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.
While administrators continued to tout the benefits of rest, by the 1870s they also encouraged — and, in many places, required — teachers to attend multiweek regional summer “institutes” for which they usually did not receive compensation. At these institutes, teachers reviewed school subjects and teaching methods, and occasionally learned about cultural topics. One Iowa teacher complained anonymously that she had better uses for her time off than listening to “second and third rate home talent” drone on, but other teachers appreciated the opportunity that institutes provided to form professional relationships with fellow teachers.
After the Chautauqua Institution in western New York began in the 1870s as a sort of national teachers’ institute, generations of teachers forged their professional identities there by immersing themselves in high culture and learning from famous scholars who presented public lectures or taught in the Chautauqua summer school, including William James and John Dewey. A country schoolteacher told a reporter at Chautauqua in 1885, “I’ve new methods to try in everything that I teach.”
Capitalizing on the market for summer teacher education, university administrators created summer sessions beginning in the 1890s. By the mid-1920s close to 300,000 teachers enrolled in summer sessions each year. Increasing certification requirements necessitated their attendance, but for many teachers summer school was also “the means of a new birth” intellectually, as one instructor observed. As they pursued academic studies and continued professional development during their time off, teachers also broke boundaries: Southern Black teachers spent summers at Columbia University, and women teachers lived in the otherwise all-male residence halls in Harvard Yard.
Some school leaders also advocated that teachers partake in the new middle-class enthusiasm for tourism as another means of professional development. Many teachers economized during the school year so that they could travel to national parks in the American West or spend the summer on grand tours of Europe. A Chicago principal observed in 1901, “The teachers are the greatest traveling class now-a-days.” Although they required financial sacrifices, summer travels enabled women teachers to assert a type of autonomy that eluded many of their peers.
Teachers understood these summertime trips as a break from the classroom — but also as enhancing their teaching and part of their jobs. They returned from summer tours with new knowledge, souvenirs to augment their lessons and, as one teacher reflected upon her return from Europe in 1934, the understanding that they were educating “potential citizens of the world.”
Even as administrators offered plentiful instruction regarding summer activities, they also warned that labor for pay was not restful and did not befit a professional educator, reflecting the broader paternalism that shaped teachers’ work lives.
Despite those cautions, from the origin of the nine-month school year through #NoSummersOff, teachers commonly have needed to augment their salaries to maintain a professional middle-class standard of living. One teacher in New Haven replied to a 1913 National Education Association survey on salaries, “I find it absolutely necessary to go out as waitress or something of the sort in the summer.” Some teachers cleaned rooms in national parks, finding a way to make ends meet while broadening their horizons. Others honed progressive teaching techniques as playground directors, camp counselors or park rangers.
After public schools began to offer summer courses in the 1910s, teachers had yet another option for their summers off. Given the low salaries teachers have historically earned, the extra summertime pay, far beyond pin money, was often essential to their — and their families’ — financial solvency.
The idea that teachers have the summer off — and should not be paid for time away from direct instruction — fits hand in glove with the idea that teaching is simple, the sort of work that anyone can do. If nothing else, the pandemic has shown both notions to be myths. Teachers rarely spend the summer months luxuriating. Instead, they use that time to supplant their salaries and to pursue additional professional development, often at their own expense.
As policymakers fret about teacher burnout and turnover, it would behoove them to acknowledge this reality. Better support for teachers’ summer endeavors — not to mention higher salaries during the school year — would benefit the entire education system.