Is Summer a Vacation for Educators? Reflections on a 20-Year Habit

Even though I don’t teach many formal classes theses days (maybe 1-2 graduate research classes each year) and my work in education is year round (we have new classes starting every eight and six weeks throughout the year), my brain is still programmed to think differently in June…with the beginning or nearing of summer break. Being enrolled in school for a streak of close to 40 years, I suppose that establishes a few habits that are hard to break.

For me, the beginning of June always triggers excitement and introspection. As a classroom teacher for years, that was the time when I started to reflect more deeply on the past year.

  • What went well?
  • What didn’t?
  • With whom did I build the strongest connections, why, and how?
  • Where did I miss the mark and manage to let some students fall between the cracks?
  • How I I finish the year in a way that inspires our encourages students in their future learning?
  • Do I need to seek anyone’s forgiveness?
  • With whom can I share a word (or letter) of thanks and gratitude?
  • What were the best things to happen during the year and how to I make them happen again next year?
  • What are my goals for the upcoming year?
  • What do I need to learn or become if I am going to achieve those goals? 

Those are the types of questions that filled my head during late May and early June. Even if I didn’t formally sit down and think about them, these questions would not be silent. They demanded to be heard and considered, and I willingly (and usually joyfully) thought about them quite a bit.

What the excitement in June? It was because of all the exciting work that I was freed to do during the summer break. With fewer formal responsibilities at school, that meant I had 2-3 months to direct my own daily schedule, which immediately lead me to questions like this:

  • What do I need / want to read this summer?
  • As noted above, what do I need to learn or become to achieve me goals for the upcoming school year?
  • What experiences can I have over the summer that will stretch me, help me look at things from a new perspective, or help me grow?
  • Are there any authors whose books I’ve read in the past that I can reach out to over the summer? In some cases, this led me to figuring out what they were doing and joining them (like taking a class at a random college because that author was guest lecturing).
  • Are there any skills that I want to home?
  • Are there any projects that I want to do with students will require some summer prep work?
  • What formal courses do I want to take to enhance my learning (remember that I was enrolled in some degree program almost until I turned 40, so there were some formal requirements but most of my graduate programs allowed me a ton of flexibility).

Asking these questions usually allowed me to sketch out a 2-3 month personalized learning plan that directed much of my time and thinking in the summers. These summers were some of the most amazing learning experiences of my life. I remember the summer I spent studying, thinking, and discussing the challenges of spiritual formation with middle school students by hanging out at the Massachusetts L’Abri. Another summer I slept on the couch of a high school friend in Chicago so I could take a graduate class at Wheaton College with a favorite author, James Sire. Then there was the summer where my wife and I lived at a camp. She become a trained lifeguard to help out and I helped design various curriculum. In return, we were given free housing. During the days I studied qualitative research methods at Northern Illinois Universities and had hours of amazing and thought-provoking conversations out of class with classmates and professors. Then there was the summer where I immersed myself in the media ecology literature for the first time, a life changing experience. Or, there was the summer I dreamed up (with a ton of help from other willing colleagues) a model for building one of the first supplemental online high school programs in the US (back in the middle 1990s). Usually, each summer had one or two themes that consumed me. One summer it was cognitive load theory. Another was focused on game-based learning. With another I become obsessed with existentialist novels. Another summer launched my love of writing, starting with a graduate writing workshop led by the South African novelist, Sheila Roberts. Summers have always been about learning, a love of learning, and self-direction in that learning.

Of course, that is largely the life of a teacher as I’d come to know it. Summer isn’t a vacation. It is an open schedule to live out my lifelong calling of student and teacher in ways that were less possible during a busy school year. It was a like to refresh and rejuvenate through deep dives into some of the most fascinating learning journeys of my life.

This summer is no different, although I have consciously decided to focus my study around four core texts that will guide and inspire me to seek out various experiences, read additional essays and books, design a few things, hopefully finish some writing projects. The four books are:

  • Business Model You, a great text that explains the business model Canvas, a brilliant way of conceiving a new business, but I’ve also found it helpful in thinking about many new initiatives and projects.
  • Character Strengths and Virtues – This is an 800-page handbook and classification of traits and virtues coming from an impressive study by positive pscyhologists, Christopher Peterson and Martin Seligman. I’ve read much positive psychology over the years, but I plan to use this summer to more deeply integrate my thought and projects with strands of research and thinking in positive psychology.
  • The Art of Game Design – This is not a new book for me, but it is a wonderful foundational text for designers of all types. I plan to use this to inspire the design of novel educational products and experiences.
  • The Great Conversation – This is a survey text used in entry level philosophy courses, so I’m going back to the basics with this text. It is an historical survey of philosophy, so I’m excited to use this as a starting points as I dig more deeply in the the the critical philosophical questions about education for our age. I remain convinced that philosophy plays an important role for everyone whose work is steeped in innovation. It keeps us grounded and focused on the affordandnaces and limitations of the many trends around us.

That is what I’m looking at for this summer. What about you? While I’d love to hear from all readers, I’m especially interested to learn from those in the education space, what summer means to them, and how they use it to grow and learn.

By the way, I will be announcing what I think will be a fun summer challenge and activity by early next week, open to all. I’m tentatively calling it the Lazy Summer Teacher Scavenger Hunt: Debunking the Myth Once and For All.


2 Replies to “Is Summer a Vacation for Educators? Reflections on a 20-Year Habit”

  1. Teresa Hamra

    I wonder what your thoughts are for educators who teach in programs where the Summer semester is as full as the Fall and Spring. It certainly doesn’t allow for the thoughtful reflection time you have outlined for your Summer.

    • Bernard Bull Post author

      Thanks for the comment, Teresa. Your comment points out an important note that all education positions are not the same. Some have formal requirements throughout the year, while others provide flexible times of the year that educators can use to expand and enhance their expertise. I would say that my personally established summer work in the past varied in terms of the time required to achieve my summer goals. Sometimes it was 60+ hours a week. Other times is was more like 15 or 20. Of course, even while teaching, without some sort of ongoing, focused personal development; one will eventually decrease in competence. I’ve always set the baseline goal of reading 100 books a year (not that books are the only way to learn) by simply setting aside an hour or two a night (although I admit that I sometimes need to take that from my sleep hours which is probably not advisable longterm). For those who don’t have the traditional schedule of a summer break, it seems to me that it calls for smaller chunks of time for reflection and personal development, which certainly has downsides. Some of the best personal development projects require “critical sinking” time and open blocks where one can get lost in an idea for hours, days, weeks, even months. That is, in my opinion, one of the greatest flaws in our formal education system for students as well. It is hard to experience “flow” in learning when everything is broken into small blocks of time and there is little flexibility for students (let alone teachers) to change a schedule on the fly in order to go more deeply into a single subject.

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