When I have to go back to school in the fall, I jokingly tell my friends they can feel sorry for me–I’ve only had 3 months off.
I don’t really expect people to feel sorry for me, and I think it’d be amazing if many more professions would have the opportunity to take significant amounts of time off each year.
I have benefitted immensely from having summers to recoup, though, and I wanted to share why.
Having a significant amount of time off work helps me de-stress. I take a lot on during the school–both work-wise and emotionally, and it takes me months to let go.
When I say I take on a lot work-wise, it used to mean long hours. Nowadays it is less likely to mean long hours and more likely to mean the effort with which I work on my teaching.
Each school year, I make changes to my teaching. I might change one assignment, or I might change my whole class setup, which for me means creating new major assignments or a new process for the assignments. The years I keep similar assignments, I often experiment with offering students more control of how class is run, or re-thinking the curriculum and creating different ways to use class time. Changes also take time and reflection for me. I can’t take someone else’s curriculum and teach it. I have to understand and integrate each aspect of the concepts I want to teach; I have to be sure about each step and that means I’m journaling to think each part through. It’s enjoyable work, for sure; it just takes time and energy.
Taking on a lot emotionally mainly has to do with how I approach students. I like to get to know each student on a personal level. For some students this means I know that they have little time to do schoolwork because they have busy lives. For others, it means I know what is going on with their family situation, what they struggle with in terms of other classes, how they are looking for a new job because they can’t stand their current boss. I love getting to know students. It helps me help them with their writing and learning. It also allows me to support them during challenging parts of the semester. For me, it’s the best way to be, but it is often draining.
Unfortunately, I also take on some of what is students’ responsibility. I want so badly for the students to succeed. Sometimes it seems I want them to succeed more than they themselves want it; more likely, though, students don’t know how to succeed in college or other issues get in the way of their work or motivation. I spend time trying to determine how I can help, and it’s different with each student. Some of them get their issue straightened out and get back on track in terms of their work. Others don’t cope so well, they get further and further behind to the point that they can’t dig themselves out of the hole they are in. It is very difficult wanting so much for someone, thinking I know what might help and being unsure about whether the student will do that thing to help themselves with their study skills or writing. Sometimes it’s heartbreaking. Most of the time, though, it’s stress that builds up little by little.
I’m also very empathic. I have empathy for my students and all their struggles, and because I listen to them, some share a lot with me. They write and talk about loss, they talk about family issues, they talk about not having a ride to school. I find out they are struggling with depression or that their families rely on them to work, drive siblings to school, and make dinner. Some of them have little time to themselves. If they let me, I problem solve with them and if they don’t, sometimes my mind races with problem-solving for them or with what is wrong with society that students that age have so much to deal with. In short, some of the worry or sadness I have for them holds on.
Another issue that takes a toll on me emotionally is what I used to think in terms of “fitting in” at work. I would struggle to determine why the other English teachers weren’t upset with the huge reading workload I couldn’t get out from under. I would wonder how other teachers could take on a 6th class during the semester or deal with our rising student load and not want to scream.
After much reflection, therapy, and thinking outside of the box, I know now that part of my emotional struggle is dealing with oppressive, uncaring systems. A few years ago, I wanted to recoup some of the money I spent on a conference for work. In order to apply for the funds from my union, I first had to be sure I had explored all other avenues, which involved asking our vice president for funds. Well, when I asked him what he needed from me to fulfill my request, he asked if I had presented at the conference. I hadn’t. He asked if I had any special role at the conference. I hadn’t. I had spent a week of personal time (during the summer) away from my family fully participating in work with other educators to gain new skills that would support my teaching. That didn’t seem like what he wanted to hear. He had said that the extra funds were traditionally saved for people who presented. I was so disheartened that I chose not to pursue the funding. I was willing to give up a few hundred of my dollars to not have to interact with him again. I would have preferred he and I have a conversation about what I had learned, how I engaged in that week or what it would bring to the students or the school. Or I could have listened to him tell me how much money was left and why he’d prefer to spend it differently. Perhaps we could have checked with faculty to see how many people were going to be looking to recoup funds they spent on conferences. Decision-making processes that allow for individuals’ differences and/or that involve open conversation would be useful.
I wish I could say that I struggled with that one administrator and that other processes were dealt with differently or that there was more shared decision-making in matters that affected my job. Alas, I cannot. So what I thought was an issue of fitting in and/or dealing with constraints in my job, in my view today, are problems with how the processes are set up, who is in charge of them, and how power is used.
Over the weeks of summer break, then, I have a slow loosening or letting go of the stress that has built up. I typically feel more free after a few weeks of break, and I feel even better a few weeks thereafter. I’ve had summers, though, when I felt back to normal at the beginning of August or the week before I was to report back to work. I benefit from that significant amount of time for self-care. I don’t think I’d still be teaching without it.
I am in currently in week 6 of my break and I have much unwinding to do. I don’t know if it’s because of Covid and the additional stressors that have come with teaching online or if it’s stress I took on with volunteering for a school that went a month later than my college or all of the above. I just know I’m not there yet. I am still more irritable, tired and frustrated more often than I’d like to be. It’s getting better, though—one day off of work at a time.
Peace Out (and In),
If you are in need of a significant break and your employer doesn’t offer the opportunity, there are other ways to get it. Here are a few blog posts that show what others have done to get that time off.