Friday, July 7, 2017

A Teacher’s Guide to Rebranding Summer by Dr. Michael Flanagan and Christine Vaccaro


Summer break. In a society whose education system allows for the over-testing of students, the profiteering of charter schools and installing Betsy DeVos as our Secretary of Education, somehow it is the idea of summers off that enrages the general public the most. It is the snarky cliche most used to disparage the profession. And while it is frustrating to constantly explain and defend the summer experience, we are teachers, after all. We have patience to spare! Especially in July. Plus, we can sniff out a teachable moment from a mile away. We know what to do when a student isn’t getting it. We go back to the blackboard/whiteboard/smartboard and start again. So if you find yourself at a BBQ, poolside, or working a non-teaching summer job, and some Muggle decides to rib you for being “off”, get excited. You have a chance to rebrand summer vacation for public consumption.

First, take a deep breath, find a neutral tone and begin by explaining that the term “vacation” is a misnomer for two important reasons. One, not every teacher has a summer “off”. Many need to work a second job, or take classes or professional development, so vacation is not even the right term to use. And two, (here’s the real magic) summer is actually a built-in PART of the school year. Yes, it is the down-shifted part of the school year, but it is built into the calendar nonetheless. Not only does it have its own ebb and flow, it has five distinct phases.

The Five Phases of Summer

Phase 1: The Countdown

Have you ever tried to fill a pool with an eyedropper? That’s Phase 1. It begins about six weeks before the Last Day, recognized when teachers start to greet each other not with “good morning,” but with, “30 days left”. From that moment until the end, the goal is simultaneous maintenance of sound pedagogy after state tests, classroom management in sweltering rooms of listless and/or hyperactive children, and a teacher face that belies the fact that we are as ready for a break as the students. This is no small feat. It is like watching a snail marathon while holding a tiger by the tail. When the Last Day finally arrives, you are more than likely too exhausted from Phase 1 to celebrate it.

Phase 2: The Thousand-Yard Stare

The morning after the Last Day is the first official day of summer, and the start of Phase 2. Your alarm might not go off, but your body wakes up just the same -- straight up in bed,  with a shot of adrenaline that  plunges your brain into lesson-planning/lunch-making/paper-grading/test-correcting/administrator-avoiding overdrive before your feet hit the floor. These first few days are about physical, emotional and spiritual triage. Recovery comes in a variety of forms such as travel or a beach, but more often involves a couch and staring at a wall. In general, Phase 2 can last anywhere from 1-3 days, although there have been some acute cases reported of it lasting the whole summer.

Phase 3: The Sweet Spot

The first time you realize you have no idea what day it is, you have hit Phase 3. This is the moment you’ve been waiting for. Your coffee can be sipped, not gulped! You can use the bathroom whenever nature calls whether or not a bell has rung. Your senses sharpen, your blood pressure lowers. Although many of us may remain in our school buildings teaching summer school or writing curricula, for some it is the first time in ten months you don’t find yourself admonishing random kids to “Stop pushing!” or, “Don’t stick that pen in your ear!”.  

Yet this blissful dementia comes with a price: it is at this time that rebranding efforts need to go full-throttle. As the facial lines fade and tans deepen, you will likely begin to attract the ire of those who have chosen the 9-5 / 2-week vacation path. The attacks may come from close friends, family, or even strangers on line at the grocery store. Vigilance is key, but here are two suggestions to deescalate the situation:

  1. Gently remind the aggressor it is a popular misconception that teachers get two months paid vacation. What actually happens is our annual salary is divided into 24 checks, so we are in effect waiting to be paid for services already rendered. Follow up with asking them to borrow some loose change, because after all: you are a teacher. The school supplies you buy to do your job are expensive. So is food.  
  2. Offer sincere condolences for those who get the standard American two weeks vacation, while criticizing a society that encourages such a poor work-life balance. Then say something like,  “Hey, why don’t you become a teacher”? At that point most people will usually  say “Are you crazy?” and follow up with  something to the effect of, “I wouldn’t have the patience/ I could never teach these kids today/ I could never put up with the lack of resources/ people hate teachers!”. Boom. Conversation over. Continue enjoying your well-earned break, because things are about to turn ugly.

Phase 4: August (aka The Sunday Night of Summer Vacation)

When you flip the calendar page to August, you will note there are 31 days, spanning over a four - five week period. But to a teacher, it does not matter. Phase 4 has begun, and summer might as well be over.  Whether school starts at the end of August, or the beginning of September, August is just one long, hot Sunday night. It is not so bad in the day time, if you avoid any public place selling back-to-school supplies. But in the dark, you try to fall asleep praying to avoid that recurring dream where the principal walks in for an unannounced observation on the day you decide to don a tutu and try teaching through interpretive dance. Without a lesson plan. Phase 4 is like the shower was turned all the way to cold, and it just hit you like the ALS ice bucket challenge.  

Phase 5: The Night Before The First Day

Phase 5 lasts one night. But it is the longest night of the year. The infernal equinox. Summer is dead. As teachers twist, turn and tangle with blankets, so begins the five stages of grief.

  • Denial - “It’s still Summer! It was 90 degrees today!”
  • Anger -  “Why in the hell did I ever go into teaching? Why couldn’t I have just been a crackhead like my brother?”
  • Bargaining - “If I can just get through this year, I will quit and join the circus. They aren’t using elephants anymore! I can twirl on those big giant beach balls for peanuts!”
  • Depression - “I can't do this. I am calling in sick for September. Maybe they won’t notice I am not in class? The kids barely pay attention anyway.”
  • Acceptance - “Ok. Ok. I will do this. I need to feed my family. Columbus Day isn’t that far away.”

The New Beginning

More than likely, you will survive the night. As morning breaks, the alarm will go off, and the shower will run. Despite nausea and possible body tremors, you will eventually find yourself dressed and out the door.

Once at school, all the other dazed summer vacation refugees will mingle and the perfunctory “how was your break?...you look fantastic!...where did you go?...awesome tan…” small talk commences. Then, as people settle down and real talk begins, you realize no one slept the night before. Some comfort and relief creep their way into your stomach knot. Then staff meetings, professional development, classroom sprucing… before you know it, it’s the end of the day. You’ll leave, feeling a 500 pound weight lifted from your shoulders. Suddenly, you notice that you can breathe again. You’re ready for this. Refreshed. Refueled. Excited, even.

And then, the students come. The moment we meet our new charges, is the moment we remember all over again why we love this job. A real teacher is at their best when the students come back to school. It is at this moment that summer off, pays off. We are rested and ready to mold the future. Anxiety and stress is replaced with confidence. Professionalism. Pride. Skill. And most of all passion for what we do. The classroom is our house, and those students are our kids. And just like no matter how great a vacation is, it is always a beautiful thing to come home.  


10 comments:

  1. Brilliant! As always, I'm with Flanagan!

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  2. Everyone doesn't follow this schedule. Clay County, Tennessee, for example. Their 2017-2018 calendar starts with a professional day on July 31, 2017 and ends May 19, 2018. The last day of the 2016-2017 calendar was May 19, 2017. Except for that quibble about phase 4 being August, when it is really July...this hit the nail on the head. I also point out that as a contract worker, I am paid for the calendar year, but my money is stolen by the school district so they can earn the interest on it, instead of me earning the interest on it.
    And those poor kids...in school on August 2!

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    1. Yes, this was written by two New York teachers. We tried to keep it sort of non regional specific, but the Use of August as the Long hot Sunday night of summer had a good ring to it. NY holds back our summer pay, and makes interest on it as well. When people complain about the fact we still get checks, I explain how the city is actually making money from us, by annualizing our salaries. Enjoy your summer. ^0^

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    2. In California, we don't get paid in the summer. It's always a challenge buying hundreds if dollars in school supplies when there's been no paycheck since the end if June and the next one isn't due until the end of September.

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    3. So horrible not to get paid in the summer. I'm a sub and used to it, but September is the poorest month of the year and to be in the classroom with financial expectations would suck!

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  3. "...and some Muggle tries to rib you off" Love. It. Thanks for reminding me I'm normal....for a teacher.

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    1. Just seeing this now. Thanks for commenting. Enjoy your summer.

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  4. Fantastic post. BTW, what day is it?

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  5. Spot on! I thought it was just me! ��

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