Once upon a time, our national public schools closed shop for the summer, sending children and teachers home for a nice, long vacation. After ten challenging months of teaching and learning, a much-deserved break afforded teachers and students alike time to recharge through rest and recreation. Ah, what bliss! No lessons to plan. No papers to grade. No quizzes and tests to develop. No student debates, field trips, calls home…. No, “I forgot my homework,” “I forgot my pencil,” “I forgot my books,”…. Just a long, extended period of bliss.
When I first considered leaving my job at the U.S. Naval Oceanographic Office to become a high school science teacher, I got mostly “What, are you crazy?” responses from my colleagues. “You’ll make less money.”, “Those kids will eat you alive.”, and “Do you know how hard it is to teach???”. I laughed all the comments off. I had been touched by the teaching bug while doing a guest lecture at Bay St. Louis Middle School along the Gulf Coast of Mississippi, and it left me with a burning passion to work with children as soon as possible. “Besides,” I reminded myself, “I’ll get July, and August off!!!” Immensely satisfying work AND a summer vacation??? Whoa!
Fast-forward 25 years later, and I can only chuckle at the naivety and silliness of such thinking. I found my summers and those of many colleagues had some nice stretches of rest and relaxation, but inevitably, there were five weeks of personal learning and school preparation that consumed our time each and every summer, and it was all good. Good because we knew it made us better educators. We chose summer institutes that built our professional networks and stretched us to learn new strategies and skills. We enrolled in workshops on curriculum and assessment, pedagogy, and classroom management that were lauded as best practices. Understanding by Design, Literacy in the Content Areas, Woodrow Wilson Fellowships, etc.. Over time, many of us gave back to the profession by being the presenters. Those were great days! Collegial support, time without students to process and learn deeply, good food, and facilities with soft furniture. Best of all, we still had time sacrosanct for family and self. Five weeks seemed like a really good deal.
Today, fewer and fewer school districts send teachers and students home for ten straight weeks. Instead, many schools have teachers remain for an additional week of mandatory professional development while students are given a brief respite before their summer programs ramp up (Assuming monies are set aside for such programs). There’s just too much to do and too much at stake to do otherwise. Teachers are also expected to return up to one week before school starts for additional professional development programs. The logic of such changes in policy are sound. Trying to provide meaningful, sustained professional development to entire faculty during the school year is challenging and costly. Time out of the classroom is minimized when summer time is used, and many rigorous professional development programs require more than a few hours here, or one or two days there.
This past week I had the privilege of working with elementary teachers, aides, and instructional leaders at Eagle Point Elementary in Albany, New York. We studied how the brain learns and applied those understandings to Wiggins and McTighes’ Understanding by Design. What a great group of educators and staff! Their enthusiasm, thoughtfulness, and attention to detail reminded me of why I got in the business of teaching 25 years ago! When I told them on our last day that I was all that separated them from summer vacation, they rewarded me by working hard right through the end of our day. So, yes, July and August are two of the best things about teaching. Best because these are well-earned times for rest and recreation, and best because they are opportune times for meaningful and sustained professional growth. Enjoy the summer and all it brings.