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A Simple Summer Playbook

How educators can find the balance between relaxing, recharging, and recommitting
simple illustration of a beach with umbrella, flip flops, and buoy

For educators, the perfect summer often starts with the perfect escape. Mental or physical, near or far — it doesn’t much matter, as long as you get away. This work — the work you love — is hard, and the recipe for a successful summer calls for leaving it behind for a while.

Admittedly, the three veteran educators who shared that piece of advice — all of whom are also teachers of teachers — were just able to squeeze in a conversation as they rushed to prepare for summer sessions or guide their students in ongoing residencies and assignments.

Which is to say: Teachers don’t ever stop being teachers. But even the busiest of educators and leaders know they have to hit pause now and then.

Here are some simple approaches to a restorative summer break.

Taking Stock of the Year

“Summer is a time for a change of venue, a change of attitude — a time to slow it down,” says Pamela Mason, who leads a summer session at the Harvard Graduate School of Education on the art of leadership and how principals can find the time to reflect, learn, and grow. “This is a chance to think about what your personal goals were at the beginning of the school year, and to take stock of where you are in them now. What were the successes, and what contributed to those successes? What are the remaining challenges — and why are they still challenges?”

When taking stock, ask yourself, whose advice did you consult, whose input did you privilege? How did those decisions contribute to where you are now?

For principals especially, whose “summer” varies in length depending on their contracts, this is a time to think broadly about your leadership, Mason says. “Ask yourself, whose advice did you consult, whose input did you privilege? How did those decisions contribute to where you are now, as the year ends?”

Take stock of the bigger picture and figure out where you’re going next in driving the initiatives that you care about, she says. “Think about, what does the learning community look like within my building? Is it a community of collaboration among adults, among children, and across constituencies — including teachers, paraprofessionals, families, and community partners? Are they all committed to learning?

“This is a time to look up — look at the larger context in which your school is situated.”

For principals and senior leaders — who rarely disconnect entirely — the process of reflection has to be accompanied by periods of downtime. “School leaders need to know where their happy place is,” Mason says. “Is it golf, is it the spa, is it playing chess? Whatever it is, they have to give themselves permission to do that. When you do, that’s when you have the insights and the opportunity for renewal."

Intentionally Unwinding

In order to begin the unwinding, it’s important to “acknowledge the year and then leave it,” says Vicki Jacobs. “Process it, learn from it, and put it aside.” For Jacobs, who leads the Teacher Education Program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, summer doesn’t bring long stretches of downtime. The program's summer component for incoming candidates begins barely three weeks after the last cohort’s commencement, so she’s actively teaching and mentoring for much of the season. But she’s found that even small and simple diversions are helpful.

She reads (“nothing that’s going to make my brain hurt too much, even as I appreciate recommendations for great reads”), makes it a priority to connect with friends, and enjoys the sense of accomplishment that weeding her garden can bring.

She regularly takes long walks and lets her mind wander. She makes a point of cooking with fresh summer produce, and of noticing how late the sun is setting.

Educators are “always on,” Jacobs says. And they’re “constantly having to see themselves through other people’s eyes. Summer gives us time to look outside ourselves.”

At the same time, it gives us an opportunity to reconnect with who we are at our core. “So much of a teacher’s life is about meeting needs, meeting expectations, being accountable,” she says. “Summer is a time to recover what we want to do, not what we need to do.”

Intentionally Recharging 

Getting away from the work is critical, says Eric Shed, but summer also brings opportunities for recommitting. Shed, who directs the Harvard Teacher Fellows program (where the work is in high gear for most of the summer), urges teachers to be intentional about their professional development — seeking out summer opportunities “that are really centered around your own growth and interests and tied to a larger professional goal.”

"Educators are always on — constantly having to see themselves through other people’s eyes. Summer gives us time to look outside ourselves.”

Apply for grants, institutes, and seminars where you come together with educators who have shared interests — and seek out “opportunities to go deeper, in ways you don’t get the chance to do during the year,” he says. Work with colleagues, professional learning communities, or peers to build curriculum or form a reading group.

Rather than viewing professional development as a top-down mandate over which you have little control, Shed says, position it as something where “you as a teacher have identified areas of growth, areas of interest, and areas of passion.” Explore your interests through organized PDs, but also do the work on your own.

Consider expanding your skill set by teaching in a summer program, with entirely new colleagues and students. “Teaching is a lifelong learning experience, so when you get an opportunity to be involved with youth over the summer, working alongside new teachers, it’s a chance to refine and hone your practice in a different capacity and a different context. That can be really powerful,” Shed says.

“The idea is, if you can unplug for two weeks or four weeks, then really turn it back on for two weeks or four weeks, that’s a powerful combination,” he says. The length of the “on/off” time is arbitrary — the goal is to see the summer as consisting of two complementary units, both necessary to your growth and wellbeing.

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