Philip Russell

Philip Russell is an English Teacher at Bowling Green High School. He works in the Joseph Tonius LEAD Academy, the ninth grade initiative at BGHS. He also serves as the Project Leader for SOKY Classroom Connections.

There’s a distinct moment after diving into water. Your breath is suspended, relying only on its stores, but your body is thrilled by the suspense. If you stay in that spot, it will spell trouble, but you’re moving towards the surface. You can barely see the sun shining; you can just make out the blurred colors of the sky. You still can’t breathe, but you know it’s coming.

That’s the end of the school year.

By the time May rolls around, teachers are swimming--some might even say drowning--in a sea of papers to grade, standardized assessments to give, and end-of-year activities to plan. These extra stressors come after nine months of planning, teaching, and grading on repeat. It feels, in the moment, like a precarious time of the year. We’ve used up our best lessons, the kids know our gimmicks, and everyone wants a break. It’s tough to professionally catch your breath.

But, summer, that glittering sun above the surface, is right there.

There’s an old joke I heard in high school about three reasons to go into education: June, July, and August. At the time, I laughed; now, as a high school teacher, it gets under my skin. While other professionals might look upon summer break exclusively as time off, summer plays an essential role for educators.

Before I dive into reasons summer break is needed, let’s think about the principle of taking a break after a taxing time on the job:

After the NBA Finals end, the players on both teams will take breaks from the game. Yes, they’ll work out. Yes, they’ll stay in great shape, but they won’t be slogging out time on the basketball court. This happens in every major league sport. As a music fan, I don’t bash Lin-Manuel Miranda for not performing in Hamilton at this point. He has moved on to other endeavours and continued his wildly successful career with Moana and the upcoming Mary Poppins Returns. That’s a natural move in the arts. As a runner and running coach, I appreciate the respite marathoners enjoy after completing 15-20 weeks of intense training and finally running the race. The rest is well earned, and it’s what runners do.

The school year is our marathon, our stint in the show, our season.

All of this to say, taking a break is a widely practiced way to stay fresh on the job. Yet, I frequently hear chiding comments about teachers only working 9-10 months out of the year. Do we, as a society, bash Lebron James for not playing competitive basketball year round? Do we think he should be paid less because of the break that is, coincidentally, during the summer? Of course we don’t think that merits less pay. Athletes’ breaks, offseason training, and seasons--while receiving different attention from the public--are vital in their own right.

Yet, when I hear about teachers’ summers off, it is often appealed to as a reason to only pay teachers for 9-10 months of work out of the year. It implicitly suggests that education’s offseason, the summer, is more luxury than necessity. The general public, then, likely needs to reconsider the way we think and talk about the teacher’s summer.

Towards that endeavor, here are three reasons summer is essential for teachers:

Summer gives us time to breathe. As I mentioned in last month’s article, teachers work an incredible amount of hours during the school year. Teachers at Bowling Green High School are logging over 54 hours per week, enough hours to “make up” for our summers off. Because teachers are logging an entire year’s worth of work into a nine-and-a-half-month span, we need and, frankly, deserve a break. The summer provides it. It’s time to sleep in, at least a little bit. It’s time to read whatever we want. It’s time for lunches that last longer than 25 minutes. It’s time to enjoy life and not constantly worry about tomorrow’s lesson or yesterday’s papers to grade.

Summer gives us time to reboot. I enjoy teaching. I really do. It brings me joy to work with teenagers, watch their literacy skills grow, and see them mature during the school year. But, I like teaching a lot more in August and September than I do in April and May. The natural course of the year takes a toll on my idealism, passion, and dedication. While teachers are and must be some of the most dedicated professionals, that dedication is a finite resource that must be honed and tended. Summer provides teachers opportunities to reboot our dedication to the profession. It provides the opportunity to remind ourselves why we do what we do. It’s time to reset, recalibrate, and rejuvenate. Natalie Croney, a friend and mentor at Bowling Green High School, shared a line her mom used on her growing up that is is especially applicable in this discussion: “Give me a chance to miss you.” We, teachers, need a chance, for an extended period of time, to walk away from the classroom in order to come back fresher and better.

Summer gives us time to improve. While teachers are not paid to do work over the summer, nearly every teacher I know will be spending some amount of time over the next two months planning and preparing for the upcoming school year. We’ll be reading new books to incorporate into the curriculum, scrolling through sites like Cult of Pedagogy to find better ways to present information and assess learning, attending extra professional development like TeachMeet Kentucky to improve the way we use technology, and reflecting on the past year’s successes and failures. As culture changes, students change. As students change, teachers are called on to address new needs that our students have. Much of that work is done over the summer. It’s when we develop our plans to give students the best possible education, and during the year, we execute those plans.

Summertime work will be done because of teachers’ dedication to the profession and to the goal of public education. The work will be done because, come early-August, we are going to take the deep dive into the water of the school year and do this crazy, flabbergasting, and exhilarating work all of over again.

Bio: Philip Russell is an English Teacher at Bowling Green High School. He works in the Joseph Tinius LEAD Academy, the ninth grade initiative at BGHS. He also serves as the Project Leader for SOKY Classroom Connections.

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