A Teacher's Defense of Summer Vacation
Or, Santa Can't Possibly Still Get Excited for EVERY Christmas
Some nights when I was a kid, my father would come home from work and tell my brother and me he had a surprise waiting for us in the pockets of his suit jacket. We dug through until we found the candy or little toys he had procured during his long sales trips or in between the endless meetings that occupied his life. On many nights, treats or not, I remember him being worn and depleted from dealing with challenging bosses and difficult customers. Satisfaction with his role as a provider for our family was supposed to compensate for those nights, and for the countless hours he spent doing things he didn't much care for to be a successful businessman. I'm not sure that it always did.
At one point in his career, he had a unique opportunity. Due to some diligent saving, after leaving one job that had become too distasteful, he was able to take six months off. He reveled in that time, doing what he wanted with his days. He grew a beard. That stretch was a milestone in his life. He still refers to "those six months I took off" as a cherished memory, a financial challenge, or whatever description fits into the conversation we are having.
I am a public school teacher, and in June, when I stare down three months off every year, and my father asks me what I have planned for the summer, I feel incredible guilt. It’s not induced by him. He is wonderfully supportive and proud of me and my career, and it’s certainly not because I think I don’t deserve the summer break. Summer is part of the teaching package I signed up for, a non-salary benefit offered and accepted when I completed my student teaching and started planning my lessons. It just feels like he maybe deserves a break a little more than I do.
Summer vacation is a relic, something that made sense when all kids were farm kids. It was defensible through those great eras of the traditional American family, the 50’s and 60’s, when gangs of kids were released into their neighborhoods, unfettered until sundown, to organize their own games of baseball and bike helmetless through their pastoral youths. Now we know summer devastates the progress made during the prior school year. Kids can only travel to the ends of their yards before the real and imagined dangers of modern life conspire to snatch them, and pairs of working parents pay mightily for someone else to organize their children’s baseball games.
And for us teachers, summer has become a public relations disaster, a gut punch in all the fights over standards and unions and salaries. Taken individually, most people like the teachers in their communities. Taken as a whole, there is a whole mass of people who have something terribly precious that many others would love to have – three months off. And teachers have yet to come up with a good justification for the traditional summer break.
We lamely claim that we actually work all summer, and we do. We have district meetings and curriculum writing, we plan lessons and take classes. But our summer work is not a daily, repetitive endeavor relieved only by the late afternoon clock and the weekend. We are not napping on the couch all summer, but the kind of "work" we do during those months looks pretty sweet from a cubicle desk.
We also like to point out that our salaries reflect the time off, and that is also true. With a few degrees and a professional licensure, I don't make anywhere close to what I could in the private sector, or to what my dad makes. But since I’m not on food stamps, my financial sacrifices are not evident to most.
Teachers defend summer by pointing out that teaching is a tough job, and we deserve time off. That’s true, too. There is plenty of misperception over just how difficult it is to be a successful teacher in the modern era. But lots of people, lots and lots of people, have tough jobs and don’t get that much time off.
Above all that, the biggest problem with teachers and summer is none of us seem to appreciate it, certainly not with the profundity that non-teachers would, should they find themselves with that much time off. At the start of the tenth summer of my career, I am excited and relieved, but not like I was a decade ago.
For my first few years teaching, I rode the school calendar roller coaster along with my students, counting class periods to the frantic and giddy end of the year. This year, that emotion is largely gone. The exuberance never arrived.
Another ten years in, summer will just be part of the routine. I imagine people who teach skydiving start to lose the thrill of skydiving after doing it year upon year. Santa must still appreciate the jubilation of all his present recipients, but at some point the routines of his chosen career must have tempered his own elation over his job. And this, I think, is what causes much of the angst over summer vacation - we stupid teachers don't even seem to appreciate the huge gift we get every summer.
Early Summer, 2015
There isn’t a defense of summer that will make non-teachers feel any better about my time off. It is what it is. If I had signed up to be a snow plow driver, I would expect to work long hours when it snows, and spend a lot of time waiting around when it doesn't. If I worked as wedding planner, I would expect to give up all my summer weekends, and have a lot of time to chill during the winter. I signed up to be a teacher, who, around here, gets summers off. Maybe that could be changed; maybe it couldn't. If it did change, maybe I would keep this job; maybe I wouldn’t.
If I could, I would share some of my time off with others who deserve it, like my dad. But things don't work that way. So I will definitely try to give my summer the deference and respect it deserves, which is the deference and respect that someone who doesn't teach would offer. Maybe that will help.