After sixteen years as a teacher, I’m well-accustomed to the internal rhythms of the school year. August sows seeds of anticipation and excitement for a fresh start. By October, we’ve found our stride, having established a strong classroom culture and systems to fuel daily learning. Over time, however, the accumulation of minor stresses and struggles can begin to erode that early exuberance. By February, there are days where it feels like we’re in survival mode!
Fortunately, spring offers a renewed burst of energy for the home stretch. And by June, students and teachers alike are beginning to embrace the promise of summer vacation and exciting opportunities on the horizon. Sunshine, hiking, gardening, travel, backyard barbecues, fishing trips, pleasure reading, mountain biking, camping…and so much more!
Those outside the realm of education often point to teachers’ summer vacation as a cushy luxury unknown to others in the real working world. In what other profession do people get so much time off simply to relax and play? But, I would argue to be at our best, teachers need this prolonged time away from the intensity of the school year to reflect, relax and recharge.
In truth, many of my educator-friends use the bulk of their summer break to work a second job, complete coursework for recertification, or to attend a variety of other workshops that introduce new instructional practices and strategies to better support students. Certainly, these are all worthy endeavors that help rejuvenate us without the high-pressure backdrop of returning to school bright and early Monday morning. But this doesn’t exactly sound like summer vacation.
Is there a deeper benefit to stepping back that actually makes us better educators? What do we gain by distancing ourselves from the world of education even more?
During the summer holiday, my family makes an annual pilgrimage to the Pacific Northwest to reconnect with family, friends, and to soak up the natural beauty of the region. With many miles logged and memories made, a few of this year’s highlights include several days in Portland, Oregon, sampling a bounty of amazing food and reconnecting with the quirky energy of one of my favorite cities; a family trip to the Oregon Coast to play in the sand and watch migrating gray whales from the cliffs overlooking the Pacific; a three-day father-son flyfishing trip to Idaho’s wild and scenic Lochsa River to commune with massive cutthroat trout; daily mountain bike rides with my brother exploring the foothills of the North Cascades mountains; and a side trip into the Canadian Okanogan in British Columbia, a rolling landscape dominated by several large lakes and hills dotted with beautiful orchards of apricots, cherries, and peaches. (Even more, the area boasts a growing number of vineyards that produce a variety of amazing and delicious wines to enjoy while relaxing and soaking in the views).
Interestingly, for me, it is precisely these experiences where I begin to reflect on my role as a teacher and feel that sense of inspiration and renewed enthusiasm begin to blossom. Gazing out over the Pacific, I contemplated how to enhance our recent project, Blue Planet, which explores the impact of overfishing, plastic pollution, and climate change. Visiting parks along the coast, I took photos and gathered resources that will help improve the project during the next go-around. I didn’t set out on the trip determined to redesign a project. The opportunity presented itself organically and I had the presence of mind to take notice.
During our three-day fly fishing adventure in northern Idaho, I took the opportunity to get lost in Timothy Egan’s The Big Burn, which recounts one of the largest and most destructive wildfires that swept through the region in 1910. The book presents an incredible history of Theodore Roosevelt’s effort to conserve broad swaths of America’s most beautiful natural places against the onslaught of industrialists and speculators. In many ways, the conflicts and themes explored in the book are playing out again today. On the drive home, brimming with new insights and ideas, I mapped out the next iteration of our See America — National Parks project.
Even when it’s going well, teaching is an inherently stressful profession with ever-increasing demands and few easy answers. We become teachers because we want to make a positive impact on the lives of young people. We want to inspire, cultivate curiosity, and help students acquire knowledge and skills to solve problems and lead fulfilling lives. This all takes a tremendous amount of energy.
To be at our best, we must ensure that we have the enthusiasm, patience, and emotional fuel to give to our students. Summer adventures offer a much-needed respite from the intensity of the school year. More importantly, the extended break provides the time and space to be present in our surroundings and helps us to be open to the possibilities and connections that will inform and enrich our practice.
Here we stand on the precipice of a new school year, rejuvenated and ready to embrace the opportunities and challenges that await us. So long, summer! See you again, soon. Hold onto your seats—school starts bright and early on Monday morning!
Peter Stratman (@peterstratman) is a teacher-leader and instructional coach at Cabot School where he helped design and implement a dynamic project-based learning program. He has extensive experience with community-based education, youth voice, and service-learning. A 2014 Rowland Fellow, Peter is the co-creator of LaunchPad, a web-app that helps students and teachers build and share awesome projects.