Time away: How teachers spend their summers

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Zachary Kurtz, Staff Writer

“Summer is a time to explore things that I want to do—that I enjoy doing purely for me—and for recharging my battery, as well as getting inspired by other things,” English teacher Rebecca Bahr said.
Unbeknownst to many students at the school, teachers are involved in a variety of unique activities during the summer. While the most visible to students might be those who teach at Horace Mann Summer School, many teachers are involved with volunteer work or choose to venture to other schools in order to teach unique classes in their respective fields.
Some teachers volunteer in their free time, and the summer is no exception. Pre-Kindergarten Teacher Samiyrah Kellman and Computer Science and Robotics Department Chair Danah Screen hosted a free Robotics camp in Barbados during the summers of 2018 and 2019 for children ages 5-17. The camp supported underserved children who otherwise would not be able to afford camp, Kellman wrote in an email.
Most young people in Barbados are used to an individualistic approach to education, such that it is every student for themselves, Screen said. “It was an amazing time, because you just saw these students and they got really, really close with one another,” she said. “I think for them the idea of working together on a project was so unusual, and so again with the oldest kids it was even harder because they spent more time in that individualistic cycle.”
Despite not getting summers off from the school, Help Desk/Operations & Technical Support Sheryl Baker also manages to volunteer. She works with Rehabilitation through the Arts, an organization that operates in six New York State Prisons. “We use the arts as a way of educating people behind the walls about soft skills that the arts can help with as people are coming home and reentering into society as well as making their time when they’re in prison more productive, fruitful, and as positive as it possibly can be,” Baker said.
The program is a passion of Baker’s and is something that she does throughout the school year as well as during the summer. “I started out in 2016 as a volunteer and just fell madly in love with the people who work in this organization, and I was fortunate enough to be asked to join their Board of Directors in 2018,” Baker said.
Teaching is also a yearlong passion. Many teachers continue to teach during the summer at Horace Mann Summer School and elsewhere. Both math teacher Chris Jones and science teacher Matthew Boller teach at the Exeter Summer program.
Exeter Summer brings together rising 8th through 12th graders from all over the world. The program, which is 102 years old, is a way for teachers to teach while living on a New Hampshire campus only 11 miles from the ocean. Living on campus also allows for later mornings and more convenience, which can make the experience feel like a vacation, Boller said. “I’ve taught at Exeter Summer since 2009, so this was going to be my 12th summer,” he said. “I teach Human Anatomy, Intro to Bio, and Marine Biology there, and what it really is, is an opportunity to meet new teachers, talk about different strategies, techniques, labs, articles, and also do it in a different environment.” The Exeter Summer Program has been moved online this summer due to COVID-19.
For Jones, who has been working at Exeter Summer since 2004, the ability to bring his family with him is very enjoyable, as they get the chance to attend classes, he said. “What’s fun for me is that I get to teach a different age level. I get to teach middle school kids whereas I normally teach high school kids, and I also get to have this sort of laboratory where I can try things, not that they’re my guinea pigs, but I can be more free,” Jones said.
While some faculty teach in the U.S. during the summer, others choose to venture overseas. From experience with the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) during the school year, students are aware of Horace Mann’s connections with the RSC in England. English teacher Adam Casdin said that for the past four or five summers, he has led a group of teachers from nursery through 12th grade to Stratford-upon-Avon, where they train with the Royal Shakespeare Company for five days.
“It’s an incredibly powerful and gratifying experience, and it never gets dull for me, because I’m watching teachers of all types and from all different points in their career engaging in new thinking, new approaches, and with each other in a way that is nearly impossible while you’re teaching and even in the city, so it reminds me of a lot of the reasons why I love teaching and I love teachers, the creativity, the openness, the spirit of inquiry and questioning,” Casdin said.
Casdin stressed that a lot of the credit for this has to go to Head of School Dr. Thomas Kelly, who has a kind of vision and creative thinking that allows for this type of experimentation. “He was immediately excited by the idea of working with the Royal Shakespeare Company and when he was looking for volunteers I raised my hand so it was just kind of luck,” Casdin said. “Every time I’ve gone to talk to him about a new approach or a new idea or a new opportunity, he’s been a kind of collaborator in the thinking about it, so I suggested that going to Stratford would be a good way to begin the program, to get teachers to deep dive early, and he agreed, and he’s seen the power of that visit and knows how it’s changed teaching in each division and borne results each time.”
One teacher who has participated in the RSC trips is Bahr. She said that the trip was a lot of fun and that they work in the RSC studios and practice techniques that they then bring back into their classrooms. “I need to just have different stimulation, I mean I love teaching and I feel very lucky that I have a job where I really enjoy what I do, and I’m always learning, so if I do something related to school, I’ll do something that I enjoy like the RSC stuff,” Bahr said.
There are also teachers who choose to focus on course preparation for the following year from home. History teacher Barry Bienstock said that he plans to prepare his materials for the new elective he’ll be teaching next year, “Vast Early America.” The course has never been taught before, so he will be spending a lot of the time developing the syllabus and deciding on all the readings. “I’ve over the years taught over 20 different courses in the history department, so I like the excitement of developing a new course and delving into that literature,” Bienstock said. He will also be coediting a collection of his late wife’s essays this summer. The essays are to be published 14 months from now, he said.
There are other teachers who choose to stay at the school over the summer. The school offers a couple of courses in their summer school program. Science teacher Oleg Zvezdin teaches the Summer Physics course at the school and has done so for many years. “Actually, the way I started working at Horace Mann is through the summer school. So the first ever job that I had teaching, and also teaching at Horace Mann, was to help Dr. [Jeffrey] Weitz to be an assistant in that program for Dr. Weitz when he was teaching,” Zvezdin said.
Zvezdin said that he loves the course and believes in challenging students and pushing them to overcome obstacles, especially as Summer Physics presents a unique set of challenges to the students and by its nature is one of the more challenging classes the school offers. Despite there not being summer programming at the school due to the pandemic this summer, Zvezden plans on continuing to teach the Summer Physics course when it comes back in 2021.
Faculty who teach at summer school programs are not the only ones who continue to work in their fields over the summer. Visual arts teacher and curator of student art Kim Do paints landscapes over the summer. “As well as fulfilling my need to create, the processes I engage with aid the HM student artists in learning visual art during the school year,” Do wrote in an email. “I bring the joys of creativity, and the challenges of the struggle for invention and originality, from these direct experiences over the summer into the classroom.”
Do’s paintings are scattered around the school as well as in large collections such as Citibank, American Express Minneapolis, and Johnson & Johnson. “Over the summer I always work as an artist, painting landscape paintings outdoors, from observation— either in northern California or in NY’s Catskills,” Do wrote.
Art teacher Keith Renner said that what he does varies from summer to summer and that he has done things including teaching summer school, renovating his house, and utilizing his basement workspace to make art and work with clay. “During the school year making art comes in sort of bits and starts, you can do a little here and there, It’s nice in the summer to have a chunk of time where you can just really focus on something that is uniquely my own,” Renner said.
Overall, summer offers time for teachers to continue to explore, grow, and fulfill their passions, whether through teaching or other means. “Summer is a time to reflect, and that’s what professional development is, it’s a kind of structured reflection.” Casdin said. “Teachers have been teaching all year so the idea of doing professional development after a year’s long engagement with classes, some people are very surprised that teachers will do it but teachers love the work they do, and reflection is something we don’t get enough time to do.”