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We've Said Goodbye to This Year's Students. Now It’s Time to Take Care of Ourselves

It’s a few minutes past 3 p.m. on that last day of school, when all the kids are suddenly gone, and the silence is deafening. No more shouts, no scrape of chair legs, no relentless grinding as the pencil sharpener gnaws painted wood to the nub.

There’s a deeper kind of silence, too: a momentary vanishing of our purpose. Who are we now, without those children who depended on us all year to create the conditions they needed to become stronger thinkers and better people?

Who is a teacher with no one to teach?

The best movie I have seen about teaching captures this moment perfectly. It’s a French documentary called Être et avoir (“To Be and to Have”) about a teacher in rural France completing his final year in the classroom.

At the end of the film, when the students have left Monsieur Lopez’s classroom for the final time and a sudden, aching silence fills the room, he experiences a moment familiar to any teacher who has just wrapped up a school year. He takes a deep breath, looking around at the empty desks and chairs, overwhelmed by the sudden absence of children. He is at a loss. What should he do with himself now that his students are gone?

All teachers have experienced that odd interlude after the end of the school year but before the beginning of true summer: a moment comprised of equal parts finality, sorrow, and release. For 10 months, we have existed in relation to our students. Our own time, talents, wishes, and wants have bent again and again in service to theirs.

Teachers are notorious for taking care of everyone but ourselves. The coming summer provides a perfect chance to change that.

Some of us will seek the luxury of a true physical, mental, and emotional break from the classroom. Others will leap directly into teaching summer school in order to cobble together a full salary. Or we’ll attend more conferences and trainings in the next two months than in the last 10 put together.

Every teacher, even those of us in the throes of summer school and professional development, should make time to answer an existential question: Who are we when we’re not teaching?

Here are four ideas for making the most of that oasis of time between the end of this school year and the beginning of the next.

1. Become the learner instead of the teacher.

Learn Arabic, Chinese, or Kiswahili. Try kayaking or kickboxing. Take a class on pottery, carpentry, or bike repair.

It takes curiosity, perseverance, and humility to learn a new skill. The struggle and excitement of being a novice can deepen our empathy for our students, who we ask every day to attempt new and difficult things.

When I started kickboxing a couple of years ago, I noticed right away that the generic encouragement shouted at regular intervals by our instructors—“Keep it up, guys! Nice kicks, Justin!”—didn’t do much for me. Specific feedback on how to execute a round kick, pummel the speedbag, or throw a jab was a lot more valuable, especially when the instructor modeled what she meant and then helped me adjust my technique until I was doing it right.

Now, when I find myself doling out vague praise to my 2nd graders (“Great story!”), I remember my experience as a novice kickboxer and provide detailed feedback instead: “I loved the dialogue in your writing, but sometimes I got confused about who was talking. Can you add some actions or dialogue tags to help make it clearer for the reader?”

2. Hyphenate yourself.

I’m a teacher-dad and a teacher-writer. These hybrid selves, along with less fundamental second identities like “reader,” “hiker,” or “friend,” impact who I am and who I keep becoming as a teacher.

My own favorite teachers were those who honed a second craft outside their hours in the classroom. These teachers had a spark that made them more three-dimensional and infused their classroom with that passion they practiced.

My high school science teacher spent his summers building decks. During the school year, he used his skill in carpentry to construct trebuchets with his students so they could apply the principles of physics to hurling heavy objects really, really far.

What do you love to do when you’re not teaching? What did you love to do, before the annual tsunami of the school year flooded your time for hobbies and talents with lesson plans, grading, and faculty meetings?

This summer can be a time to rediscover how good your body feels when you’re dancing, hiking, baking, quilting, swimming in a river, or doing whatever it is that brings your soul peace and makes your heart sing.

We can’t untangle who we are in the classroom from who we are outside it. Renewing ourselves will renew our teaching every time.

3. Be your full self with your loved ones.

In college, I did work study for three years with a man who was not just a wonderful 5th grade teacher, but a wonderful father. I became a teacher, in part, because I witnessed the way he balanced his professional identity with the time he spent with his own children.

Teacher-parents get to pick up our own children not long after they walk out the school door, and our work hours and vacations mostly match up with theirs.

At the same time, our sons and daughters—like our friends, roommates, or romantic partners—often get a depleted version of us during the school week and year. It’s harder to be patient, present, and playful with your own children when you have exhausted those reserves with your students over the past seven hours.

I’m always amazed how much more energy I have in June and July. It’s like I got used to running while carrying a heavy pack, and I can suddenly run a lot faster and lighter without all that weight.

We can lavish some of that newfound strength, focus, and free time on the people we love most.

4. Join a new tribe or two.

“Teacher” is a deep identity. When I run into other teachers, whether I’m at a neighborhood party or traveling in another country, I feel an instant affinity. We’re part of the same tribe.

Still, there’s something refreshing about hanging out with people whose fingertips and clothing are unstained by whiteboard markers, who have never heard the phrase “monitor and adjust” let alone endured a multitude of feeble jokes about it.

It can be rejuvenating to experience the camaraderie of a new cohort: a creative writing class, a book club, a French conversation group, or a 40-and-over basketball league where ’70s-style sweatbands are the fashion and fast breaks are considered poor form.

The Profession That Makes All Others Possible

Most of us love what we do. If we didn’t love teaching, we’d find a gig that paid better or demanded less. That doesn’t change the reality that this job is hard. We need deep rest and renewal if we’re going to keep doing it well.

Summer has come. For the next two sacred months, no one will demand a Band-Aid for a scratch so faint it’s barely visible. Nobody will come up to tell us that Alexis laughed at their drawing or Ethan just threw up on the class couch. Our hours will be our own.

This time between school years can be a gift. Let’s ignite or rekindle a passion. Take up a new hobby. Spend a whole afternoon building a Lego castle with our daughter. Let’s show ourselves a little of the kindness and nurturing we extend in abundance to our all year.

We have to make sure our bodies are rested, our minds are clear, and our spirits are strong. Too soon, the season will turn and the time will arrive to do it all again.

Justin Minkel is an elementary school teacher in Springdale, Ark., a high-performing, high-poverty school where 85 percent of the students are English-language learners. Follow him at @JustinMinkel.

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