Wednesday, May 23, 2012

On Summer Vacation (As A Teacher)...

Summer vacation is a blessing and a curse. On one hand, we are looking at an elongated amount of time for recovery after a hard-working year, and yet, for most of us, too much time off leads to a certain form of rustiness. Such a condition can take a good week or two to remove from both our brains and out bodies. Teaching is as much a physical endeavor as it is a mental one – body and mind need to be in sync with one another or else one’s performance will be severely hampered.

This connection cannot be underestimated; I remember one time my grandfather wondered aloud why I was so tired upon returning home. “All you do is stand up there and talk,” he said. Pfft, as if that's all it is. I said to him that he ought to deal with one-hundred and forty teenage boys on a daily basis, with everything else that implies. He backed down at that point, but I do not think he was ever going to truly concede the point that teaching is hard work and it takes a lot out of the person. So something like vacation is certainly needed, but like almost everything else in our world, there is a right way and a wrong way to carry out such a concept.

The wrong way is, unfortunately, the very reason why quite a few people get into the profession of teaching in the first place. More appropriately, the ‘three reasons’ – “June, July, and August”. Such a perspective opens up a conversation about means and ends and contributes very heavily to my questions about one’s motives in entering teaching. These are the people who begin their countdown to summer…in January. I will admit that once we get to about May 10th or 15th, I will begin looking forward to the summer, but for the aforementioned types, maybe it is time to pick another line of work.

A good rule of thumb is: if the school year is just the means of getting to the goal of a close-to-three-months' worth of vacation, then teaching may not be the right profession for you. Such people tend to look past their students and their duties and only focus on ends rather than means. Such people, I am sure, are in denial about this, but do not think that the attitude is not manifested and on display to the rest of the world. Social media, conversations, and general comportment tend to be dead giveaways.

The right way, then, is that vacation is the means for three things: recharging for the next school year, getting away for a little while, and to reflect on the previous year’s achievements and failures while preparing for next year. That last one is incredibly important, as I am a believer in the idea that failure is the best teacher; only after failing can one be a success. Reflecting on both ends of the result meter is of the essence because while perfection is a worthy goal, it can never be truly achieved in this world; we can only move closer and closer to it.

The unreflective teacher is ultimately one who is not open to learning; yes, the teacher can (and should) be taught. Each year is different and such reflection the teacher makes about his own ability, experience, and results is the difference between teaching for X amount of years and teaching the same year X times. The former is able to adjust to what is thrown at him by using his shortcomings to improve himself; the latter is so rigid in his structure that even though the times and the students change, he is unable to adjust or see his own shortcomings.

None of this is to say that the resting teacher should not just shut it off occasionally while on vacation. To the contrary, there should be some time to remove the thoughts of teaching from one’s mind. I tend to completely shut off in that regard from about mid-July until the start of the second week of August. It is about a three week period of being able to exhale and just be me without necessarily having the constraints of school. If I spend any longer than that, I feel as though I will be in perpetual catch up mode. By the second week of August, the engine is already starting to warm; it is in anticipation of being in high gear by the time school finally begins once again.

The conundrum, then, is trying to find that happy balance. It is a conundrum that the serious teacher can appreciate, since he is always looking for a way to hone his craft. While he knows that without an extended amount of time to relax life can turn ugly very quickly, he also knows that rust is something that is necessary to avoid.  The first few weeks of the school year are so vital to the tone and direction that working off rust 'on the fly', so to speak, can ultimately do more harm than good.  Better to have the muscles stretched out before the work even begins. 

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