Summertime and the living isn't always easy

12th July 2013 at 01:00
Many generous teachers carry out volunteer work during the holidays - to their own and others' benefit

Summer holidays are too long, too generous and no longer appropriate for a 21st-century education system. Such are the key arguments for shorter summer breaks for teachers and the idea of introducing summer curricular and staff development programmes.

At a time of economic austerity, such attitudes and arguments have gained greater weight with advocates and protagonists who are, too often, unaware of the positive activities that many teachers undertake during the summer months.

Take, as just one example, the Lanarkshire teacher who is spending her summer break helping homeless children in India. It is the sixth year in a row that this fine teacher has travelled to India to help to teach reading and writing skills to India's highly disadvantaged street children.

Scottish teachers are also undertaking invaluable voluntary work in Africa, Central America and other impoverished parts of the world.

As well as helping to educate children, our teachers are able to pass on their classroom skills and knowledge to fellow teachers in countries that can't afford well-developed teacher-training programmes.

Younger teachers are particularly keen to use the summer break to travel and help out in disadvantaged parts of the world. A few years back, I worked with a student teacher who had spent the summer as a volunteer in Tanzania passing on his ICT know-how to teachers and older students.

There are also a sizeable number of teachers who do all sorts of voluntary work nearer home in, for example, charity shops, Citizens Advice offices and as helpers to disabled people on pilgrimages to Lourdes and Rome. One workaholic colleague, still in his twenties, spends the summer working many hours for the Samaritans.

Teachers devoting their summers to voluntary work provide excellent role models for our students, who may be inspired to take a gap year that involves helping those who are less privileged than themselves.

Voluntary work also enhances practitioners' own professional and personal development. The experience of travelling and working in challenging and unstructured environments, for example, helps to develop useful problem-solving and management skills. Voluntary work, says one practitioner, "makes me a better teacher and a happier, more contented person".

And voluntary work certainly makes a real difference to those who receive the help and support of our profession's "ambassadors of goodwill". It is these teachers who do so much positively to define and improve the image of our profession.

The long summer break also provides teachers with opportunities to embark on the sort of trips that enhance their professional knowledge and skills.

Pamela Kurilla, a religious education teacher at Dunblane High School, for example, used five of her summer vacations to visit temples in Japan and other parts of Asia to extend her knowledge of Buddhism and oriental religions. Students in Pam's RE classroom, which features photographs of the people and places she encountered on her travels, benefit from her first-hand knowledge and experiences.

When I first qualified as a geography teacher and discovered that rainforests were a key topic, I decided that the best way to develop interest and understanding of these important habitats was by spending time in them. What was a highly informative trip was only possible because of the long summer break.

Two colleagues - one a PE teacher, the other a geography specialist - are spending four weeks of their summer break cycling the route of the Tour de France. It is a tour which will enhance their fitness levels, self-esteem, professional development and, at the same time, raise a sizeable sum of money for charity.

Then there are, of course, numerous modern languages teachers who are spending time in countries practising the languages they teach. Many art, design and other specialists are travelling to places where they can extend the very knowledge and skills they are required to teach.

Experience of overseas working and travelling earns teachers additional respect from students, who benefit from their first-hand knowledge of places, people and global issues.

A reliable supply of teachers is crucial to our country's future. An adventurous and caring profession, with time and opportunities to undertake important and interesting activities, is more likely to secure that supply.

Sure, there is time for teachers to enjoy lazy beach and other holidays, and time to recharge batteries, but any discussions about shortening the summer break for teachers should take into account the fine work that more than just a few teachers undertake during their summer "holidays".

John Greenlees, Secondary teacher.

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