If you’re one of those people who snorts and thinks, “Yeah, I’d like to have three months off like a teacher,” it’s time to change your perspective. Whether they’re spending well-earned days reconnecting with family, traveling, working, pursuing a passion or taking classes toward an advanced degree, what teachers do in the summertime is arguably just as important to the classroom as what they do the rest of the year.
“You have to step back sometimes,” says Basalt teacher Nick Lenio. “A creative project is the best comparison. If you have your head right up in front of that painting for too long, eventually you have to step back and look at it with a fresh pair of eyes. If we taught all year round and didn't have breaks, we’d never get to come up for air.”
Lenio believes students can take away valuable lessons from what teachers do in the summertime. Setting goals is a big one, and he’s modeled that himself this summer. After training hard for months, Lenio recently completed his first 100-mile race, the Silver Heels 100 in Fairplay, Colo.
“It was 103.75 miles. I don't know why 100 wasn’t enough,” he jokes.
The race began at 4 a.m. and continued on through day, night, and day again without break except briefly at aid stations to check in with his wife and best friend who were also able to take turns pacing him on the course after 55 miles. The support of his crew was critical, even when his friend met him at an aid station dressed in a hot dog costume and playing the trumpet.
Lenio took up running around the same time he began teaching and finds many parallels between the two. Cultivating patience is a big one, as is mindset. Leading up to the race, Lenio practiced “I am” statements such as “I am a finisher” to ensure that he had the mental ability to follow through on his goal. He also used a perspective-setting strategy that’s necessary in teaching as well.
“One of my statements was, ‘no feeling positive or negative is a permanent reality,’” Lenio says. “It’s the same with teaching. There are days you walk away from a class thinking they’re all going to quit band. But you remind yourself that it was one of many days. The same thing goes with a 100-mile race. There are times that absolutely suck, but the sun’s going to rise and you’ll feel better.”
Lenio admits to some hard moment in the middle of the night “where you’re living in that little three-foot headlamp bubble for seven hours. It becomes surreal and you start wondering if it’s a dream or not. It becomes like a zombie walk.”
Lenio is still taking stock of the powerful experience and thrilled to complete his goal. He plans to spend the rest of the summer bonding with his new puppy, Luna.
Way up north
Many teachers hit the road when summer calls, and Basalt High School high school teacher Leticia Ingram went further than most. After taking National Geographic Society professional development classes last summer, she applied for and won a Grosvenor Teaching Fellowship to accompany a NGS expedition. In June, the 10-day trip took Ingram by ship to within 500 miles of the North Pole and to almost 80 degrees north latitude, where she worked with researchers, explored the vast Arctic landscape, and saw wildlife like polar bears, whales, Arctic terns and reindeer.
“It showed me how much I still need to learn and want to learn,” Ingram says. “I want to be able to model it for my students and inspire them. If I can do something like this, then they can too. They can go for everything and try different experiences.”
Ingram carried a stack of student questions with her, and she looks forward to reporting back the answers. She’s also gathered lots of ideas for lessons, ranging from species biology to global awareness. One day the temperature reached 53 degrees, and The Washington Post reported that Arctic temperatures had reached a record high at 40 degrees above normal.
She also found trash in remote places and hopes her first-hand experiences can raise awareness about climate change and the impact of local actions on the broader world.
Beyond sharing her experience with students, Ingram is scheduled to give a talk at Basalt Regional Library on Sept. 12, showcase her photography at Basalt’s CC Café in October, and address teachers in Denver to encourage other Colorado teachers to apply for the fellowship. Although Ingram traveled farther than most, her desire to bring her summer experiences back to students is not unusual.
“Every teacher I know is looking for experiences and programs and resources to help our students,” she says. “It’s on their minds. We use our summers for professional development to gain more knowledge and ideas so that we can engage our students when we come back.”
Teachers also often pay out of pocket for those experiences. Ingram, who had ACL surgery as soon as she returned and points out health as another priority for teachers in the summer, is using her recuperation time to get her lesson plans together for the fall.
Digging her summer
Closer to home, Basalt Elementary School’s new fourth-grade teacher Kappi Hansen is spending her summer working in the field. After a decade as a professional field archaeologist who has spent upwards of nine months a year camping in eight-days-on, six-days-off rotations, Hansen recently completed a masters in elementary education.
She looks forward to balancing her new role as a teacher with her summer field work. This summer, Hansen has spent time in Wyoming’s Medicine Bow National Forest recording historic mines and railroad sites. Previously, she’s worked on prehistoric sites, finding clay figurines in Utah and a Folsom point (the second-oldest point type found in the Americas). She also unearthed some grisly dismembered bones and medical beakers that the University of Utah medical school discarded in a ravine in the 1800s. The remains were discovered under a museum during renovations.
“On my 27th birthday I got to excavate a dismembered human hip,” she says. “It was pretty cool.”
The fourth-grade emphasis on Colorado history will be a natural fit for Hansen. She looks forward to using her background to talk about native and South American cultures, as well as European settlement. Hansen hopes to bring her experiences in the field into the classroom in a variety of ways, such as creating a hands-on simulated dig, a mapping unit and an emphasis on getting out of doors.
“Any opportunity to go outside and learn by experience is invaluable,” she says. “I want to give students those opportunities.”
In addition to passion projects and travel, summer is a common time for teachers to take classes. Both the Roaring Fork School District and the Colorado Education Association offers a wealth of coursework that help teachers gain new skills and move up the salary scale. Basalt Middle School technology teacher Avis Paul teaches summer classes for CEA’s COPilot program, which offers over 100 classes to Colorado teachers.
“Summer is when we have time to get things done,” she says. “A lot of teachers use it as an opportunity to avoid summer slide ourselves. We’re always pushing kids to learn and read and do in the summer. It’s an opportunity to learn something new ourselves as well.”
The Roaring Fork School District offers three different summer academy sessions, which range from Spanish immersion classes and curriculum planning in June to book studies in July to refreshers on topics like restorative justice, project-based learning or technology integration in August.
“Our role as a district is to provide universal opportunities, regardless of grade level or content area, that are generally about good instruction, curriculum development and core topics that everyone needs,” says Technology Integration Facilitator Ben Bohmfalk, who has worked to increase the number of online classes available. Bohmfalk estimates that 20 percent of teachers in the district sign up for at least one of the summer classes.
“We offer these opportunities as a way to support district-wide initiatives and strategic goals, but that's scratching the surface,” he says. “Teachers are out there doing all kinds of things, going to conferences, going to language immersion classes, working at home and planning lessons so that they come back ready to go. It’s the rare teacher who walks out at the end of the year, closes the door and comes back in August having done nothing in the meantime. That’s extraordinarily rare.”
All the teachers interviewed agree that even while they're taking a break, teaching is never far from their minds.
“Teachers need some space and emptiness," says Lenio. "If you're constantly in stimulation, you can't quiet your mind enough to allow new ideas to come in. It's crucial for us professionally to be good teachers and also to just remain happy, well-rounded fully rested people so we can bring that back to the students in the fall and fill their cups too."