Part 3: Teachers Are Always Working: Sabbaticals Refresh Hearts and Minds

In the weeks since I’ve first posted about teacher sabbaticals there has been response from both my fellow bloggers at Equality 101 (one post from Adam Miller and one post from Cathy Gilbert) as well as comments from readers of this blog.

We talk a lot about sustainability in schools—everything from recycling paper in our classrooms to serving organic food at lunch—but we also need to talk about sustaining teachers for the creation of healthy schools. Here are two ways in which I see sabbaticals as a form of self-care, student-care, and school-care.

• First, teachers should use sabbaticals as a form of self-care to refresh and to conduct research
• Second, schools should use sabbaticals as a retention tool to reward teachers and to keep them committed to the profession over the long haul

Refresh: Throughout the course of a day, teachers give a great deal of themselves to their students and colleagues. In addition to teaching their load of classes, which takes time to prepare in terms of organizing lessons; re-annotating one’s text; creating assignments and syllabi; finding complementary materials such as videos, films, and podcasts; and grading and returning papers with thoughtful and productive comments, etc., there is also an invisible load that teachers bear, and that is taking care of our students.

Teachers are often the first responders when students have a decision to make, a personal crisis, or an emotional breakdown. They turn to us for advice and guidance on such issues as: family (e.g., separation, divorce, single parent homes, abusive parents or relatives, illness and or the death of a parent or relative), friends (e.g., the lack thereof, bullying, cliques, fights, gossip, etc.), school (e.g., course selection, college selection, college recommendations, etc.), and identity (race, class, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, ability, religion, etc.). Even when it comes to issues of cutting or thoughts of suicide, teachers are often the first to know and respond.

This on-going advising usually happens during times in the teaching day that are allocated for prep time or lunch, leaving educators just a few minutes to eat or prepare for their classes. This counseling also happens after school as well as over email and even text messages, and for some teachers, over cell phones and home phones.

Counseling and advising students is exhausting work. Teachers know that doing the work of caring for our students can be just as emotionally wrenching for us as much as it is for them. Even when guidance counselors take over to address more serious issues, teachers remain an ongoing resource for students.

Giving to our students in both these academic and advising contexts is the core of our work, it is what keeps us going and for many, it inspires us and keeps us in this field. Indeed, many of us entered the profession because we wanted to provide both intellectual inspiration as well as emotional support to young people. But in order to continue giving to students, teachers need time away to refresh their intellectual and emotional capacity.

There are also many other ways in which teacher time is used for other than teaching and advising. Many teachers also mentor other teachers. While this work can be rejuvenating, it is also a time commitment that leaves some teachers unable to pursue further interests related to their teaching practice.

Given all of the demands on a teacher’s time and energy, educators need time then to refresh themselves from this constant work, especially since so much of our giving happens when we should be taking care of ourselves such as eating lunch (or breakfast or dinner), or planning with colleagues, or photocopying that last set of handouts.

Some might argue that teachers can take a break from these demands during long weekends or breaks. To that I say: Teachers are always working, even during the holidays.

Teachers I know use three-day weekends to grade and plan; they use the long winter and spring breaks to create new syllabi and new assignments; and they use the summer to conduct research on new units, to develop new programs (such as a diversity initiative or a speaker series), and to take graduate courses.

Some teachers also use the summer to continue teaching, many for the additional income it provides—read: teacher salaries are not high enough to begin with and thus take on more work—and to continue engaging young people in intellectual and creative pursuits.

Sabbaticals are thus a different beast than three-day weekends, breaks, and even summer vacations. They allow teachers to do a different kind of work that cannot happen in the space of June, July, and August, during which time so much energy is being put towards rejuvenating from the year before and or planning new projects for the year ahead.  One of these activities is teacher research.

Research: In today’s teaching practice, it is not enough to come to class knowing only what you learned in your masters program in teacher education and or the masters program in your field of expertise such as English or history. Teachers always need to conduct research on new texts in their field whether it be related to their discipline or the general developmental field in which they work (e.g., early childhood, middle school, high school). Like other fields, education is a profession, and there is a great deal of literature to catch up on that researchers and even other teachers generate for the benefit of moving not only our field forward but also our students’ experience of school.

Further, teachers are expected to be fluent in issues that are pertinent to our students’ personal development, such as racial and ethnic identity. For example, in my school, our diversity director created a yearlong series of faculty meetings titled “Courageous Conversations on Race.” Meetings have covered a variety of topics from adoption, to student and teacher affinity groups, to racial identity development and whiteness.

Knowing more about each of these issues is essential to our teaching practice. An entire sabbatical, for example, might be spent conducting research on how to integrate issues of race, class, gender, and sexuality into a departmental curriculum, or writing a series of articles on diversity, or teaching abroad while researching the culture in which we are immersed.

As Criss Forshay from Ms. Forshay’s Blog says from her comment on my post at Equality 101: “In order to be effective teachers, teachers need to step over to the other side of the desk, and sit in the student’s chair. Partly to remember what it’s like, and partly to find out what new stuff has happened Out There since she’s been cooped up in the classroom.” Being “cooped up” does not do much for keeping teachers teaching either, leading to issues of attrition and retention.

Retention: Teachers do not have much room for promotion. While some teachers might also have additional roles such as being an academic or club advisor, coach, drama director, etc., their salary pretty much reflects their teacher “step” on the salary scale along with the small stipend they might receive from these additional roles. Any degrees and graduate credits they have earned along the way also contribute to pay increases.

Sabbaticals may be just one more form of paying teachers for their academic and advising service to their schools. To keep teachers from burning out in the early years of their career, a sabbatical, even if only for a semester, could be the crucial turning point in keeping highly innovative educators in the field. For those who are mid-career teachers or veterans, a sabbatical is essential for keeping content fresh and for infusing their practice with new pedagogical approaches, both of which serve students and their learning. In addition, teachers who go on sabbatical return with healthier attitudes towards not only their teaching but also their fellow colleagues and administrators.

As Criss Forshay notes: Teaching “drains you. After eight years, I quit . . . If I’d had breaks every now and then . . . I might still be teaching. Getting a break every few years would have been good for me, and better for my students.” If only a sabbatical had been used as a retention tool for Forshay, we might still have her in the classroom.

Whether a sabbatical is used for refreshment or research or both, strong teachers need to feel that they are valued for the contributions they give to their students and to their schools. Schools that learn that sabbaticals can be powerful vehicles for retention will ultimately create healthy schools that will be sustained and sustainable for years to come.

A similar version of this post can be found at Equality 101.

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2 thoughts on “Part 3: Teachers Are Always Working: Sabbaticals Refresh Hearts and Minds

  1. Sabbaticals should be awarded as a means of sustainable self-care and yet I find myself bitter because my institution uses throwing-darts-at-Jell-o-method to award these. I have worked at least 3 times as hard as a woman of color and been turned down even as more faculty are hired and only a set number of sabbatical leaves are given (2). This mule just wants to sit down in the middle of the road and not move. My female colleagues who are not of color feel the same way, sort of like the women who diligently work behind the scenes at church to keep the church going. Can I get an amen?

    • Amen! I definitely agree that sabbaticals are a means of sustainable self-care. I also understand your point about women of color working tremendously hard in schools (both public and private) and not receiving the recognition they deserve for what they contribute in the lives of their students and the lives of their school communities. And for those female colleagues of yours who are not women of color who are keeping the ship afloat with you, I also understand and empathize. My English department colleagues and I work tremendously hard on our curriculum, grading, advising, mentoring, school program designing and much more. Sabbaticals are a way for strong teachers to be rewarded for the consistent high caliber of work they provide and a means to retain them in the long run.

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