For Portland teachers, summer is different, not a vacation

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PORTLAND — With summer in the home stretch, many may assume teachers are only now gearing up for the new school year.

But hard work has gone into their hiatus.

“There’s plenty (to do in the summer),” said Derek Pierce, principal of Casco Bay High School. “Teaching is a profession with very little down time. … I don’t think I’m a hero or anything. It’s just typical.”

Pierce said he works 9-5 over the summer. The assumption that principals and teachers have the summers off is an illusion, since most have to work, he said – whether it is at another job to help pay the bills, or building curricula and updating lesson plans.

Ben Donaldson, biology teacher at Casco Bay High School, had a packed schedule this summer. He taught summer school, attended training to support English Language Learners, and spent two weeks on the West Coast attending a conference and meeting with a funding foundation.

Donaldson also participated with fellow teachers during CBHS’s three-day teaching institute, which requires 13-14 hours of work – summer school for teachers (a grant from the Nellie Mae Foundation pays participating teachers for two of the three days they take part in the institute.)

“I’ll sprinkle in curriculum planning to refine my primary course and significant planning to teach a new course this coming school year,” Donaldson said.

Teachers at Casco Bay can acquire what Pierce calls “salary contact hours,” by participating in different kinds of programs and workshops usually paid for by a grant won by a teacher or principal. Teachers are encouraged to participate in these kinds of skill-improving events when school is out of session, because school budgets prefer not to have to pay substitute teachers to fill the gap.

For the most part, this summer work is all volunteer, whether it is to learn new technology to teach their students, or to learn and create curriculum to teach a new class.

Mark Ford teaches English to speakers of other languages at CBHS, and this summer researched developing an entirely digital classroom. His work focused on improving the way students who aren’t yet fluent in English absorb their curriculum, using audio books, e-readers, and apps on iPads.

“I have to figure out how to manage the hardware and how to teach the kids to use them,” Ford said. “I have one student in particular who made really great progress last year using audio books. I thought, ‘I want to look at this more broadly and comprehensively’.”

Ford wrote the proposal that is funding the program he now teachers. While developing his 21st century classroom curriculum, he also still needs to read a good-old fashioned stack of books that his students will be assigned this year. It’s not exactly summer reading, either.

“While I’m reading, I’m planning,” Ford said. “How am I going to help (students) to keep track of their thoughts and tackle this particular book? It’s not like taking a book to the beach.”

Volunteering time is also an intrinsic part of teaching.

“When you see teachers at school in July or August, it is important to know that they are volunteering their time to prepare for the upcoming year,” said Lois Kilby-Chesley, Maine Education Association vice president and a teacher for 33 years. “Occasionally a district will pay teachers to do summer work for the district and negotiate a payment for that. … Something most people don’t consider is that teachers don’t get paid for any day they don’t work.”

Public school teachers, by law, are only allowed to work 180 days: 175 in the classroom, five for professional training. They do not get any paid vacations. Their rate of pay reflects the 180 days, and they can choose to have their salary paid entirely during the school year, or rationed to continue during the summer.

With these rules in place, a “summer off” in reality means finding seasonal work – especially beginning teachers, Kilby-Chesley said, who make around $30,000 annually and not only supplement their incomes in the summer, but often by doing odd jobs on weekends, too.

She said she spent many summer months working as a gas station attendant, video store clerk, retail, and bartender. “Almost every male – and some female – teachers that I know have painted houses at some time or other,” she said.

Kelsea Barrett, a Scarborough High School math teacher, said “the vast majority of the people that give me a hard time about having summers off are mostly worried about the fact that I am ‘continuing to get paid’ for work I am no longer doing.”

In fact, Barrett said she tutors between 10 and 20 hours a week during the summer, in addition to taking a class, completing certification tests and planning her curriculum for next year.

Even with all of the volunteer time, unpaid time off, and expectations, the overwhelming response from teachers is how much they love their jobs and teaching kids.

“I obviously didn’t choose this career for the time off, nor is that even close to the top of the list of the things that I enjoy about teaching,” said Portland High School Spanish teacher Kathy Quinn.

“While I often have said during my career, ‘I do all of this because I love teaching and I love the kids,’ I have a teaching friend who will reply, ‘Yes, but you didn’t take a vow of poverty,’” Kilby-Chesley,  the MEA vice president, said. “So much of the work that teachers do is done outside the school day and with no extra pay for it. And many people don’t recognize this.”

Freelance writer Dena Riegel lives in Portland.

Sidebar Elements

Principal Derek Pierce of Casco Bay High School in Portland stands in front of stacks of books and school supplies in the mostly empty building, where he works 9-5 in the summer months.Principal Derek Pierce, left, and Nate Nichols, a math teacher at Casco Bay High School, work on new structures for the math program during the summer break.