REMEMBER the perennial back-to-school essay, ``What I did with my summer vacation''? Before teachers jot it down on thousands of blackboards next fall, it may take a new twist - or at least it should, say educators concerned about the intellectual development of teachers. Parents should ask teachers to write it.
Pointing to the high correlation between teacher development and what students learn, these educators say summertime is perhaps the most valuable time of the year for teachers to grow professionally. At a time when national concern about the quality of teachers in the United States is great, it is critical that the profession act like a profession and continue to grow intellectually. It is also critical, they say, that parents and administrators help teachers work to improve themselves.
``School systems just don't operate year round,'' says Leslie J. Coyne, director of summer sessions and special programs at Indiana University. ``We're still on an agricultural cycle and summer is the natural time to respond to more development.''
It is the one place in the year where ``you must revitalize yourself, or you go back to school in the fall mentally tired,'' says Joyce Hannula, a high school English teacher in Bozeman, Mont., who has attended summer writing workshops at Middlebury College in Vermont. ``Few people can appreciate the emotional and physical drain of daily teaching,'' says George Fowler, principal of Hale High School in Tulsa, Okla.
No precise figures exist as to just how many of the nation's 2,579,000 elementary and secondary school teachers will take formal courses this summer, says Michael U. Nelson, executive secretary for the North American Association of Summer Sessions. It is even harder to predict the number who will take workshops, seminars, or carry out their own individual projects, he says.
But a conservative estimate is that nearly 20 percent of public and private school teachers will take some formal schooling for credit and, all told, 40 to 50 percent will undertake a serious project of some sort, not necessarily tied to a specific lesson plan but certainly affecting in a positive way teacher performance in the classroom next fall, says Dr. Coyne.
Built into many school systems is a financial incentive for teachers to take formal coursework in the summer. The added college credits, or an advanced degree, lead to a higher rung on the pay scale. But this is a factor more likely to affect teachers in their first five to seven years of teaching says Mr. Nelson. After a teacher has tenure, or a master's degree, other factors come into play.
``The school year doesn't leave teachers much time to think,'' says Paul Stein, director and mathematics teacher at Full Circle School in Somerville, Mass. ``I've seen teachers literally turn around with work, intellectual work they've done over the summer.''
In fact, says Mr. Stein, the only place ``where [summer] education doesn't help is due to certification requirements of the state. Teachers become bitter because they are bogged down in meaningless requirements.'' They get turned off of education, he says, when their free time is taken up by set requirements that have little relevance to either their subject area, or what they know is needed in the classroom. Teachers must have a say in what they learn, he says.
For Mr. Fowler, one of the most important things he looks for when hiring a new teacher is ``a lot of intellectual energy and curiosity.'' What a teacher does with his or her summer takes on added weight because ``I not only want someone who has it [curiosity], I want someone who can share it, and if they can't with me in an interview,'' chances are they can't in the classroom.
A study by the US Department of Education emphasizes that students benefit academically when their teachers assist one another's intellectual growth, a condition called collegiality.
John Lammel, principal of Millard South High School in Omaha, Neb., concurs. ``When we see an applicant with six or seven years of teaching experience only having a BA, with no advance coursework, no workshops or special projects in the summer, we are less likely to go for them.''
The fact that many teachers need a second income - and often have to choose a good paying job for the summer rather than one that will help them in the classroom - also affects what teachers do with their summer, says Fowler. He notes with pride the fact that fully one third of his faculty keep classroom keys for the summer. ``Parents should stop around their school in the summer,'' says Mr. Lammel. ``They may be surprised to see the number of teachers there working and preparing for the next year.''
``Nearly all my foreign language teachers will go to Mexico or Europe this summer,'' says Jane Martin, principal of Fremont High School in Fremont, Calif. They will come back with tapes or slides for classroom use. The same is true for foreign language teachers at Millard High School, says Lammel.
For Ms. Martin, there is nothing wrong with a teacher taking a summer off to do nothing but paint the house or read leisurely. Some years this is the only sane thing to do. But it would be a problem if it became a pattern, the only way someone spent his or her summer, she says.
And this is not to say teachers don't enjoy the time off that the extended summer vacation offers. Teacher Suzanne Read, currently participating in a teacher exchange program in England, writes that ``summer vacations, regardless of what any teacher may say to the contrary, are one of the aspects of the profession that make it attractive. ... Teachers' vacations are, from any point of view, simply wonderful.''
For teachers, the chalk dust may not have settled on the erasers, and the novelty of waking to a day without students may not have worn off. But with summer vacation just underway, for many, it's time for learning.
Jim Bencivenga is the Monitor's education editor