In Defense of Summer Break for Teachers and Academics: What Critics Need to Know
(Editor's Note: Please note that the New Existentialists will not be publishing on July 4 and 5 because of the Fourth of July holiday. We will resume our regular schedule on Monday, July 8, 2013.)
It is very common to hear strong criticisms of the teaching profession for what is perceived of as “lax schedules,” including having summers off. I admit, prior to entering the profession, I would be one to share these criticisms. However, after teaching for more than 10 years, I would happily invite these critics to shadow a teacher any given semester and see if these criticisms are valid. Mind you, too, that I write this on my official “summer break” from my academic position.
The Myth of “Summer Break”
Before making an argument that there really is no such thing as summer break, let me acknowledge that there are some academics that exploit the system and take undue advantage. However, this is true in any profession. As is also true in most professions, the vast majority of individuals in the teaching profession are highly upset and offended by their colleagues who exploit the system. Yet, if we were to judge any profession based upon the bad examples, there would be no noble professions left. However, let me focus on the common misunderstandings.
Break as a time for maintaining one’s expertise. It is strongly desirable that our teachers and professors maintain themselves as experts in their respective fields. We expect teachers to stay current in their field, as well as in the teaching profession in general, and not simply teach based upon what they knew when they started their careers. An essential obligation of any teacher of excellence is to maintain a commitment to being a lifelong learner and staying current on the most important trends in their field.
For most teachers, their schedules are too busy to keep up on the professional literature during the academic term. During this time they are spending much of their free time, including many evenings and weekends, preparing for class, grading papers, and doing other responsibilities beyond the classroom, such as contributing to the accreditation process, serving on faculty committees, and one-on-one mentoring of students.
If we want our students to learn from experts, we need to protect the time of teachers so that they have time to stay familiar with, and even contribute to, the professional literature. The primary time when teachers do this is over the summer. When I read a journal article or book during the academic term, it is generally time spent beyond the 40-hour workweek. Most of the conference papers, journal articles, book chapters, and books I write are also a commitment beyond the 40-hour workweek. Although we expect our teachers to remain experts, we do not support them in doing this.
Course preparations. Breaks, such as summer breaks, are when teachers and professors update their courses, maintain their credentials, catch up on the literature, and contribute to the professional literature. It is the things that teachers do during their “breaks” that allow them to be the type of experts we need teaching our students. Those who have never taught do not realize the many hours of work that goes into preparing for each hour of teaching. Given a typical academic schedule, much of this needs to be done over the summer “break.”
Unusual Work Schedules. Teachers and professors rarely have consistent 40-hour weeks. Forty hours are realistic during a few points of the term. However, when papers are due, midterms and finals need to be graded, comprehensive exams are turned in, or thesis and dissertation deadlines near, we again must sacrifice many evenings and weekends in order to give our students the timely feedback that is expected.
The Economy and Education. Teachers invest time and money in preparing for their career only to get a poor return on their investment monetarily and in terms of respect. Yet, we are expected to continue to invest throughout our careers. The amount of money teachers and professors receive to attend the professional conferences they are expected to attend has been decreasing in recent years, meaning that increasingly they must invest their own limited time and money to attend these conferences. If they do not do this, they are not maintaining their credentials, and it threatens their job security.
Since the problems in the economy have begun, the teaching profession has been hit hard. College professors are asked to do more and more that traditionally was assigned to other roles at the university. Our roles are expanding, yet our pay has not increased and often has decreased. We have less and less time to be scholars with increasing expectations.
It seems our society does not recognize the importance of education. Yet, as we move to a global marketplace, and other countries are investing a great deal in improving their education, it is likely that the place of the United States in the global economy will be threatened. As I travel to Asia each year, I noticed how their education is improving and their commitment to learning is far greater than what I witness in the United States. This worries me greatly.
What Does This Have to Do with Existential Psychology?
From an existential perspective, engagement with philosophy, scholarship, and the arts is emphasized not because they help us to expand our knowledge, but because they influence who we become. I am deeply thankful that I learned from teachers who were given the time to be scholars, who engage in their professional communities, and who are involved in their profession. They were not just teachers, which is what made them great teachers. Today, we seem to want to reduce teachers to being nothing more than their teaching role. If we succeed in doing this, we will have lost our ability to truly educate our students.
-- Louis Hoffman