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Top 4 Reasons Why Summers Off Make Me a Better Teacher

July 8, 2014

Teacher Musings: I’m not gonna lie – having seven weeks off in the summer* is pretty great. The way I use these seven weeks has changed quite a bit since having children of my own. I used to spend two or more weeks in courses or workshops related to teaching, but that has dwindled every year since my son was born. However, one way my summers have stayed consistent since my second year teaching is that I always take all of July off. Unlike many of my teacher friends, I don’t plan on drafting unit plans, making rubrics, or doing planning during July. I purposely put all of my teaching notebooks, planning sheets, to-do lists, professional books, etc. away on June 30th, and I don’t touch them again until August. When I first started doing this, it made me a bit of a rebel among the other young 20-somethings I was teaching with who always had grand aspirations for the work they would do in the summer. Now the idea of avoiding teacher work in July is a bit more common in my circle as people have children of their own to care for, more extensive travel plans, or have just been teaching the same course long enough to have a wealth of materials to draw from. So I spend July running around with my four-year-old and two-year-old, helping my husband harvest the vast amounts of lettuce in our garden, and reading tons and tons of books. And I have found that having a month focused on play, not productivity, to be one of the most important parts of my teaching for these 4 reasons: 1) Relaxation makes me a better teacher: I do some structured writing and reflection on the school year in late June. But I need distance and downtime from the school year to really let my mind work on the dilemmas I hope to tackle in the following school year. Often my best most creative thinking about teaching actually happens during lazy days at the beach, while I’m pushing my daughter on the park swing, or while I’m reading YA lit. The truth is that this downtime allows my brain to make connections and solve problems in ways I couldn’t after hours upon hours of “working on” the problem. I need this downtime to unleash my creative side.  As this Scientific American article about downtime explains:

What research to date also clarifies, however, is that even when we are relaxing or daydreaming, the brain does not really slow down or stop working. Rather—just as a dazzling array of molecular, genetic and physiological processes occur primarily or even exclusively when we sleep at night—many important mental processes seem to require what we call downtime and other forms of rest during the day. Downtime replenishes the brain’s stores of attention and motivation, encourages productivity and creativity, and is essential to both achieve our highest levels of performance and simply form stable memories in everyday life. A wandering mind unsticks us in time so that we can learn from the past and plan for the future.

2) Remembering the importance of sleep: I usually end the school year sleep-deprived. It’s easy to think I can get away with staying up to watch a movie on Sunday night when the only thing going on Monday is teacher meetings. However, after the first night of an uninterrupted eight-hour sleep, I remember that I’m a better parent, teacher, and all-around human being after a night of real sleep.  This thought helps me stay rested during the summer (I’m up at 6:30am with my own kids every day anyway!) and reminds me to put away the work at night once the school year starts again. 3) Read, read, read: I love reading all kinds of books. In my stack from the library right now is Gone Girl (thriller), Proust and the Squid (about the science of reading and the brain) and a stack of YA lit. Having time to read in the summer means I have new books to recommend to my students when school starts, and that I learn a ton about how to teach (I’ve already filled the first chapter of Proust and the Squid with oodles of post-it notes.  I should have rad this book years ago!). Reading in the summer also connects me to my reading-identity and reminds me of the kind of readers I want to cultivate in my students. 4) Rejuvenate and get ready: Teaching is both physically and emotionally demanding. I need time to rest my body and soul before I gear up for another 10-month round. The summer allows me to take yoga classes, write in my journal about things other that teaching, and nourish my body with the farmer’s market bounty. I need this “recovery” time, just like I need a week after a half-marathon to take it easy. When I truly take this recovery time to rest and relax before the school year starts, I find that I’m more ready, emotionally and mentally, to jump into the new school year. When I truly take this time I’m excited to see my students and start my classes in fall, instead of feeling like I didn’t accomplish enough in the summer. When I start teaching again September I will go full-throttle, and I will do so excitedly because of the July I spent away from work. *yep, it’s NOT THREE MONTHS, but it is seven weeks  

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