How Many Days Out Of The Classroom Is Too Many?

Last month, Andrew Schwab asked me and a group of other people how many days is too many days to take off as a teacher (he just blogged the same question here). Since then, I've been thinking about it a lot. 

I've taken a lot of days off this year. I love my classroom, but I also love leading trainings and attending conferences. And last week I took four days off to take a third of my students to the Ashland, Oregon, Shakespeare Festival

Taking days off when you're a teacher isn't quite as luxurious as most people think. Sub plans are a lot of work, and no matter how much time you spend on them, class just isn't the same without you. And I'm not just being narcissistic. This is precisely the reason I'm here even though I'm battling a cold.

3 days off for the Google Teacher Academy. Photo Credit: Danny Silva

3 days off for the Google Teacher Academy.
Photo Credit: Danny Silva

But meaningful days off can really help you grow your practice. The things I learn at conferences give me new ideas and refresh my soul, allowing me to pour into my students even more. The days I take off to consult also teach me a lot as I put words to what I do and learn from the audience. I love leading these workshops because I get to watch teachers get the ah-ha moments we love to see in our students and because I get to brainstorm with teachers, dreaming up ways to have tech tools transform their practice. I'm constantly changing my lesson plans because of the great ideas I get from others when I present and attend PD. 

And I'll even argue that teachers should get a few personal days to partake in once-in-a-lifetime experiences or just time with their family or friends. I use my two personal days a year to do something out of the ordinary, and these things grow me or revitalize me as a person, which also impacts students in the long run. 

However, I must admit, things don't always happen the same way as I would expect when I have a sub. My students are self-sufficient learners, and I'm mostly just a mentor, but my students lose some of the work ethic my presence evokes. Last week, my students were working on infographics in partners, and they didn't turn out like I'd hoped. But at the same time, I know that's because I wasn't there mentoring the process (even though I have a really great sub). This week, as they work on individual projects, I'm able to have a conversation with them each every day. I can see their progress. I can correct in the process. I can offer suggestions. My aura has an odd effect on their work ethic. 

So how many days is too many days? I think my sweet spot is two days a month. More than that and I start to feel distant, and my students' work starts to suffer. And in my opinion, ideally these days aren't back-to-back. If I can spread these out, my students and I don't get out of the positive habits we have for working well together in class. And the fresh perspective really refreshes me, especially since I'm the only English teacher in my school. 

A few more thoughts: 

  • I'd be really interested to hear what students have to say about this. Students... what do you have to say? 
  • How do we measure that these days are "worth it"? I, of course, think all of mine are, and thankfully my school has been supportive as well. But what accountability should teachers have? (And yet, how do we avoid unnecessary paperwork?)
  • What PD can happen right within our own schools? I'm amazed at how much I can learn from observing one of my colleagues. In addition, this winter I presented a few times at Pajaro Middle School. For their PD days they hired a bunch of subs, who spent the half the day in one classroom while the teachers were in my training, and then they switched with the other half of the teachers who then attended my class in the afternoon. I like this model because teachers are still on campus and can still have contact with students in case any questions or concerns arise. I also know my students would work a little better knowing I was just a few rooms over. 

All of that to say, I'm aiming for less than or equal to two days a month. But I also think it matters what kind of learning community you've set up in my classroom. If I'm gone only two days, my students can work independently without my instruction and no learning is lost. But I'm too naive to think that this is the case in every classroom. It can't just be throwing in a random movie because that's easy. It also matters how we teach students to mentor each other in the learning process.  I'm thankful to work with a small school community who graciously works with me to support my consulting while I still pour into students in the classroom. To me, it's the best of both worlds.