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If you want to push one of my hot buttons, just make a spiteful comment about how teachers have it easy because they only work for nine months and get summers off. It will get me going every single time.

Although I’m trained as an educator, my last experience with formal classroom teaching was 24 years ago, when I spent a semester student teaching a multiage first and second grade classroom in central Illinois. Those few months left me with empathy for teachers that will never, ever, leave me.

Here’s what I learned about the life of an elementary teacher.

First, I discovered that teaching is physically tiring. During the school day, the constant instructing, standing, and moving combined with the bombardment of need from 20-some little people is draining. And it doesn’t stop when they leave the classroom. I’ll never forget the late nights reviewing that day’s student work and trying to create engaging, hands-on lessons for the next day. It felt like I never got enough sleep before it was time to gather all my supplies and head back to the classroom.

I found that teaching is also mentally and emotionally exhausting. Every lesson, every interaction with a student is fraught with possibilities and pitfalls. I remember a highly-involved lesson that went so well I felt giddy afterwards. I also vividly recall too-harshly reprimanding a child and watching his face crumple into tears. Whether positive or negative, teachers will tell you that experiences like these are emotionally demanding.

Like the physical toll, I learned the emotional toll doesn’t end when the kids leave. One evening, I enlisted the help of a friend to decipher a sentence scrawled by a first-grade boy. After several minutes of scrutiny, we interpreted these words: “It scares me when my mom and dad yell at each other.” My heart ached for this child, whom I had previously only viewed as a classroom mischief-maker. Ask any teacher and they will tell you similar stories of students whose circumstances kept them awake at night with worry.

As demanding as it was, my student teaching experience still didn’t include many additional stressors that today’s classroom teacher contends with. I didn’t have to administer standardized tests, for example, nor was I required to interact with school administrators or parents.

So. Those summers off after the school year ends? After all the long days, late nights, and weekends of preparation, grading, and worrying, I believe teachers urgently need and richly deserve time to relax and recharge before the next school year begins.

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Teachers on their summer “break,” participating in our 18th annual Summer Ag Institute, a 40-hour NIU graduate course.

As soon as school was out this spring, however, 13 local teachers spent several long days of their “break” time attending our Summer Ag Institute (SAI), exploring ways to inject food, farming, and career information into their classroom teaching. They joined many colleagues who ended their school year only to begin courses or attend conferences to further their professional development.

A week later while I was attending the National Ag in the Classroom conference, the previous week’s SAI participants still weren’t resting. They were working on their course assignments. Every day I received a barrage of emails with lesson plans, journals, and papers attached. In the meantime, most of my fellow conference attendees were—you guessed it—teachers on summer break. What is this “summer break” people speak of? When do these teachers rest?

From what I can tell, the answer is: Teachers do rest and recharge in the summer… but not for the three months non-educators may imagine. Many teachers spend early summer taking professional development classes and workshops, mid-summer squeezing in a family vacation, and the final weeks of break preparing for the new school year. Some also teach summer school or work part-time jobs.

Even addressing health challenges often waits until the school year ends.  A fourth grade teacher friend of mine had knee replacement surgery within days after school let out. She’ll be having the other knee replaced yet this summer, allowing enough healing time so that she can be on her feet to teach again in August. Summer “break?” Yikes.

As is true for most working adults, I don’t get a summer break. But I still don’t begrudge teachers theirs.

And to the 220 area teachers over the past 18 years who have spent the first part of their summer break with me, participating in the Summer Ag Institute, thank you. Thank you for devoting so many hours of your “break” time to continue learning so that you may enhance your teaching.

 


This post also appeared as the “Stray Kernels” column in the July 2016 issue of DeKalb County Farm Bureau’s Connections magazine.

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