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What Teaching Summer School is Really Like

Jordan Catapano

What is it really like to teach summer school? Is it that bad? Why aren't most of my peers signing up to do it? And why did that one colleague personally warn me about it?

If you're like many teachers, you're trained in and comfortable with the structure of the typical school day. You've crafted sessions designed for roughly 50-minute class periods, nicely segmented into weeks and units to last a semester.

But then there's "Summer school" … isn't that phrase an oxymoron? Do summer and school really go together? I mean, I like both, but that doesn't mean they were made for each other. I like spinach and ice cream, too, but can you imagine the combination?

Unfortunately, summer school can have an unnecessarily bad reputation. We and our students imagine summer as a magical land of freedom, warmth, and no school. But what is it really like when school is a part of the picture?

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What We Imagine About Summer School

If you haven't taught summer school before, it might be easy to imagine the worst. We may have a picture in our minds of the students who failed classes during the regular school year, depressed to be in your class and eager to push your buttons.

We might imagine the chaos of summertime brought into our classrooms – students skateboarding across the room, spitballs flying, sunglasses over eyes, and students cutting out early to join their friends at the pool. We might picture students who are more interested in what's going on outside the classroom; we might even share their preoccupations!

We might imagine students randomly picked up by parents who whisk them away for multiple days of vacation in the middle of the week, missing an untold wealth of content. Then they show up later and ask, "What did I miss?" and you’re at a loss for where to even begin.

And hey, you might imagine all that you're missing out on. You see texts and social posts from your non-summer school colleagues, taunting you with images of themselves at baseball games, pool parties, and barbeques.

If this is what summer school is like, then I could see why some would want no part of it! But don't worry – our fears are amplified by our imaginations. The truth is that summer school actually isn't that bad … in fact, it can actually be a stunning opportunity!

It Isn't That Bad

Teaching summer school certainly has its differences from teaching throughout the course of the regular year. Yes, some of the circumstances listed above may in fact materialize, but it is likely you will soon find reasons to cherish the unique days of summer school.

One of the most appreciable aspects of summer school is the different structure and pace. Instead of working with multiple classes for tiny increments each day, the typical summer school setup involves you working for multiple hours a day on just one course. Remember those instances during the school year where you ran out of time to try X, Y, and Z ideas with your classes? Now you actually have the luxury of being able to focus on just one class.

In addition to having one course to focus on, you will typically have the opportunity to focus on one specific set of students, too. Unlike during a school year when you will likely have scores of students to get to know, you can tailor your lessons and activities to this one group’s specific needs and preferences.

This also means that you have one direct goal. With a more condensed schedule and narrow target audience, you have one specific mission for the class. What is the purpose of your course? Are you helping students to get ahead, become prepared for the year, or make up credit from the previous year? What are the specific content and skill elements your summer course is designed to deliver? During the summer you can stay zeroed-in on your focus. Your students, too, benefit from having just one class and don’t have to worry about keeping up with content from multiple domains.

Although the content of summer school courses is often dictated by a curriculum guide, summer school teachers often find they have a greater degree of control over their instruction as well. Even if it’s not your own original curriculum, the direct focus on a single course, the ample amount of time you have each day, and the unique set of students you’re working with allows for greater flexibility for your content delivery. Have at it and get creative!

Finally, having a limited set of students and more time per day in your one class often means you can provide a greater quantity of individual attention to students. Time limitation is the number-one factor inhibiting quality one-on-one conferencing with students, but summer school’s ample time periods remove this barrier. Additionally, many summer school courses feature a smaller class size. While this isn’t a guarantee with your course, if you have fewer students, you can offer even further one-on-one guidance.

When You Add It All Up

So what is teaching summer school really like? While I can’t speak to exactly what your experience may involve, I can say that at least in general regards, life during summer school looks pretty good. Is it as good as, say, sitting poolside with one of those drinks with the little umbrella in it? Well, that’s up to you.

Teachers in southern Wisconsin’s Janesville District report having a much more positive experience over the summer, one that administrators are encouraging to bring into the regular school year. “In the summer, teachers face far less pressure. They don’t have to teach a dizzying number of standards or … prepare students for tests ... There is time to innovate over the summer.”

If you’re really looking to get the full scoop on summer school, try some of these before committing:

  • Talk to peers who have taught summer school courses for multiple years.
  • Is your summer school in sessions? Observe one session before committing to the next one. Or one year before committing to the next year.
  • Discuss with department leaders to what extent you’ll have autonomy and control over how you do things.
  • Plan on partnering with other experienced peers teaching summer courses so you don’t feel like to have to go it alone.
  • Request a profile or roster of students in advance. Or look at records from the previous summer school session to get an idea of class size, students, content, grades, and anything else you may have questions about.

There is no doubt plenty of differences and opportunities exist with the summer school experience. But no article can truly do justice to summer school – the only thing left to do is to try it for yourself! Plus, you’ll get to collect that appealing summer school pay, as well!


Jordan Catapano taught English for 12 years in a Chicago suburban high school, where he is now an assistant principal. In addition to being National Board Certificated and head of his school’s instructional development committee, he also has worked with the Illinois Association of Teachers of English and has experience as a school board member for a private school. You can follow him on Twitter at @BuffEnglish.