Downshifting

As a 24-year veteran of teaching, a person would think I have no trouble transitioning from the school year routines to summer. However, every year, this one included, I struggle with the change in routine? Why? This year, I finally realized what challenges me about the switch in schedule and routine.

 

I’ve done this now for 24 years. I’d love to tell you I’ve gotten better at each year. Sadly, I haven’t. This is just as big a challenge for me now as it was after my first year.

I’m talking about downshifting: transitioning from the pell-mell pace of the school year into the easier, more relaxed pace of summer. Some years have been really, really hard. The year my son was two was especially rough. I was used to constant activity and decision-making from the 5:00 AM alarm to my own bedtime at 10:00 PM. The first six hours of summer break showed me clearly that my own go-go-go pace didn’t match his two-year-old pace. It took me weeks to become comfortable with the slower speed.

Every year I feel a bit “off-kilter” the first week or two of summer break. I’m not quite sure what to do with myself. My husband will find me nervously checking my calendar to make sure I haven’t missed any important appointments or meetings. Finally, this year, I realized why I struggle so much with this transition.

I’m not having to multi-task and make decisions at the pace and level I do during the school year. Even weekends during the school year are filled with multi-tasking and quick decision-making, as I try to make the most of those “relaxed” hours during the week. My brain has been working at a fast pace, so it takes a bit of work just to relax.

This graphic explains the pace of a teacher’s mind during the school day. Making four decisions per minute sounds incredible, but at this point in my career, I don’t have a hard time believing it. I’m guessing those are decisions such as: “Should I call on this student, or that one?” or “Hmm, do I need to liven up this lesson because that student is looking a little sleepy.” Some are major instructional decisions: “So half the class didn’t understand this based on my formative assessment; how do I go about making this clearer to them?” Others are more personal in nature, such as, “Should I grade these papers now, or do it tonight when it’s quieter at home?” This decision-making aspect of teaching has been of interest to researchers for a while; Larry Cuban summarizes some research comparing jazz musicians, NBA basketball players, and teachers in this blog from 2011.

What’s also interesting and a little bit scary is that that research suggests multitasking is bad for the brain. I can believe that, too. I am usually really cranky the first week or so of summer break. The constant worry that I’m forgetting something nags at me; I’m really not forgetting anything, but because there aren’t demands of making hundreds of decisions on me, I feel a bit lost. After a week or two, I settle into the summer routine, and I do better.

I’m really curious how other teachers handle this transition. What do you do to shift yourself from the school year routine to summer?

Photo by Tilemahos Efthimiadis is licensed by CC by 2.0.

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  • Tina Monteleone

    Transitioning to Summer
    Tricia, I feel your pain. You have hit the nail on the head with your statement of feeling “off kilter” the first week. My secret has been to always force myself to get out of town right after school ends, pushing me into a new environment, one that requires me to focus on relaxing. Yes, I just said I have to focus on relaxing. How bizarre! However, there is whole group of us that can relate.

    • TriciaEbner

      Love that!

      What a perfect way to “break” from the school year routine! I love this idea. Seems like a great way to focus on relaxing–I know exactly what you mean!

  • Sandy

    You nailed it!

    This is exactly what I needed to read. I've been teaching for 20 years and every year I, too, experience the feeling of being "off kilter" when summer begins. For me, it lasts a week or two and I have almost come to expect it rather than fight it or wonder why I feel the way I do. I tend to do a lot of …."I should be doing this. I should be doing that." type of internal dialogue those first few weeks of vacation. The way you described the daily (and moment-by-moment) multi-tasking/decision making that we experience during the academic year is dead on. It's no wonder we are a bit off-kilter when we are spun off the record player so quickly. The transition from a high speed end-of-the-school year to a slower paced schedule can take some getting use to. Thanks for sharing your message. I'm sure we are in good company with many other teachers! 

  • LaurieWasserman

    I Could Have Written This!

    Tricia,

    you have written such a timely post! I could completely relate to everything you wrote and felt. We have one more day left of school because of all of the snow days we had here in Boston. I keep thinking, “I am so looking forward to walking on the beach, seeing friends for lunch, sleeping later, but…” I have been “on” for 10 months, and feel like I was walking fast on my treadmill and someone unplugged it, causing me to stop short and it’s a challenging feeling. We wish we could take the extra time and use it when we need it most: during the school year when we’re short on time and energy. I saw the graphic and it stopped me dead in my tracks. I remember one day, when I was at the end of my decision making brain and it wasn’t even lunch time, something a presenter said, “the only professional that makes more decisions per day than teachers are air traffic controllers.” Although we don’t realize it every time a students asks, “Can I come up at lunch? Can I go to the bathroom? Will you explain the problem because I’m confused? Can I borrow a pencil? Can I go to my locker to get my agenda? Can I have a copy of the work I missed yesterday when I was absent?” etc. we are making split second decisions often while we are taking attendance, answering the phone, reminding another student to take the pass to the nurse; multi-tasking at its teacher best and most stressful. 

    I try each summer to find a combination of books to read for pleasure and for professional validation and support. My focus this summer is on making time each day to walk, spend more time with my spouse, make plans with friends for lunch (who just happen to all be teachers!), reading my students’ summer reading books so I know the plot to help them next fall, and executive functioning,  a topic that keeps coming up at parent meetings & I thought I knew all about. Wait, did I just give myself homework?! It’s not even 7AM on a Saturday and I’ve already been up for over and hour and a half because my body and mind still thinks it’s a school day….so Tricia, know you have a kindred spirit in Mass.!

    • TriciaEbner

      Treadmill unplugged . . .

      That is such a perfect analogy for this! That is exactly the feeling.I know exactly what you mean about books and reading and trying to blend both the relaxation and the “now I have the time to delve into these professional things” challenge. I have a huge pile of books I’ve wanted to read this summer, and I haven’t made much of a dent–yet. But the time spent with family and friends is important and valuable, too. 

  • Kathy Fox

    Downshifting

    Ditto on feeling like I could have written your post.  I have learned to make a small list of things to accomplish over the summer so that I can relax & rejuvenate and not feel guilty for doing so.  This fulfills my need to feel like I have "gotten something done" but not feel stressed about getting it done.  Your graphic was very interesting and not at all surprising.  I often want to invite our legislators into my classroom to teach for 1 week to learn all that teaching entails.  They seem to think that we just "wash and repeat" without any rewrites, upgrades, or attention to individual needs.  All educators need the summer to find time to connect to family and friends…no matter what stage of your life you find yourself.  There is a reason that the public resists full year schooling…they believe that our students need this, too.

    • TriciaEbner

      Small is the key with that list . . .

      and I’m horrible about keeping it small. How do you do that? What’s your secret? Please share! I find that my “eyes are bigger than my stomach” when it comes to all that I want to accomplish over the summer . . . and still be relaxed, enjoy lazy afternoons, sleep in . . .

  • Lisa Noble

    me too!

    Thank you!

    I had, despite my best intentions, a mini-meltdown last night while preparing dinner. Yesterday was the last day of school. Your first paragraph made me smile because this is year 23 for me, and I'm always convinced I'm okay….and then, I'm not. For me, as an extrovert, coming from spending my days as a rotary French teacher to around 200 students, to spending my days with 3 relative introverts, and not talking very much, and trying to find the balance between too much schedule and not getting enough done. Arggh. I have found in the past that the best thing to do for me is to go somewhere (camping is great) right away. It shakes me right out of routine in a way that being at home (2 blocks from my workplace) can't do. Can be stressful getting ready while working, but seems to give the physical/mental/emotional break I need to reset my system.

     

     

     

     

  • wjtolley

    We’re lucky to survive really

    We’re lucky to survive really…

    More than just the mental aspects of the shift, I have read that (and I am sure your and every other teacher out there’s experience affirms) huge numbers of teachers fall ill right after the end of the semester because they have been living on adrenalin and will. As soon as the body feels the need to pump you full of the hormones relent, it does, and we end up left in a trashed physical state to recover from!

    Stay strong! 🙂

    • TriciaEbner

      So true . . .

      I’ve spent many a Thanksgiving break, winter break, spring break, and start of summer vacation down with some illness or another . . . that is so true! Better balance during the school year might make summer transition easier. 

  • BillIvey

    Simultaneously smooth and rough

    That’s how I’d describe my transition every year. Like many of you, the pace of the end of year leaves me physically spent and running on adrenaline and coffee, the emotions of the end of the year leave me drained, and contemplating doing all the housework I’ve put off for weeks isn’t remotely tempting. What I do have going for me at such moments is the knowledge I’ve made it through before. (I do remember when my son was young and there was both more stress from the urgency to make the transition more quickly and his ability to focus me in the moment to relieve that stress.)

    Anyway, these days, I do have a sort of easing back once the kids are gone – a weekend spent writing progress reports and advisor letters (also a way to say one last goodbye to some, to plant seeds for our continuing working relationship with others), two days of faculty meetings, one day of admin team retreat, and then ongoing social media work (Facebook, Twitter, and blog posts) and time to reflect, regroup, and start in on the next year. Meanwhile, sleeping until my body wakes me up, running every day, time with my wife (my son is on an internship in New York City). My wife is an Academic Dean who spends most of June and early July scheduling (from home – her school, which is in Virginia, is flexible that way), so working together becomes a pleasant pattern. And of course, looking forward to a whole 11-12 weeks of uninterrupted time with my wife makes this transition from school to summer much, much more of a celebration than it is for most teachers.

    In many ways, then, the transition back to school is tougher for me than the transition into summer. Our orientation is almost as long and unrelenting as the formal end-of-year period, and I also have to negotiate going back to working in a different state from my wife. I love my students and I love my job, but let’s face it, my family is my life in way school can almost be, but isn’t.

    • TriciaEbner

      Gradual release?

      We’ve made it through–what a great reminder!

      What struck me as I read the list of activities you have after is you get sort of a ‘gradual release’ from the school year to summer. That’s a neat way to handle things . . . not a “cold turkey” approach. 

      Enjoy your downtime, Bill!

  • ladyblue1107

    Retirement Too

    Tricia,

    I can totally relate to your blog.  I never realized until after I retired in July of 2014 how I brought things home to work on during the first couple of my summer vacation in an effort to transition from work, work, work to down time.

    When the reality of not having a work identity set in, I found a long-term substituting job.  For someone who has always either been in school/college or in the world-of-work as  a teacher or counselor, not working has been a harsh reality.  Now that my long-term substituting position has come to an end, the reality of being retired for yet a second time has hit home!

    I hope to find another long-term substituting position.

    In closing, I relate to this blog more than you would ever realize!  Happy Summer!!!

    • TriciaEbner

      Wishing you the best . . .

      Victoria, I’ve had so many good friends retire in the past few years. While I sometimes view their lives longingly, I secretly wonder how in the world I’ll handle moving into retirement. (With a son going into fourth grade, I am sure I will be working for a good, long time yet.) I’m glad you’ve found a “step-down” kind of approach, and I hope another long-term subbing position comes your way very soon!