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Raise Your Hand If You Earned Your Summer Break

My summer break started just a week ago. As a charter school teacher, I work all year round. Our summer break started after Independence Day and I'm back to work in mid-August. Yes, I'm at work when the dog days of summer first start barking, and I'm back to work long before those dogs have a chance to calm down.

But my school's unique calendar also meant that both my winter and spring breaks were three weeks long. This allowed me to spend two weeks in Africa last March with one week to spare at home. Many of my colleagues take their family vacations in December when destinations are less crowded and prices low.

No matter how you slice it, it's wonderful to have a profession that gives us 12 weeks off a year. But make no mistake about it: WE EARNED OUR VACATION.

I calculated the amount of time I worked outside my 8-hour school day, and the results were shocking: Six hours of lesson planning on the weekend (that's practically a full workday!) and 2.5 extra hours per weekday. That comes to 58.5 hours of work per week, which means that 3.7 hours per day were "off the clock" and unpaid.

Don't get me wrong; I signed up for this. I'm a charter school teacher, and we get paid less and work longer official school days than our district school colleagues. I decided to go charter to avoid some of the insanity I experienced during my four years of teaching in the tradition school system.

But no matter where you work, teaching is like parenthood: Your job is never done. There is always something more to do and if it's ever going to get done, it will have to get done either before or after school. It's just the nature of the profession.

Still, some people tend to think that teachers' 12-week vacation is an elaborate perk or a fringe benefit. I argue that it is absolutely not! After doing the math, (calculating 3.7 free hours per day over a 180-school year), I realized that I had actually earned 16.5 weeks of vacation a year—not 12 weeks!

I'm just keeping it real. I love being a teacher, and I am certainly not motivated to teach solely for the pay. I love my students, and they respond by achieving well academically. I also love my school and my colleagues. I work long and hard because it's personally rewarding to know that I'm making a difference in a child's life, in his future. In fact, I volunteered to spend one week of my five-week summer vacation in professional development to learn how to be a more effective teacher. (And I'm paying for child care for my daughters so that I can attend!)

So I won't accept a guilt trip for the amount of vacation time teachers have. In my view, most teachers give far more than we receive. Teaching is not only time-intensive, but also emotionally intensive as students come to school with a wide range attitudes, behaviors, and needs. Teachers need time away from the classroom to recharge our own body, mind and spirits. This is the only way we can stay effective at our jobs for the long haul. When you pit our time, expertise, and personal devotion up against our compensation, there is no contest.

Members of the Chicago Teachers Union have overwhelmingly voted to authorize a strike if union contract negotiations with the school district fail this summer. The union's starting point is a 29 percent raise (for the new longer school day and school year). The city's starting point is 2 percent.

I'm not in the union. My charter school doors will open regardless, strike or no strike.

But let's be clear: The state will never be able to adequately pay good teachers what they are really worth. The state of Illinois is broke, and the Chicago school district is running a $665 million deficit. Despite these gloomy realities, the district must realize that teacher vacation time must be respected as essential compensation for the off-hour nature of our work.

Teachers at my charter school have paid and over-paid for our vacations. Monetary compensation at my school has been less of a deal-breaker for most teachers because our overall sense of job satisfaction has been relatively high. If that were ever to change, we, too, would have a major problem.

So you hard-working teachers out there, be sure to relax, reflect, and recharge during your summer break. YOU HAVE CERTAINLY EARNED IT!

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