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Teachers draw envy and ire over their two-month ‘vacations.’ But do they really get the summer off?

Teachers draw envy and ire over their two-month ‘vacations.’ But do they really get the summer off?

Summer months off may not be the perk you think it is. For many teachers, it’s a time for courses, prepping lesson plans and learning new curriculums.

By Janet Hurley Senior Writer

School’s out for summer, but Kimiko Shibata is already thinking about September.

The Kitchener teacher is trying to get familiar with the new language curriculum that the Ontario government dropped three weeks ago just as teachers were drowning in report cards, year-end ceremonies and feeling “June tired.”

There was little time to wade through the document. But no matter: teachers of Grades 1 to 8 have to be up-to-speed on some substantial changes come Sept. 5 including back-to-basics phonics, grammar, digital media literacy and the much-hyped cursive.

“A curriculum document really is just an outline of the topics and skills that have to be taught and assessed; it doesn’t provide any of the actual lessons or resources that teachers need to do the teaching,” said Shibata, an MLL (multilingual learner) teacher who works with newcomers at eight schools in her public board.

And so the self-described “resource nerd” is going to spend her summer figuring out how to meet the new expectations, including making short instructional videos of stuff teachers are going to need to master — like “what’s a gerund?” (A word ending in -ing that is made from a verb and used like a noun, if you must know.)

“The government is telling me I have to know the curriculum, I have to teach the curriculum,” said Shibata, who is pleased with the new expectations, “but they’re not saying, thou shalt go and write a bunch of videos and make a bunch of content. That’s what I’m choosing to do. That’s going to help me, it’s going to help my students and it’s going to help my colleagues.”

It will be unpaid work.

A teacher’s summer break is not necessarily the unencumbered perk critics would have everyone believe. It’s a time many use to take additional qualification courses, prepare lesson plans, move classrooms, or find the energy they’ll need to face a new cohort of kids eight weeks from now.

A teacher’s salary — which in Ontario starts at about $46,000, and averages about $94,900, according to the Ministry of Education — is usually dispersed over 12 months, but is actually for 194 days (instructional, PA days and scheduled prep time).

Summer is unpaid. So are statutory holidays and the winter and March breaks.

The ministry would not specifically respond to queries about whether teachers will be expected to spend their summer getting resourced and ready to teach the new language curriculum this September, but spokesperson Grace Lee said, “our government has hired over 7,500 net new education staff designed to improve and support the academic success and well-being of Ontario students.”

Of the 132,423 teachers in Ontario, 65,510 are on the provincial sunshine list making $100,000 or more. “Teachers in Ontario are among the best paid education workers in the country... along with comprehensive benefits and a fully indexed pension,” said Lee.

All that makes the profession a target, especially during contract negotiations (all four unions representing Ontario teachers have been without a contract since last August).

We’ve all been students in a classroom, so everyone thinks they understand the profession, say educators. Everyone has an opinion.

And the idea of “summers off” really does seem to rankle.

“From the outside looking in, that’s kind of what people see, right?” said Matthew Morris, a Grade 8 teacher with the Toronto public school board who hears it all the time. “They always say, ‘Oh, don’t complain. You’ve got summers off.’

“But we put a hell of a lot of work in throughout the year, a lot of emotional work,” said Morris, who was back at Tecumseh Senior Public School in Scarborough this past week packing up a few things he had no time to consider in the June rush. “We’re dealing with children every single day in a way that, if you want to do your job properly, requires you to be alert, focused and prepared to be flexible. No day is the same, no year is the same. It’s draining.”

Teachers say that, at any one time, in addition to teaching the curriculum, they need to be therapists, navigate mental health crises and make sure kids are fed, all the while meeting individual learning needs. One teacher likened their job to hosting a birthday party for 30 kids — all day, every day.

The pandemic brought further challenges, from learning loss to behavioural issues. The stress of which caused burnout and pushed some out of the profession altogether.

“Teaching is hard work, and it is heart work,” said Shibata. “And it’s not for the weak of heart, for sure.”

So it comes as no surprise that some educators feel “chiseled out” by the time June rolls around and need the summer to rejuvenate. As one teacher noted, “you can’t pour from an empty cup.”

The origin of the summer break is oft explained away as an accommodation to the demands of an agrarian economy, but the standardized school calendar was actually born out of education reforms in the 19th century. There were a number of reasons why the academic year ended up being like it is, including that summer temperatures made schools unbearable. One only has to spend a little time in an un-airconditioned classroom in June to understand why lessons don’t extend into July.

But there was also a notion among education leaders at the time that “a summer of ‘quietude’ would counteract the strain that they believed teaching put on teachers’ — especially women teachers’ — physical and mental health,” according to Christine Ogren, a professor at the University of Iowa who is writing a book on the history of teachers’ summer off. Administrators also began to encourage teachers to attend summer institutes for professional development.

It’s a tradition that continues today, with a whole industry built up around teacher education, from conferences and workshops to immersive travel-study opportunities.

“During the summer,” said Ogren, most teachers are “thinking about their work. Even if they’re travelling, they might be thinking about, well, how can I use this in my classroom? (Summer) doesn’t mean they just shut off.”

For Beth Lyons, a July 1st weekend camping trip marked the beginning of her break, but she is also more than a third of the way through a book she purchased to help her prepare for a new challenge come September. The Grade 3 teacher at Peel District School Board is moving to a kindergarten classroom, for the first time.

It will require a whole different program, and she needs to cram for it. She has a stack of reference material she’ll be making her way through this summer: “I will be reading beach reads and professional reads.”

She will have to reorganize her classroom, some 300 picture books and novels as well as STEM building materials. And so she, like many teachers, will return to school in August to set things up.

In the meantime, she is taking a course with the International Dyslexia Association on decoding and spelling after having just finished an additional qualifications (AQ) math course this past spring.

In Ontario, AQ courses are accredited by the Ontario College of Teachers, and offered by teachers’ unions, universities and school boards. According to the Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario (ETFO) — which wouldn’t share actual enrollment figures for their AQ courses — registration this summer is higher than last year.

“Summer is honestly my favourite time to take them because I can actually focus more on the learning,” said Shibata. “I’m not juggling as much. And I know most my colleagues are in the same boat.”

Teachers pay out of pocket, with ETFO AQ courses, for example, costing $685 each.

Some teachers choose to enrol in them for financial reasons. Those starting out in the profession, for example, might take AQ courses to move faster up the salary grid. It takes about 12 years plus extra qualifications to reach top pay.

Others are keen to improve their practice or just want to keep learning. ETFO reports 43 per cent of its candidates have taken more than 15 courses.

“Folks that take AQ courses — they spend July in the classroom, go to school Monday to Friday or online. They don’t start holiday until August,” said Hilary Brown, an associate professor at Brock University’s faculty of education.

But there are also teachers who need the full two months to recover and repair, whether it be sitting in a hammock or gardening, said Brown. They’re chiseled away. They have nothing left in the tank. “My hat goes off to them, too, because sometimes that’s what you need in order to be the best practitioner you can be.”

On social media, Toronto teacher Morris has been doling out advice on how to decompress — words he hopes to live by, despite knowing his back-to-school anxiety usually kicks in by August. He’s starting his summer with small goals — like filling up his bike tires and going for weekly rides — but he also knows he wants to choose a new novel for his students this fall, so he figures he’ll soon begin researching a new book and then thinking about how he’ll teach it.

“You don’t want to be the teacher that just comes back to a school year without any growth.”

But as in any profession, there are always a few bad apples who do the bare minimum. “We can all name one or two exceptions that don’t mind being bad at it, but it’s such a difficult job that they don’t last very long,” said Sarah Barrett, an associate professor with faculty of education at York University.

Peel teacher Lyons agrees. “Summers off are great. I am not going to deny that, it’s a lovely benefit,” but if people go into the profession in order to have “summers off,” she said, “they probably won’t last more than five years.”

According to 2021 data from the Ontario College of Teachers, 17 per cent of teachers were no longer practising at five years. In the U.S. where salaries are generally lower, the attrition rate after five years is more than 44 per cent.

York University’s Barrett notes that because teachers in Ontario are paid well enough, the best and brightest still want to do the job.

“It is indicative of how important we think education is that we pay teachers as well as we do. Given how smart they are and how hard it is to get into (university) programs, they could do other things if they wanted to and get paid better.”

For Shibata, there are no “other things.” She says teaching is “the best job in the world,” and brings her great joy.

She believes public criticism over benefits, like the summer break, are fuelled by poor work conditions elsewhere.

“People wish they could have better. And honestly, I wish everyone could have better,” she said. “But instead of cutting down people who have good working conditions, who make a living wage, who have a pension, who have holidays, instead of ragging on them, what we need to be doing is ragging on institutions that are not providing that for their workers.”

Before Shibata dives deeply into the new language curriculum, she intends to spend time with her daughter, as well as catch up on dental and eye appointments she couldn’t fit in during the academic year. And she will rest.

It’s all self-care she describes as “trickle-down wellness.”

“When we take care of the people who are taking care of our kids, then our kids do better,” she said.

“I don’t want my child’s teacher next year to be feeling burnt out and horrible and June-tired in September. I want that teacher to be refreshed and happy and so excited to meet my kid and to understand and meet her needs.”

Clarification — July 10, 2023: A previous verion of this article did not make clear that Ontario teacher pensions have been indexed at inflation since 2018. As well, in Ontario, AQ courses are accredited by the Ontario College of Teachers (OCT), and offered by teachers’ unions, universities and school boards. They are not offered by OCT.

Article originally published via The Standard on July 9th, 2023.