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    John Warner is the author of Why They Can't Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities and The Writer's Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing.


Not Summer Break

Let's end the myth that summer is a "break" for teachers.

June 20, 2019

On Twitter the other day I made an offhand observation: “If teachers have summers off, why is every teacher in my feed talking about all the books they’re reading in preparation for the fall and who they’re going to re-do their curricula based on their learning.”

The response was a combination of amens, no-shits, and additional examples of many other things teachers (at all levels) are doing in the summer that look a lot like work even though the vast majority of them aren’t getting paid. 

When I was teaching full-time, like many others I would get the old “What are you going to do with all your time off?” question, and I would grit my teeth and offer a response that didn’t tear the innocent questioner’s head off, but nonetheless signaled a little bit of my ire, “Everything I couldn’t do during the school year.”

Writing at the CHE, Douglas Howard calls the transition from the school year to summer work “an academic sleight of hand” that “conceals the reality of our jobs and the fact that we are always doing them and always a part of them, regardless of how much we try to forget that during backyard barbecues or in faraway hotel rooms.”

Now that I work full-time in a different field, I recognize how true this is. It is much easier for me to leave my marketing research work at the office than it was with teaching, even when my office is in my own home. Projects are intense but discrete with beginnings, middles, and ends, and while there’s never a period with nothing to do, the natural cycle of the work provides a very livable rhythm that’s not possible with teaching. 

When I was teaching full-time, I used summers to try to write books, but teaching was never far from my mind as well, even as I told myself to stop thinking about what I wanted to do in class the next year because I wasn’t getting paid for it. This was when I was teaching 12-hour per semester course loads for between $25,000 and $35,000 per year on nine-month contracts.

To spend time retooling my pedagogy during my unpaid months when I could be writing a book felt like I was robbing myself, and yet like those teachers in my Twitter feed I could not help it. In order to do the work well during the semester, I needed to read and reflect and retool during the only downtime available, summer.

Summer was different than the semester, no doubt, but it was not a “break,” in any sense of the word.

And of course if we’re talking about K-12 teachers, the notion of a “break” is even more farfetched. Their school year is longer than higher ed, and about 20% of them already work a second job to begin with. 

Even those who aren’t teaching summer school or tutoring or washing windows or doing warehouse work to make ends meet, are already focused on doing better by their students next time around, usually through unpaid work. 

Once I started blogging here, the sense that I was robbing myself mitigated a bit as I could at least claim that it was material for future posts. In the end, those posts paved the way to two books, which is awesome, but this is not a model which is broadly applicable to or properly respectful of the unpaid labor millions of teachers are doing.

Yes, they’re doing it willingly, and there is a form of compensation in terms of the intrinsic benefits of continuing development and how it plays out in the classroom. Like most others I was motivated by a desire to make as much out of the semester as possible, which requires work outside the semester. Rolling out the same curriculum over and over wasn’t an option, and yet living this ethos came at a cost which ultimately became unsustainable, forcing me out of teaching full-time.

But there are limits to what we should be asking people to do without compensation for their labor.

The obvious irony in the K-12 realm is that the teachers we most want to hold on to – those who are voluntarily giving up their time to read and study during the summer – are those who are most exploited by the existing system. These are  the same teachers who spend their own money out of pocket for their students to make up for budget shortfalls, another obvious vector of exploitation that has nonetheless become normalized. 

For all the putative concern about education and the quality of instruction I will never understand why we tolerate a system veritably designed to drive the most dedicated out of the profession.

I wish I had an easy sweeping reform that solved these issues. Teachers should not need second jobs to make ends meet. They should not spend hundreds of dollars out of their own pockets for necessary supplies. They should not be required to work without compensation. One would think these are bare necessities and yet…

At the very least we can push back at the idea that anyone is taking a break when the calendar turns to summer. 



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