A Good Teacher’s Summer is Still Busy

Terrence Moore

June 1, 2003

There are some spoil-sports out there who say that schools should not take such a long summer break. The tradition of the summer vacation, say these critics of leisure, derives from an agricultural economy in which children were needed to labor in the harvest. In our modern, industrial world, we should work children year-round, just as we do adults. That way they would not lose so much over the summers. Moreover, why should teachers get such long periods of rest? What self-respecting profession allows itself two and a half months of fun in the sun, not to mention a couple of weeks at Christmas and at least one in the spring? To reform education in this country, should not policy-makers and teachers lobby for a twelve-month academic year with only modest vacations in December and June?

The opinion of this teacher is most certainly not. The nine-month school year is not merely a vestige of an agricultural economy. In fact, it may not be that at all. From the sixteenth through the nineteenth centuries the European elite sent their boys to classical boarding schools that offered generous time off during the summers. These boys did not return home to work the fields. More often than not, they accompanied their families to a summer retreat on the sea or to a country villa. It would seem, then, that the long summer vacations descend from a culture that understood and appreciated leisure.

The idea that teachers get off scot-free in the summer is also an illusion. To be sure, there are teachers out there who do nothing during the summer and whose output during the year is not that much greater. Were this not the case, America’s schools would be in tremendous shape. The working life of a good teacher, however, is not composed of forty-hour weeks. Teachers constantly have to work up new lectures and polish old ones. Grading one paper assignment or one test alone can take up the bulk of a weekend. During study halls, they meet with students who have missed classes or who need extra help. Given this hectic pace, teachers, i.e. those responsible for teaching our youth to think, have little time to think themselves. As a result, they need some time in the year to revise lectures, to read the most recent good books in their field, and to visit some of the places, to work out some of the problems, to see some of the art, and to listen to some of the music they are required to teach. Moreover, insofar as teachers ought to be generally cultured in all disciplines, they need time to study subjects beyond those they are required to teach.

Let us imagine a high school history teacher just completing his second year of teaching. He has a pretty good handle on the material he assigns to the class. Nonetheless, he has developed a long-range plan to study intensively one aspect of American history every summer over the next decade. This year he has picked the Puritans. Any study of the Puritans must begin with Perry Miller’s classic The New England Mind (2 vols. 976 pp.). This is no Tom Clancy novel; the first chapter, “The Augustinian Strain of Piety,” moves very quickly into topics of predestination, regeneration, and man’s responsibilities in a fallen world. He might also read a couple of Miller’s essays, “Errand into the Wilderness” and “The Marrow of Puritan Divinity,” probably the only Miller he touched in college, essays he might assign to his students. The history teacher will want to read more recent scholarship on the Puritans, such as Hambrick-Stowe’s The Practice of Piety (287 pp.). Along the way he will no doubt read some of the Puritan works cited in these books, especially the sermons. No study of Puritanism is complete without a rereading of The Scarlet Letter and The Crucible, literary stereotypes no doubt, but important guides to modern man’s image of a Biblical people. Should he have the time and money, a proper study of the Puritans would culminate in a trip to New England with lengthy visits to Harvard and the Boston Public Library.

Not everything our teacher learns about the Puritans will make its way into the classroom, but his overall understanding of this people, our forefathers, definitely will. The teacher’s considerable knowledge will make him even more one of those rare teachers “who doesn’t just go by the book.” So if you want good teachers, protect their summers.

Terrence Moore is an Adjunct Fellow of the Ashbrook Center and Principal of Ridgeview Classical Schools in Fort Collins, Colorado.