. If we had a system where all workers had more time off, then "summer break" may not see so luxurious. That said, shortening summer break to 6 - 7 weeks with longer breaks in December and April (standardized testing month!), may lessen the "loss" over the summer. In many Latin American countries, the long break is 7 - 8 weeks in December / January with two weeks in April and two weeks in July. This obviously is not based on the US "harvest" schedule but it does allow for a different patterns of breaks.

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