If it Wasn't Clear, COVID Shows Teachers Don't Get "Summers Off"Roundup
tags: teaching, education history
Christine A. Ogren is a professor of education at the University of Iowa and author of The American State Normal School. She is currently writing a book entitled Summers Off? A History of U.S. Teachers’ Other Three Months.
With the passage of Labor Day, the summer has officially wrapped up for just about all of the teachers across the country. Many have spent the past few months preparing to teach virtually, readying their classrooms for socially distant learning and offering desperately needed summer-school courses, while others have been serving as the primary caregivers for their own children.
Although the pandemic has added to teachers’ summer stress, the fact is that teachers never really get the summers “off” — even though this is a popular misconception. Frustrated by this tired trope, in 2019, New Jersey teacher Nicholas Ferroni launched a discussion on Twitter using the hashtag #NoSummersOff. Teachers shared their experiences: undertaking paid summer work for additional income, attending professional development and academic seminars, preparing curriculums and classrooms for the next year and struggling to overcome burnout from the previous year.
The fact that teachers don’t “work” during the summer months has long legitimated low pay in a profession dominated by women. Since the nine-month school year took shape a century and a half ago, however, teachers have never really had summers “off,” and their activities during the summer months have always been essential to their profession. Revisiting this history shows us what the pandemic has exacerbated: that we depend on teachers’ unpaid, invisible labor for schools to run smoothly.
The nine-month school year resulted from reforms in the mid-19th century that created public school systems with standardized procedures, including calendars. The original intent of the summer break was to allow students and teachers time to rest (not, contrary to common assumptions, to engage in farm work). Education leaders prescribed a summer of “quietude” to counteract the strain that they believed teaching put on teachers’ — especially women teachers’ — physical and mental health.
The same reforms that set the rhythm for American schooling also resulted in the “feminization” of the teacher workforce. Onerous controls on teachers’ work and personal lives, including rules that barred women teachers from marrying and directions on how teachers should spend their summers — when they weren’t even on the payroll — were fundamental aspects of school policy well into the 20th century.
School leaders claimed that the regulations would “professionalize” teaching, but what they really wanted was a compliant workforce. Teachers had their own views, however, of what it meant to be a professional educator, and in their summer pursuits, they adapted administrators’ prescriptions for their time “off” to suit their own version of professionalism, to the ultimate benefit of their students and the schools.
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