Woman exiting classroom to rejoice in bright, summery field

I had just finished my first year teaching high school English in Baltimore City — made even more taxing by the fact that I had simultaneously taken courses to earn my alternate teaching certificate.

It hadn’t even been a full week yet; already, the first days of my first summer break were glorious. As my body gradually unclenched from a year of daily stress, I began sleeping and eating better. My mind was also starting to calm. To-do lists vanished and I finally had free time again.

I didn’t expect the impact of summer break to be so immediate. And the best part of it? I had several more weeks ahead to feel this light. This wasn’t just a quick breather over winter or spring break, when I’d need to brace myself to return to the classroom. I had all summer to myself.

That was 10 years ago, and it taught me a lesson I’ve followed my entire career. The only way I can be an enthusiastic and devoted teacher during the school year is if I abdicate as many obligations as possible during the summer.

I love being a teacher. I also frequently buckle under its workload. In addition to the multitasking required of teachers — every single day, even every single class period — this profession demands a massive emotional commitment. Fundamental to good teaching is good classroom management. Some educators think that means effectively handling, or ideally, preventing disciplinary issues. I’m among those who see classroom management as building and sustaining meaningful relationships with students.

Each day, I individually invest in more than 100 teenagers, whom I call my lovelies. While things generally go smoothly, none of us are always at our best. My lovelies’ lives are complicated by past and ongoing trauma, grief, and stress; sometimes they aren’t at their kindest or most agreeable. Especially when this coincides with my own bad days, I need to muster empathy, patience, and self-control to keep my classroom calm.

The effort to maintain these relationships is constant. And it happens beyond the emotionally draining task of actually teaching in an entertaining and accessible way. Other routine parts of my day — communicating with lovelies’ caregivers, supporting colleagues, and showing up amidst school shootings — further deplete my reserves.

Most teachers I know teach summer school, attend professional development and conferences, or lesson plan for the year ahead. Though I respect those choices, it’s unlikely I’ll ever make the same ones. Despite my deliberate attempts at a satisfying work-life balance during the school year, I still need the summer to decompress and re-center.

The early days of every summer break feel like a gift I cannot believe I’ve been given. I can turn off my alarm, take a nap, stay up past my bedtime. I can go out to lunch during the week! My time is my own. For my first several summer breaks, I felt pressure to spend this time productively, as if I needed to justify having it. I would set goals for my hobbies: read X number of books, run Y miles. Once I became a homeowner, I committed to completing a certain amount of house projects. If I fell short, I’d feel guilty, as if I were proving critics right: In the summer, teachers are lazy.

Thankfully, my therapist helped me understand that slowing down isn’t a moral failing. I finally recognize that making fewer commitments and decisions doesn’t diminish the amount of respect I deserve, or determine my self-worth. Now, I’m able to spend my summer without making a mad dash toward arbitrary goals. I am better at appreciating the time to prioritize what I want to do, not what I must do. I read for hours at the park or pool, and spend entire mornings writing in coffee shops. Friends and I go to restaurants and bars we’ve never been to before — and plenty that we have.

Because teachers are strongly discouraged from, and even disciplined for, missing school, I cram a year’s worth of appointments — doctor, contractor, dentist — into several weeks. My days aren’t the wide-open hours of freedom people seem to suspect teachers have, and yet this much-appreciated reprieve is my chance to remember who I am outside of school.

As is the case every year, I deliberately shift my mindset during the last few weeks of summer. I prepare for the new year in my own way, ready and rejuvenated to imagine another school year. I consider the routines — both personal and professional — that will be most beneficial to me and my lovelies. Is it better if I work out before school or after? How can I grade assignments more quickly this year? I reassess my pedagogical priorities, and let myself feel excited to hug former lovelies and meet new ones.

Teaching is an exhausting honor. Summers off ensure I can do it over and over again. Taking an annual break is the right choice for me, and one that I will always stand by. When Baltimore City teachers officially returned to work this week, I was ready — but only because this summer, I let myself relax.

Kerry Graham teaches high school English for Baltimore City Public Schools and is a creative in residence for The Baltimore Banner.

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