Saturday, August 11, 2012

#2 What Did I Do With My Summer Vacation?

     So, I’m at a summer barbeque and someone asks me what I do.... I say, “I’m a teacher.’ Their
head tilts back slightly, the eye brows raise a bit, the mouth opens and out comes “Oh, you’re a
teacher eh!  So, you get your summers off?  Must be nice!’ 

     I can’t tell you the number of times I have heard this expression of envy over the past three
decades. Of all the holidays teachers are forced to accept, summer seems to be the most coveted.
There are other great holidays too: two weeks at Christmas, a week in March, Easter, and
Family Day. All of them are assigned to us by our employer.  That’s right, we never choose our
holidays.  We never have the benefit of taking a week in February or using up a couple of days to
beat the high price of travel. There is never a negotiation, teachers are told when to take a vacation.

    Don’t get me wrong, I am not complaining. Most teachers don’t spend much time defending
themselves in public over assigned holidays. I know many who will develop a guilty facial
expression and then launch in to the futile exercise of offering a brief defense. Understandably, to
outsiders our summer holidays look so appealing, why darken their fantasy.  If they want to live
their life vicariously through me for a few minutes that’s Ok.
    Here is how I interpret situation. All large organizations need a well trained, reliable work force
and school boards definitely fit into that category. They employ thousands of well educated and
highly skilled employees who need to be kept on staff. So, they offer incentives to achieve this
goal. These incentives don’t come in the form of holidays, those are dictated by government
policy and public tradition. The incentives come in the form of money and advancement.
Teachers are contract workers, September 1st through to August 31st.. The system would be in a
constant state of disarray with teachers jumping from board to board or school to school. So, on the
last day of June we are told to hand in our keys and sent home with the understanding that we
will return in September.

    Most Ontario teachers with a permanent contract have four or more years of post secondary
education before they enter into the profession. That is usually in the form of university degrees
and to a lesser extent, college diplomas. Once we sign a permanent contract we are placed on a
pay grid.

    Picture a grid with four vertical columns and ten horizontal rows. The vertical columns
represent a teacher’s qualification level, degrees, diplomas, etc. The ten rows represent years of
teaching experience.  For many, the goal is to zig-zag across the grid until you reach level four,
ten years or Cat.4,Max. How a teacher reaches this goal depends on their initiative, time and
money. Teachers are not the only public servants with a pay grid.  Police, firefighters, paramedics
and many other public servants work on a pay grid.  As I discovered at the beginning of my
career, extra qualifications can  mean more money, but also the difference between working and
not working.

    We can take courses all year if we like, but for many teachers the regular school year is often
too busy for upgrading your qualifications, so the summer is the logical option. The courses
usually begin the first Tuesday after the July long weekend. They are about four weeks long, five
hours of lecture per day, paid for by the teacher. If you are lucky they are available at your local
university. In recent years the trend is heading toward the more practical online courses.
Personally, I prefer the atmosphere created in a live classroom over the internet version.

    My choice was to take summer courses in addition to my other qualifications. At the start of
my career computers in the classroom were in their infancy so that option was not available to
me.  I took courses year around for ten or twelve years. I would either sign up locally
or travel to other cities to complete qualifications.  So, four weeks of my holidays were usually
booked up with reading and preparing course assignments.  I have vivid memories of those
summer mornings in the lecture hall, and then spending the afternoons sitting in the house
reading Shakespeare or Milton while the neighbour’s socialized over barbeque and beer.
Painful! Then I would take a couple of weeks off as a holiday and the last two weeks I would
start to prepare for the coming year.  So, while the public sees two months off, we see it as just a
change in the work schedule.

    For many teachers the thought of summer courses are not appealing and choose to earn money
doing other jobs. Some will teach summer school, work at the board developing curriculum, run
sports camps, preparing units for the next semester.  All of these jobs take up at least half of the

    Over the past couple of decades the universities have sold an excess of teaching degrees,
flooding the system with promising talent. It has lead  to a buyers market for the boards and lot of
disappointment for young teachers knocking on the door. Too many young teachers overlook the
job conditions in favour of the chance at serving in the profession. Consequently, many of the
incentives offered in the past are under threat from the provincial and local employers.

     I stopped jumping through the hoops years ago and turned my learning initiatives toward  more
personally rewarding activities like: travel, the cottage, spending time with family, renovations,
gardening, reading unassigned books or just sitting in the backyard. I think it has made me a
more rounded teacher. I don’t regret all that hoop jumping, but I’m glad I don’t have to do
it anymore. I have never felt guilty about the holidays I have been assigned. So, whenever I hear
voices at barbeques  “Oh you have the summers off! It must be nice!”, I always reply with a
polite, ‘Yes it is! You should sign up!’