I am now in my second week of summer vacation and only one adult has expressed to me her jealousy over my two months off. This probably has less to do with what I hope is growing appreciation for teachers and their work in the wake of walk-outs and other public awareness of our conditions, and more to do with the fact that I have rarely left the house and avoid conversation on those occasions when I do.
The comment came during one of the last days of school. I’d organized a breakfast for my class and a couple of parents asked if I needed help. Never one to turn down such an offer, I had three diligent assistants, each of whom had been in the room previously and attended class field trips.
“Looking forward to your summer off?” one of them asked me. Not so much a question as a kind of conspiratorial wink shared between adults who spend time with kids. A nicer way of saying, “Bet you’re sick of this, huh?”
But having done this a number of years now, I also knew how summer would likely play out. I’d be lazy for a week and truly enjoy having nothing to do. Then I’d grow restless. I’d start projects around the house. I’d spend money frivolously. I’d plan a vacation as an excuse to leave the house. All things better left unsaid. No one working summers wants to hear you’re planning to do a lot of nothing with yours.
“Got big plans?” she asked, by which she meant was I going to be traveling anywhere interesting.
“Not this year,” I told her, proud to avoid contributing to the idea that teachers spend their summers jet-setting around the world spending taxpayers’ money. “We’re just going to relax.”
“That must be nice.”
She didn’t say it in a mean way. Did not mean to imply that I had it easy. But like referees, teachers’ ears are finely tuned to any suggestion that we are making the wrong call. When it comes to summer, we teachers are damned if we do and damned if we don’t. Spend our summers posting pictures to Facebook of all the fabulous places we visit and our non-teacher friends confirm their suspicions that teachers, for all their whining, have it pretty damn good. After all, we can afford vacations just like other middle-class people! Spend the summer doing nothing and people will wrinkle their noses at our lack of productivity. In a country where work is closely tied to identity, many can’t imagine being idle for any length of time. You’ve got two months off and you’re going to do what? Just sit around? Read? Hang out with your family? Go to the beach? Really, that’s it?
Whatever we do with our summers, those who have to work them are right to be jealous. They say “it must be nice” because it is.
It is very nice. It is, without a doubt, the best perk of the job. Public pensions are wonderful but hard to get excited about in your first decade of teaching. As incentives, they work about as well as a promised year-end pizza party for good behavior, which is to say not at all. The medical insurance is fine, too, although, having always been a teacher, I don’t honestly know how good I have it, only that people who aren’t teachers claim that I do. And high job security is also supposed to be a perk, but it’s not one any decent teacher truly values. People who claim job security is a perk must assume the teacher they’re talking to sucks. Most people who are good at their jobs don’t worry about getting fired from them.
So, yes, summer vacation is a perk and one no teacher should apologize for. Like our comparatively low pay, the day to day challenges of the job, the incessant meddling of politicians, and the public scapegoating, we knew about it going in.
We knew the perks, just as those in other fields knew theirs.
Investment bankers don’t all become investment bankers because they love banking (or whatever it is those people do all day). Not all lawyers love the law. Not every doctor dreamed of savings people’s lives. A great number of them just wanted to make a lot of money and they knew that to get the perk, they had to do the work.
And different people value different perks. A lot of them value money over time, or rather, they believe making a lot of money will provide them with other perks they value. Which would be fine, if these values were treated equally.
But when’s the last time someone said to these non-teachers:
“Must be nice working for a company that offers a 401(k) match.”
“Must be nice to take a vacation in October, when the prices are lower, you can avoid throngs of ungrateful, whiny kids and their short-tempered parents, and the weather is measurably different from the place you are escaping.”
“Must be nice getting an hour-long lunch break.”
I’m guessing not many. If non-teachers want to know why teachers are sick of having their perks pointed out to them, they might consider the perks of their own job and then imagine that every time they took advantage of them someone said, “Well, that must be nice.”
I have a friend who is a physician’s assistant. His Facebook page consists of him not working. There he is in Prague. Now he’s in Maui. Next month, he’s on a Florida beach on a random Tuesday. Here is what I never allow myself to think when viewing his photos:
It must be nice.
Because what I’m not seeing is more important than what he has chosen to share with the world. What I’m not seeing is the sacrifice. I’m not seeing the years of schooling or the unpaid internship. I’m not seeing the 14-hour days when he started out. I’m not seeing the years of dedication. I’m not seeing the unheralded hours he still puts in, and even if I could, I wouldn’t understand it. He’s doing the work, and he’s enjoying the perks.
Good for him.
So the next time someone tells you it must be nice to have your summers off, tell them that it is. And gently remind them that you knew it would be all along and that they could join you. An enthusiastic, “You should become a teacher!” is usually enough. Most people immediately recoil and claim they could do no such thing. Which is exactly the point. Because while I would like the new cars and exotic vacations that my wealthier friends enjoy, I also know that I have never wanted their jobs. Just as I have no desire to argue the law in a courtroom or examine elderly patients’ mysterious growths, I am equally convinced that most people who wish they had their summers off have no stomach for the work that would allow them to.
Like me, most of you are likely enjoying your summer break. It’s not too early to start thinking about next year. If you ended the previous year exhausted and don’t want to make the same mistakes again next year, allow me to recommend three resources:
My book, Exhausted, explains what makes teachers so tired and what they can do about it.
My book, Leave School At School, details the strategies you can employ to work less while still being effective. It’s about optimizing your teaching practice and focusing on what’s essential.
Angela Watson’s 40-Hour Teacher Workweek Club is a proven year-long course that thousands of teachers have used to cut hours from their workweek and regain their personal lives.
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