Sunday, July 19, 2009

Myth Busted: Teachers and "Summers Off"

Today as I was writing my Morning Pages I realized that I have exactly 5 weeks before school year 2009-2010 begins. This means that I am at the exact mid point of my summer "off." Thinking about having the summer "off" induced a sarcastic grin, because all teachers know that "summers off" are a myth.

While many of us do take time in the summer to get some much needed R&R, the truth is that we also do a lot of other things that our employing school district gets from us for free. Summer is a time when professional development opportunities occur, because most teachers cannot get the time off to go during the school year. Summer is a time when teachers can work on those 4-6 continuing education credits that are required for renewing our teaching license/certificate every 4-5 years. This is all training that we must pay for ourselves (sometimes receiving reimbursement from our districts, sometimes not), and of course it is time spent doing something for which we receive no compensation.

Something that many people also do not realize about teachers is that we do not get paid for twelve months of the year. While some school districts make it possible to have your paycheck spread out over 12 months instead of 10, most do not (mine does not). That means that you have to put money aside during the school year, or get a supplementary job for the summer to pay your bills. A lot of my twenty-something colleagues, so recently graduated from college, simply go back to whatever bread-and-butter job got them through college. Some teachers opt to apply for summer school teaching positions, which are extremely competitive because the summer school enrollment is only a fraction (we hope) of the regular school year enrollment.

It may surprise you to learn that teachers are prohibited by law from applying for unemployment benefits in the summer, because we are 10-month contractual employees. The rationale is that since we know that we will not be receiving a paycheck during the summer months, it is our responsibility to make other arrangements for income without burdening the Department of Labor and Industry with an application for benefits. Never mind that my tax withholding dollars went to the Department of Labor and Industry unemployment fund out of which I am now ineligible to draw benefits. Never mind that in a poor economy summer employment simply may not be available, and even in a good economy most short term jobs available in the summer begin before the school year ends, end after the next school year begins, or are snapped up by teenagers and college kids who only work during the summer. Oh, and of course if our school administrators have scheduled us for professional development during the summer, which usually involves a time commitment of one to two weeks of full 8-hour days, it's hard to get a summer job when you have to take one or two weeks off right in the middle of it.

My strategy is to choose to save money during the school year to float us through the summer, because my bread-and-butter job that got me through college is hairdressing, and I do not have a cosmetology license in the state where I currently teach (my current license is in the state of Montana, and their supposed reciprocity agreement with the state I work in is not really reciprocal). This year, as it so happens, we had several mechanical emergencies right as the summer began that nearly wiped out our summer fund, and then my lucrative end-of-summer teaching gig was sabotaged (a long, brutal story for another time and place) so we've been literally getting by on Grace.

But my financially meager summer is not what this blog is about. Originally, this summer's schedule was planned to go like this: 1) A week of camping in Maine immediately after school let out, 2) Three weeks of writing unit and lesson plans for every single day of every single class for all six of the high school art and journalism classes I'll be teaching in the coming school year, 3) A week of AP Studio Art training, preparing me to teach my AP Studio Art course in the spring semester, 4) Another week of mad unit and lesson plan writing, 5) Taking my mother camping on the beach for a week at Assateague Island National seashore (which I had to cancel, because my summer teaching gig was sabotaged), 6) Two weeks of building the online American Indian Art Survey course I'm teaching for Montana State University this fall, 7) Two weeks of teaching a summer bridge program (the job that was sabotaged), 8) A final week of polishing up my units and lessons for my high school classes and my online graduate course, 9) Back to school.

That, ladies and gentlemen, is a full summer schedule, with only two weeks of vacation (and one I had to cancel because of lack of funding). At this point you may be thinking that it's my own fault if I don't get to enjoy the entire summer off. I mean I could do the unit and lesson planning some other time, like on the fly during the school year, right? WRONG! This is the other great myth of teaching; that it's just like any other job. It's NOT like any other job. For the past three years I've spent most of my winter and spring breaks grading papers and projects and trying to plan ahead for the next units. My workdays were 12 hours long for the first year and half of teaching, about 10 hours long for the second year, and between 8 and 10 hours long for the last half of the last school year.

Teaching is a lot like theater. When you go to see a play, the one-and-a-half to three hours of performance you see on the stage during showtime required about 300 hours of rehearsal and stage prep! The same is true for teachers. Before my students ever set foot in the classroom, I've written the entire unit plan (what state and/or national standards does this unit meet, rough sketch of the "big picture" of the unit and what the students will be doing over how many days/weeks) and each individual lesson plan (one lesson plan per day, per class, outlining exactly what the students will be doing in minutiae that day during the lesson from the minute they set foot in the classroom until the minute they leave). I will also have prepared all the materials and equipment they will need to do the task at hand, have it all arranged so that distribution is efficient and economical. And then it's showtime! Once showtime is over (3 shows a day, 90 minutes per show), then I must assess their work and record the grades in my grade book for the record keepers.

What that means is that if I want to come in 15 minutes before the kids arrive in the morning and leave 15 minutes after they leave in the afternoon, then I have to be really, really organized. Without all the summer prep, the reason for my 10- and 12-hour days was that I came in early in the morning to write the lesson plans (because I was never more than a day ahead of my lesson) and stayed until between 6:00pm and 8:00pm to do all the grading and recording of grades, and was still working on it over the weekend. This was a nightmare, and it didn't take me very long to figure out that leveraging my summer "off" time would help me to have shorter, more enjoyable school days, as well as being able to do something restful and relaxing during my weekends and scheduled Thanksgiving, Winter, and Spring breaks.

So that's what I chose to do this summer. Because my end-of-the-summer teaching gig was sabotaged, I chose to see the bright side and look at it as an extra two weeks to get my act together for the school year.

Since I've just realized that I am at the exact mid-point of my summer "off," I've decided to ramp up the organization and planning process a little more. In addition to getting all of this preparatory work done, so I can just walk into my classroom in the fall and teach, I've also gotten into a good exercise habit. I've been walking three to five miles a day and have lost about ten pounds. I do not want to lose this momentum once the school year begins! It's so easy to let the urgency of the school day overrule my own good plans for myself (the saying "poor planning on your part does not constitute an emergency on my part" comes to mind). Since I know that this school year is likely to be a lot like the last two school years, and the only person over whom I have control is me, I have decided to do all I can through advanced planning and preparation to thwart all potential threats to the good things that I've done and plan to do for myself.

The first of this multi-pronged plan will be to begin my regular school year / school day schedule tomorrow morning. You may think this is crazy, but I know from experience that any sudden change to an established good routine can totally derail said routine.

I have a gym membership which I haven't used at all this summer because the weather's been so nice. I've just been taking my exercise in the form of these long walks in the park, and it's been really good for my mental and physical health. But tomorrow I am going to get up at 4:30am (my normal school year get-out-of-bed time) and drag my butt to the gym and get on the elliptical trainer 15 minutes and the stationary bicycle for 15 minutes. Including the drive to the gym and back, this means I'll spend an hour on this activity, and I should be home by 5:30am.

Then I'll make some Good Earth Tea (original), fix myself a bowl of Rice Chex with half a banana and 2% milk, eat my breakfast and get to writing Morning Pages. (If you want to know more about Morning Pages, get The Artist's Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity [10th Anniversary Edition], by Julia Cameron--NOT just for visual artists, but for anyone who needs to unblock the creative process, or keep it flowing.) Writing Morning Pages only takes 15 to 20 minutes of focused, concentrated writing (this simply means DON'T stop writing for a full 15 to 20 minutes--write down every single thing that crosses your mind for the 15 to 20 minutes, no matter what it is!). Doing this as prescribed will produce at least three long-hand 8 1/2 "x 11" written pages. Sometimes I'm on a roll and don't want to stop, and can drag it out to a full hour, but only if I have time. If I only devote 15 to 20 minutes to Morning Pages, I'll have arrived at this point in my morning schedule by about 6:00am or 6:15am, and this means I have time to do my other non-negotiable morning activity: making art.

I need to be at my desk by 6:30am at the absolute latest to get in a half hour of art-making time. This is not only a creativity exercise, but an accountability exercise also. Woody Allen said that "90% of success is just showing up." Most of the reason would-be artists don't make art is because they spend too much time thinking about, talking about it, thinking and talking about why they're blocked and not doing it, but not making art. I have been guilty of the same for about 20 years. I set out to change that this last school year with success. I'm not making as much art as I'd like to, but I am making a lot more than I did in the preceding 19 years, so I'll consider that progress. My goal has been to make progress on one piece a week. I work small to increase my chances of actually finishing something, since I don't have big blocks of time to devote to the effort.

This year I'm setting a new goal, though: a finished drawing/painting/print a day. My inspiration for this is twofold: 1) the painfully slow process I've been testing to simulate what my AP Art students will have to do this school year, and 2) Duane Keiser, who set out several years ago to complete a painting a day, and succeeded. As I mentioned in a previous post, "Good artists borrow, great artists steal," so I have "stolen" this idea to help me get out of my artist's slump. For now I will settle for showing up and making progress, but once school starts I'm going to try to complete a painting/drawing/print a day so my students can see that it is possible, and to catapult me out of this bad habit of not making art every day that I've cultivated over the last 20 years.

After art-making, I'll be in the shower by 7:00am and out the door to school by 7:30am. This will get me to school by 8:00am to 8:15am, which is actually a little early for the slacker I intend to be as a result of all of my advance prep and planning, but so what? Then the school day: 3 back-to-back 90-minute classes (I think I have a 30-minute lunch in there somewhere), a 90-minute planning period at 2:00pm, which I plan to use to do ALL of the grading, recording, and materials prep for the next day, and then out the door by 3:45pm!

There will be a couple of days a week when I leave at 4:45pm because of my once-a-week coach class and my National Art Honor Society meeting, but most days I plan to be home by 4:30pm, taking the dog for a walk in the park for about 45 minutes, and then making dinner, reading a book, and to bed by 8:30pm to 9:00pm.

The most beautiful part of that plan and that schedule is that my weekends and holidays will belong to me and my husband, and not my school district.

If I am able to use the second half of my summer to get all that planning done, then my school year will look exactly as I have described: like anyone else's regular day job, with no homework and no grading outside of regular working hours. It will be a beautiful thing, (dare I say it?) a work of art.

So, the training program begins tomorrow. For the rest of my summer "off" I'll be working a regular 8-hour day like everyone else. The first half of my summer was about recovering my sanity from the absolutely insane schedule that teaching public school is, and the second half of the summer will be about preventing the insanity from happening again, regardless of what direction the insanity is coming from. I plan to be an island of calm and reason in the middle of whatever craziness my school or school district have cooked up for me this year. The eye of the storm, focused on the present moment, centered in myself and my purpose. Life is good. :-)

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