“I wish I were a teacher.”
It’s a phrase I hear all summer long.
I don’t hear it when Labor Day is over and a herd of energetic 11-year-olds storm into my classroom. I don’t hear it over the holidays when I’m grading piles of essays and I don’t hear it when I’m answering parent e-mails at 7 a.m. or 11 p.m. Once the end of June rolls around and the sun comes out, though, everybody wants to be a teacher.
Whether the desire is fueled by memories of their summers as students or an envious imagination of what one day off would feel like, everybody has these visions of teachers lying on white sand beaches, drinks in hand, laughing at the people still donning dress clothes for their 9-to-5s. It’s an admittedly appealing visual and one that I’ve often had myself. When I began teaching, I planned on spending my summers making movies, taking care of my required reading while sitting on a beach in exotic locations and continuously checking countries off the list of places I wanted to visit. However, as with most things, basic responsibilities get in the way of those best laid plans. Weddings pile up, children (not mine) are born and one eye is always trained on the savings account. What results is reality never quite matching up to those initial plans hatched when the calendar flips to June.
All of which isn’t to imply that having summers off isn’t a great perk. The seven weeks without having to get up at 6 a.m. can be incredibly relaxing and do a good job of making up for the other months of long hours, mediocre pay and nights spent hunched over a desk with red pen in hand. Yet, as some might assume, these weeks are not without their share of work and preparation.
The fact of the matter is that my brain never shuts off school mode completely. If I’m reading a book or watching a movie, I’m often struck with an idea for one of my classes. Fruitvale Station made me think of a “Day in The Life” assignment for my cinema class that could lead to a discussion on how small visuals can hint at an entire life. Before Midnight gave me the idea for an assignment where students had to spend a day communicating without a phone and evaluate the differences in the types of conversations they had. Reading Forever by Pete Hamill gave me an idea for a research project in my History of NYC class.
I keep all of this in a list of notes about ideas and possible field trips that I add to almost daily. I’ve been updating the websites I have for each of my classes on a weekly basis. The “Notes” section on my iPhone is littered with to-do reminders like: “Update Powerpoint for Gatsby introduction,” or “Record voiceover for video introduction of Aristotle.”
Even without set work hours, I tend to structure my time around a series of tasks to ensure that I don’t climb into bed that night feeling like I wasted a day. I give myself the morning to enjoy the lounging that I won’t be able to do when the school year starts. Then I start in on freelance writing assignments, updating the websites, or practicing French so that I can talk to all my colleagues (and also know what students are saying when they’re trying to hide stuff from me). With trips to the gym thrown in between it all, days fill up quicker than you’d expect.
I guess part of the subconscious pull to keep working results from fear of inertia. Even when teaching a subject like English where the books themselves never change, the students always do. I fear that stagnation will lead to the day where I become the teacher who makes these classics forgettable because I’m not connecting them to anything current. I fear the rumors in the hallway that my class is boring or that the students already know what’s coming next because last year’s class told him/her. I put immense pressure on myself to make sure that things remain fresh because, as a student, that was what I expected. What that means is work always finds a way to creep into my summer months.
As a teacher at a school where I have five unique preps, my summer comes with its fair share of reading. It’s hardly a trouble, since I’ve been buried in books since my freshman year of college, but it’s shocking how little pleasure reading I get to do amidst all the pages I flip. When June began I had set out a list of books I wanted to get through (the new Dave Eggers and Junot Diaz books, catching up on Tom Perrotta’s Leftovers before HBO turns it into a show), yet I found myself instead immersed in curriculum reading more often than not. I caught up on Catcher in the Rye and Tale of Two Cities for the 9th grade class I’m beginning, and annotated and underlined my way through summer reading assignments for all four classes.
Sure, I make time to see my friends over the summer, but with most people working until seven or eight every day, there are more solitary hours than I’m accustomed to. If I get antsy during an afternoon, I know there won’t be anybody free, so I fill up my spare time when I can. New York is great for that; there’s always something to do on any night of the week. If I have a friend that has a late start on Tuesday, we can get drinks at Pirate Mondays at Mother’s Ruin. There’s music at Rockwood Music Hall on Allen Street every night, and Videology in Williamsburg has Movie Trivia nights every Monday.
Even then, there’s still not a week in the summer that goes by without me preparing or outlining for school. It’s something that’s common for all of us. Go out with a group of teachers for a happy hour drink and you’re guaranteed to hear about “my kids” or the one student who really surprised us this week. Even those who are careful to make time to cultivate a life outside of school are bound to see the world of desks and papers dragged into their alternate realities at some point. It’s a hazard of the job.
Every summer, I set out to take time for myself but it’s always kept open for my students as well. I’ll think about ways to make their year better or ways to engage them in things they might not have known before. Then I blink and it’s the middle of August, with two weeks to go before I walk back through the doors again. Even after seven weeks away, I know I’ll be prepared.