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This is my latest article in a series on owning your professional learning.

Teaching is an exhausting gig and when teachers take the time to rest during the summer, they able to find a place of renewal and restoration. Research has demonstrated that rest is vital for maintaining our passion and reaching our creative potential. However, it’s easy to go through the summer without finding any true restoration. In this article and podcast, we explore what it looks like to make rest a priority in the summer.

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When Teachers Rest, We All Win

When the pandemic hit, teachers had almost no prep time to move into emergency / distance learning mode. Yet, despite the lack of resources and, in some cases, the lack of training, teachers stepped up and did an amazing job. I even created a video at the time highlighting just how amazing teachers were during those critical weeks:

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Over the last month, many teachers have felt abandoned by the public and maligned by pundits and politicians. In some cases, they are being asked to risk their lives to teach in-person.

Meanwhile, teachers are tired.

Really tired.

Teachers have poured their hearts and souls into their jobs, and by the end of the year, they are exhausted. I don’t think people realize just how exhausting this profession can be and just how much stress teachers experienced from March through June of this year.

People say that teaching is a marathon and I think they’re right. Even when you finish a marathon and you cross the finish line and you receive that metal and you crazy proud of what you’ve accomplished, you still find yourself collapsing on the ground in exhaustion.

I mention this because I sometimes see a narrative that the “good teachers” are the ones who spend their summers in professional development or in committees planning out lessons. It’s easy, as teachers, to get sucked into the martyr syndrome, believing that you should selflessly give everything you have because you’re doing it for the children.

But martyrs aren’t any good to kids. Students need teachers who are energetic and patient. However, this requires rest. Moreover, students need teachers who are passionate about the content they are teaching, which is why it’s a positive thing when teachers spend part of the summer geeking out on history or art or math or science. If we want kids to fall in love with reading, it helps to have teachers who spent a part of their summer lost in their own fictional worlds or nerding out on their favorite non-fiction read.

Teaching is an exhausting gig. It’s okay to take a break in the summer. Read a book. Watch movies. Go hiking. Swim. Binge watch The Great British Bake-Off. Kick the soccer ball around with your daughter. Go hiking. You’ve poured your heart and soul into this gig. You shouldn’t feel guilty for resting. It’s what your students need.

In fact, there’s a ton of interesting research in the book Rest, that suggests we are more productive and more creative when we spend time resting.

There’s a great article on this, where author Thomas Oppong wrote:

According to research, the brain gradually stops registering a sight, sound or feeling if that stimulus remains constant over time. You lose your focus and your performance on the task declines.

When faced with a long creative problem, it is best to impose brief breaks on yourself. Brief mental breaks will actually help you stay focused on your task and improve your idea generation approach. A structured downtime can help you do your best work.

We tend to generate redundant ideas when we don’t take regular breaks. If you’re hesitant to break away because you feel that you’re on a roll, be mindful that it might be a false impression. Your brain needs downtime to remain industrious and generate better ideas.

I love that idea. We need rest.

A quick side note: I realize that some teachers don’t have this luxury because they have to work second or third jobs. This is why we need to pay teachers a genuine living wage. It’s also why I supported the teacher strikes in places like Arizona and Oklahoma. Teachers aren’t being selfish when they advocate for better conditions because these better conditions ultimately benefit their students. We need to fight to guarantee that every teacher gets a living wage. So if you’re working a second or third job, I just want to affirm your hard work and say “thank you” for what you are doing.

But if you are someone who has a summer break, I’d love to share some thoughts about how we can spend our breaks.

Rest Makes You a Better Teacher

It feels counterintuitive but self-care is actually a gift for your students. In fact, I don’t even use the word “self-care” but instead say “taking care of yourself.” That simple, subtle change in language is a reminder that rest is about restoration and restoration is vital for us to succeed in our work. Here are a few of the benefits:

  • When you rest, you are more creative. Rest helps you make key synaptic connections that then improve divergent thinking and problem-solving.
  • When you rest, you are more patient. When you are perpetually exhausted, it becomes easy to grow impatient and even angry with students.
  • When you rest, you are more productive. As mentioned in the book Rest, productivity tends to decline when we work too many hours.
  • When you rest, you are more energized for the upcoming year. Your students need someone with a fully charged battery – especially at a time like this when things will be uncertain.
  • When you rest, it becomes easier to stay nimble and to take a more iterative approach to teaching. This upcoming year will be a time when we have to be flexible and staying well-rested will be a critical part of it.
  • When you rest, you inevitably have experiences (creative experiences, learning experiences, relational experiences) that transfer over into the classroom.

Own Your Summer Break

There is nothing wrong with spending part of the summer lesson planning. I used to love having the time and the dream space of conjuring up epic projects for the school year. I enjoyed reading up on educational books (especially early on in my career when I would read and re-read every Rick Wormeli book I could get my hands on). But the key idea here is that the summer is your time. It’s your chance to do the things that recharge you. It’s almost like a mini-sabbatical that will ultimately let you find restoration.

The following are a few ways to spend your summer:

  1. Slow down and take care of your physical health. Take a part of your summer to slow down and find a new rhythm. Sleep in, if that’s your jam. Go on a vacation. Get back into the habit of hiking or running or doing yoga (just not at the same time). It’s easy, as an educator, to give so much of yourself away to others that you forget to take care of your basic needs. The summer can be a time when you can hit the reset button and focus on your own physical, social, and mental health. My brother-in-law is an amazing, selfless P.E. teacher who spends a good part of his summer backpacking and hiking. For him, it goes beyond the physical fitness element. There is something almost spiritual about the experience of being reconnected to nature. I have spent the last seven months working out 4-6 times each week and I can feel the difference. I am calmer, more productive, and more creative.
  2. Make something epic. Often, we experience shame around creativity. I’ve met so many teachers who say, “I’m not a creative type” or “I’m not an artist.” Whether we realize it or not, we carry this shame with us as we teach. For this reason, I issued the Go Make Something challenge a few years back. The idea is simple. Spend part of your summer making something. Here’s the caveat: it can’t be something for your classroom. It can’t be a unit plan or a project resource. Find something creative that pushes you to the point of frustration. Learn a new craft. Learn to draw. Learn to dance. Learn to code. Learn to crochet. Learn to speak in front of a group. Learn how to build a deck or install shiplap (don’t ask me how I know that term). Visit a makerspace and make something ridiculous and weird. Call it your own extended summer-long Genius Hour. Call it your defiant, “screw you” to shame. But in the process, you get the chance to experience the emotional highs and lows of creativity that your students will experience as well.
  3. Use the time to dream. I used to spend a part of the summer jotting down ideas for lessons and projects. There were times when I would think, “I should be resting instead of doing this.” Over time, I realized that this was my playground and my sandbox (minus the cats, of course) where I could play around with ideas and push the boundaries in what I wanted to do with students. It never felt like work to me because I wasn’t analyzing standards or constructing objectives. However, these ideas often became the basis for our projects in the classroom.
  4. Pursue your own professional learning. Although it’s totally fine to spend your summer on a true vacation, it’s also fine to spend part of your summer in your own professional development. As a classroom teacher, I used to focus on one idea, one book, or one conference I wanted to go to in order to refine my craft. This personal professional development might involve conferences or Ed Camps. You might do a book club or do online professional development.
  5. Find an escape. There are countless times when teachers spend a Friday night grading instead of going to a barbecue or missing out on a lunch meeting with friends because they are scarfing it down in 22 minutes. The summer can be an opportunity to find an escape. I remember taking the kids to the park and watching Pixar movies, only to feel guilty about this time off. It was only when my wife reminded me of all the parent-teacher conferences, IEP meetings, and times I had been coaching late-night track meets that I realized that I had actually earned this time.

Note that these are just ideas. Some of these ideas might seem exhausting to you and others might lead you toward renewal. The cool part is that this is your summer and you can use it how you want. So, take time to rest over the summer and remember that this is your time. Use it to find rest, renewal, and restoration.

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Note: This is a revised version of a blog post that originally appeared in 2018.

John Spencer

My goal is simple. I want to make something each day. Sometimes I make things. Sometimes I make a difference. On a good day, I get to do both.More about me


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