School’s Almost Out

Summer is just about here and teachers and students all over Maine will rejoice at the end of this week.  In warmer places, they have been out for a couple weeks already.  Summers, like the school year itself, can be a psychological challenge for those of us tied to the school year schedule.  You want to get as much therapeutic rest and relaxation in as possible, yet you want to accomplish things, like house repairs and painting and garden work.  Many teachers take on summer jobs to supplement their income, which only makes it that much trickier.

I play music on the side, so my summers often involve a little extra time for that, but this year there is more to squeeze in.  I am taking a course at the University of Maine at Farmington as well, my 77 year-old mother has a major operation coming up,  my wife and I have a growing backyard orchard that requires daily attention in summer months, as well as an ever expanding garden, and there will be a school-related commitments as well.  But it’s all going to be ok, because as a public school educator I have the luxury of not having to be woken up by an alarm clock for ten weeks out of the year.  I really can’t complain.  

I’ve said before that having summers free from contracted work really ought to be a valid perk to the job.  Once upon a time, I used to wonder why some people went into teaching who didn’t seem fit for the profession, and I would sometimes make the assumption that they must have become a teacher “just for the summers off.”  In the mid-nineties I worked in a behavior resource room at a middle school on the midcoast, and I remember teachers gathering daily in the teacher’s room to eat lunch.  They never talked about their students, or about their classes.  They always talked about what they were going to do during vacation, even in the winter months. “I’ve already got my hotel room booked for Y2K,” I remember one teacher saying, “in Rio.”  Y2K was still four years away.  Another popular topic in the teacher’s room was retirement.  I wasn’t impressed by this talk.  As a 24-year-old educational technician in the resource room, this left me with the impression that teaching was such a drag for these folks that all they could manage to discuss at lunch was vacation, the beach, what they were looking forward to drinking on Friday, or what they were going to do to celebrate the new millennium.  There was never any discussion of the great things that were happening in their classes, or the student that really impressed them that day.  

Of course, today, I can’t really blame those teachers.  When you are surrounded by children for every moment of the day, and you have 25 minutes with a group of adults, it makes sense you might want to discuss something other than child-related topics.

In fact, when I became a teacher, I discovered that having an actual lunch break without work to do became a luxury.  I usually found myself not wanting to talk about anything, let alone what I am going to do the next time I didn’t have work in front of me.  What was most disturbing about those teacher’s room conversations wasn’t really the topics being discussed, or the avoidance of shop-talk, but rather the tone of the discussions.  It was too reminiscent, to me, of other jobs I’d had where everybody always seemed so eager to be elsewhere.  Many Mainers have endured or continue to endure mundane jobs where time is the enemy; you glance at the clock a lot, devastated that more time has not passed, dreading the remaining hours. Break time often involves discussions of what will happen after work, over the weekend, when I retire, etc.

Teachers battle the clock for other reasons.  There is never enough time to accomplish what we want to accomplish in a school day.  But both scenarios can be a bummer, and a big energy drain.

I think working with children requires a special kind of energy, though, and we should be taking every measure possible to generate and conserve that energy in our teachers and support staff.  

Summers away from school help to do that, but after just a few weeks back in the classroom in the fall, that energy is once again depleted, and compromises to our instruction become commonplace.  Then the discussions about vacation and retirement resume.

Why is it that teaching children requires such expansive energy reserves?  We already identified in other posts that teaching back-to-back lessons all day long is not conducive to inspiring or engaging instruction, but that is the case whether we teach children or adults.  What is it about children that makes our job even more draining?

Two factors come to mind.  First, the children we teach are the children of other parents.  We have a sense of responsibility both for their safety and their academic growth.  If we fail these children in either category, we also fail their parents.  A teacher’s heart sinks when evidence of learning is lacking, just as it does when a child gets emotionally or physically hurt under his or her supervision.  The physical, emotional and academic well-being of our students is a tremendous responsibility and a heavy weight upon the shoulders of every teacher, before the burdens of the daily schedule are added.

Second, children can be a major challenge to work with, both behaviorally and academically.  Every teacher hopes for a group of students that arrives on the first day of school eager to learn and easy to motivate.  But that circumstance is a very rare thing.  More often than not, a classroom is populated with a diversity of learners and behaviors.  Some years, that diversity can drive a teacher to the brink of insanity, or into a state of depression.  Teaching math or literacy concepts to match your students’ developmental capabilities is already a complex task, but when students require constant redirection and reteaching and interventions, it all takes still more effort.  This is where those rewards the teaching profession is so famous for become few and far between.   When teachers take on these challenges without enough support, they sometimes make the decision to leave the profession feeling like a failure.  

The end of the school year is often bittersweet.  We become attached to even the most challenging groups of students, and saying goodbye can be difficult.  We nourished their academic and social growth for ten months, and seeing them off leaves us wondering who will pick up where we left off?  How much knowledge will they lose over the summer?  Will they make wise choices with their lives from here on out?  Will they come back to visit?

There is a sense of accomplishment that comes with the last day of school.  Both teachers and students share it.  “I made it,” we say.  Sometimes we reflect on the some of the hardest times and celebrate the fact that it is over, part of the past, and we came out in one piece.  It is a nice feeling.

What would be better, though, is if more of us finished the year looking back at all the great things we did with a different sense of accomplishment.  Not so much, “I made it,” but more, “Look what I learned!” or, “Look what my students accomplished!”  We don’t say that as much, because the school year is a constant race against the clock. We just want to cross the finish line.  We try to cram as much education as possible into our day, into the school year, and our students, with as few resources as possible.  Time is taken for granted during the school day, which is why it generally flies.  

I wish a relaxing and productive summer to all the hard working Maine teachers who do everything they can to make school as meaningful as possible for their students. It is important to take some time to ourselves before the back-to-school sales start playing with our heads in, well, late July.  August is about being prepared.  Until then, let’s not pay too much attention to the clock.  Focus on good health, family, sunshine and other good things.  For a few short weeks, time is on our side.


James Tatum Gale

About James Tatum Gale

I have been a teacher in Maine schools for twelve years, and a writer and musician since childhood. I acquired a Master's degree in Teaching from USM, and a Certificate in Math Leadership from UMF. My undergraduate degree is in Philosophy with a concentration in Comparative Religion from the University of Maine (1994). I live with my wife, Erin, and my dog, Sally, in Bowdoinham.