When we think of back-to-school, most of us flash on pens and pencils, new sneakers and earlier bedtimes. We think of little bodies, still brown from the summer, buttoning in and showing up, so much bigger than the year before.
But rarely do we think of teachers and what they do to get ready to go back to school. Recently, I started to ask around and found that for many of them, the answer is: A lot! In fact, for the best and brightest of those in their profession, “summers-off” is a bit of a misnomer. To them, summer seems to be a time to re-charge, but also to re-think, re-organize and improve upon anything they’ve done before. For anyone who’s ever tried to take the work they’re doing and re-make it into a new and better version, you know how much time that can take, not to mention how much energy. “Summers off” indeed.
Many of the teachers I asked reported a process of self-improvement that starts as soon as school is out. Bill Kvitli, a second grade teacher in the Valley Center-Pauma Unified School District and 2009 San Diego County Teacher of the Year, said, “Prepping for the next school year begins the day after school gets out. I like to go through all my cupboards, drawers and file cabinets making sure everything is in order and filed properly. I also use this time to take inventory of what I have and what I think I will need for next year. This list creates my summer shopping list.
“Mid-summer, I take review of my grade-level standards and last year’s lesson plans. I reflect on what went well, what went not so well, and where I can improve. I spend time researching these areas for new ideas, lesson plans or just new and creative ways to present the material and standards.”
Michael Love, math teacher and department chair at Mount Miguel High School in Spring Valley, said, “For myself, I review all my Powerpoint presentations for clarity and accuracy. As I teach, I often make notes to myself about what might need to be changed and during the summer I go back and see if those notes are still valid or were they fleeting feelings that do not require a response.”
Just about everyone I asked made sure to add at least one educational book to their summer reading list. Many of these are books they re-read every summer. Titles include The Purposeful Classroom by Douglas Fisher, Beyond Religion by His Holiness the Dalai Lama, and The Failures of Integration by Sheryll Cashin.
Chris Harris teaches math at Mission Middle School in Escondido and is in his 15th year of teaching. He said, “When I realize that summer is drawing to a close I usually read a book about effective classroom practices, for years it was Harry Wong’s The First Days of School, for the past two years it has been Doug Lemov’s Teach Like a Champion. Re-reading those books has a dual purpose: The reading reminds me of the things that I am good at and also the things I need to work on. By the time school starts I’m charged up and ready to go.”
Technology also figures prominently into most of these teachers’ prep process. This summer, Bill Kvitli spent his time researching the best use of iPads in the classroom.
Jo-Ann Fox, a fourth grade teacher at the Reidy Creek School in the Escondido Union School District and the current 2012 San Diego County Teacher of the Year, starts pinning new ideas on a Pinterest board as soon as school lets out. Then, she said, “I blog about my ideas on my website and consult my professional learning network on Twitter and Edmodo. With goals set, I begin creating checklists on my iPhone reminder app and start trying to check off each item on my to-do list.”
In addition to these steps, there was much talk of conferences and other continuing-educational opportunities. Mindy Crum, a fourth-grade teacher from Escondido’s Conway Elementary School, attended a three-day bootcamp with other teachers where she was able to network with fellow educators. She also participated in a 37-day online creative-writing class, and met with other teachers over the summer to plan.
I also heard about a tireless amount shopping for supplies, and re-doing everything from organizing to decorating. As I listened to these hard-working stars, one thing became clear: There is no such thing as an entire “summer off” for an effective teacher.
This seems to me a shame, given how trying the school year can be.
Michelle Gerson, a sixth grade teacher in her 16th year of teaching, put it well.
“Summer is really necessary,” she said, “… I really do get annoyed when people comment on my summers and say I’m so lucky. First of all, if I’m so lucky, you deal with 115 students and their parents. Second, there’s a lot people don’t get about the intensity of the job. I ask them, ‘Do you have time to check your email at work? Make a phone call? Go to the bathroom? Well, I don’t.’ And I’m not kidding. It’s like being shot out of a cannon every day at 6:30 a.m. You cannot stop.”
At this, I couldn’t help but reflect on how much it sounded like being a stay-at-home mom to small children, both in how people respond to you as well as the reality of the work. Given that, and the fact that being a teacher means that your kids never do grow up and on, you start again every year anew. I felt an intense pang of empathy.
But then I considered another comment from Michelle and I knew that admiration would be a better sentiment.
“It’s exhausting and intense and wonderful,” she said, “and the breaks do help everyone to recharge. I’ve done other jobs, and this is the one I love the most.”
If I had to guess, I’d suspect that the others I interviewed would say the same. Lucky for us, Michelle is not alone—most teachers don’t take summers off, and most of them wouldn’t have it any other way.