Don't take our sabbaticals away

Dreams of kicking up her heels and casually breezing through a dusty shelf of unread novels enticed Carol Campbell to take a sabbatical.

After teaching kindergarten for 33 years, she felt she deserved - and needed - a year of rest and relaxation.

"A break seemed logical," says Mrs. Campbell, who teaches at Belle Chasse (La.) Primary School. "Teaching is an awesome task.... I needed to get away from work - to put my life and my job into perspective."

Most people think the summer is when teachers get their time off. But most states give teachers the right to have varying degrees of time off to use however they please. The intent is to help teachers recharge, advance their professional skills, or explore a new area.

This practice, however, has come under fire in recent years. Across the United States, a handful of public school systems - including Campbell's - are questioning the usefulness of rest and relaxation, or "R&R," sabbaticals.

"School systems are realizing that 'R&R' sabbaticals serve no useful function," says Mike Allen, a spokesman at the Denver-based Education Commission of the States that tracks high school trends.

Critics argue that "R&R" sabbaticals are an outdated remnant of mandated collective bargaining of the 1950s and '60s, and that they unnecessarily cost taxpayers millions of dollars each year. They also maintain that sabbaticals disrupt the educational system. The argument that teachers need a respite to travel or a break from the day-to-day intensity of their work is true of many occupations.

Nowhere is the debate on sabbaticals more heated than in Portland, Ore. School-board officers there are voting this month on whether to discontinue granting "R&R" sabbaticals.

"It's hard to get taxpayers to understand why we should pay teachers for a year or a half of a year off," says board member Joseph Tam. "And the benefits of sabbaticals - boosting workers' morale, increasing productivity, spurring creativity - are really impossible to measure. Who's to say they do any good?"

This year, 21 Portland teachers are on sabbatical. Because sabbaticals have been a hot button during the negotiations, they have banded together and agreed to keep silent about their leaves while contract negotiations for the district's 2,800 teachers are under way.

"The board members are simply aiming to please voters who think that sabbaticals are a waste," says one Portland teacher, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "I can attest to the enormous difference they make. Teaching in a big city is difficult. Teachers sometimes need sabbaticals to recoup."

The embattled Portland school-board policy allows some teachers to take a year off to rest and rejuvenate while still pulling down roughly $36,000 - or two-thirds of their salary. This system is fairly typical among school districts that grant sabbaticals.

"If school systems start doing away with sabbaticals, teachers will suffer in the long run," says Kathy Christie, a spokeswoman at the Education Commission of the States. "I have never talked to a teacher who has said that their sabbatical was not useful."

Many inner-city school districts, however, simply don't have the resources or the manpower to allow teachers to take off long periods of time to rest. But because they realize that time away from work is beneficial to many teachers, these districts have turned to alternative means of giving teachers a break.

Some districts in California, such as San Francisco, offer endowment-funded, three-day getaways to nearby resorts for a regimen of education workshops. Others, such as Rochester, N.Y., allow teachers to set aside part of their salaries for short leaves of absence.

Most school districts across the country, however, give "study" as the primary reason for granting a sabbatical - not rest and relaxation. New York City and Chicago schools, for example, allow reduced-pay sabbaticals only for study toward a required degree or certification. In these systems, the "R&R" sabbatical was phased out long ago.

The only arenas where "R&R" leaves seem to be flourishing is in private schools and colleges.

Colleges began offering sabbaticals to professors over a century ago. And they have long been available to professors to encourage them to attend seminars, work toward special licensing, lecture, fund-raise, or conduct research.

Private or parochial schools also have a long history of encouraging sabbaticals.

Last winter, David Peck, who teaches at Milton Academy in Milton, Mass., decided to take a break from teaching high school drama. He applied for a sabbatical. It was granted easily, and he and his wife drove down to Mexico.

"I was tired and I needed refreshing -not just rest, but a change," Peck says. "I needed new reasons for doing old things and new eyes through which to look."

At Milton Academy, sabbaticals are normally granted after nine years of service, assuming there are no obstacles to staffing the replacement. They may be taken for a semester at full pay, or a year at half pay.

Peck strongly endorses Milton's liberal sabbatical policy. He says it's one of the factors that drew him to teach there. He also believes that public schools should be using sabbaticals to lure better teachers.

"The first mission of a school board is to put interesting, dedicated, intellectually alive people who care about children into classrooms with students," he says.

"If the board or administration is doing that job well, they can be confident that sabbatical experiences nurture the qualities they have already identified in their teachers. In other words, they can be sure that sabbaticals make better teachers, because real teachers find a way to learn and grow from every experience."

* John Christian Hoyle is a member of the Monitor staff.

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