When I tell somebody that I am a high school teacher, the reaction that I get depends on the time of year. If the question comes between September and May, the response is almost always one of sympathy as the person who asked the question wonders, out loud, how I can stand dealing with teenagers day in and day out. If the question is asked between May and June, however, the response is quite different.
“Oh, it must be nice.”
Yes, it certainly is. But what I wish I could get across to them is just how necessary those peaceful months are. After all, the only thing that causes teachers to catch more flak than summer vacations is tenure. Don’t even get me started on tenure.
Angry taxpayers will always dust off the argument that teachers only work nine months out of the year when the issue of school funding comes up. Teachers always counter with the observation that we actually work really hard during the summer, and that is on top of the endless piles of papers we have to grade at home during the school year. Lots of teachers do work hard during the summer, particularly if they are taking graduate courses, but this defense always irritates me. The primary benefit of summer break is not that it gives us time to work on curriculum, lesson planning, or any other chore. The simple truth is that teachers need breaks in order to heal.
Without spending time in the classroom, it is impossible to appreciate just how intense the work of teaching is. Veteran teachers do a great job of hiding this as they execute their lesson plans, but the demands of the job do not simply fade away with experience. Modern classroom instruction puts enormous demands on the unique relationship that exists between teachers and students. This relationship has to be built on mutual trust, respect, and love. It takes time and effort to develop, and it never appears by accident. Creating and maintaining a learning environment is also incredibly draining, as it requires teachers to be “on” every single hour of every day. We are the captain of the ship, so to speak, and that requires us to keep our eyes and ears open at all times. We have to read the mood of each class as a group, as well as the mood of individual students, and make adjustments to our instruction endless times. A good teacher simply cannot coast. There are very few easy days.
I am not saying that teaching is endless torture. It is a demanding profession, and the demands it places on us are emotionally draining. This is why days where the kids stay home and we have time to work in our classrooms feel like vacations. By the time May rolls around, most of us are running on fumes. The only way to recharge our batteries is to get away from the demands of the classroom completely. During the first World War, allied troops were continuously rotated from the rear to the front and back again in order to try to prevent complete mental breakdowns from the stress and strain of combat. Teaching may not be as dangerous as trench warfare, but the wisdom of getting away from the action on a regular basis is clear.
Teachers, treasure your summer breaks and guard them with your life. Fight every effort to chisel away at this necessary break from the action. Take a vacation if you want, or stay home and binge Netflix if that floats your boat. Cross projects off your to-do list or take the list and toss it into the trash. If you are feeling burned out, take advantage of your district’s employee assistance program (if there is one) and take things out with a professional counselor. Take naps in the middle of the day. Every one of these indulgences is like depositing money into your savings account for a rainy day, and once you have your emotional reserves built up you need to ration them out carefully during the year. After all, the next chance to truly recharge won’t come for another nine months.