Why Every World Language Teacher Should Take a Sabbatical

Becky Searls

I am a Spanish teacher in Columbus, Ohio. I began my teaching at the high school level for six years, followed by three years at the middle level. As I looked ahead to starting my tenth year of teaching, I was feeling pretty burnt out.

So I put on the brakes, and I designed a traveling sabbatical that would feed and refresh me. I pitched my idea to my district: I would travel to as many countries as possible during my year away, visiting both primary and secondary schools in each destination, in order to learn more about best practices in a variety of education systems and share what I learned. In addition, I would try to identify teachers around the world who were open to the idea of forming meaningful global partnerships with our teachers back home, with the goal of developing cultural sensitivity and global competence in our students. As a bonus, we would be able to leverage our new 1:1 MacBook Air program and incorporate technology across the curriculum at the highest level of the SAMR model by redefining a previously inconceivable task: putting our students face to face with students around the world asynchronously and in real time. Taking advantage of technology in this way has many benefits for world language (WL) teachers and students, in particular, including the ability to develop global competence, cultural sensitivity, and a broader perspective of what is “normal,” plus the opportunity to engage in authentic language practice with members of the target culture.

To my delight, my sabbatical proposal was approved and as I now write, I have just finished up my visit to country #6 and school #15. As I have travelled, I have been documenting my observations in a blog (www.mapmates.org) and have been able to serve as matchmaker for about a dozen pairs of teachers who are now initiating global communication between their students.

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My visit to Gamla Påvelundsskolan (“Old Påvelunds School”) in Gothenburg, Sweden. Thank you to Unni Tamas for welcoming me into her classroom and school!

Now for some real talk: when I was dreaming up this sabbatical and pitching it, I admit to having some “grass is greener” mentality influencing me. My husband has his own software consultancy, and although the business is small, his days are self-directed and autonomous. As a teacher with a rather constrained schedule from 8 AM to 4 PM during the months of August-June, this level of freedom always has seemed very attractive, and I romanticized the notion of being completely self-directed. I was so sure that if I just had the time to do my own thing, I would find a million and one things related to education that I might prefer to the classroom.

While I am still very open to different opportunities in the field of education, I have also been pleasantly surprised with an unexpected side effect of my sabbatical: I have gained a renewed sense of commitment to, not to mention deep respect for, the art and craft of K-12 classroom teaching and learning. It is only winter, and already, starting as early as October, I have been thinking of ways to implement what I’m seeing in schools around the world into my own classroom next year. I am regularly tweeting out ideas and sharing articles with my colleagues (probably a little too much, sorry guys! Know you’re super busy!) I feel energized and as if I have the tools I was craving to be able to continue innovating in my own small space. I also have realized that the grass is not always greener, and that my district really does have its act together for the most part. Finally, I have come to see that my school, in particular, is a special place, and I am quite fortunate to work there.

So why should every teacher take a sabbatical? I think that no matter what, every teacher can benefit from time away from the day in day out grind of the K-12 classroom and should have the opportunity to do so. For me, this sabbatical could very well delay or even prevent my early departure from the teaching profession. This fact is important, because teacher attrition is a very real and costly problem in the United States, and the education field needs passionate, innovative people to stay in the classroom and work from within to translate theory into practice and make positive changes.

Kids benefit from having teachers with more experience. Teachers with diverse experiences outside of the classroom can bring those experiences to bear on their teaching to make activities more authentic and engaging for students. World Language teachers, specifically, can travel and collect authentic resources for use in the classroom.

Additionally, teachers who have the flex time that comes with taking a sabbatical may discover other opportunities. For example, perhaps a language teacher who works in a school with a high population of English Language Learners (ELLs) will be able to obtain a new endorsement in teaching English to speakers of other languages (TESOL). Others might uncover various teacher fellowships and travel grants that are available and finally find the time to apply to programs such as the Teachers for Global Classrooms Program or the National Geographic Grosvenor Teacher Fellow Program. Following up on regional scholarships through CSCTFL for language schools to enhance one’s own language proficiency during the summer months may also be realistic during a sabbatical year, when there is more time to obtain letters of recommendation, update your résumé or CV, and write statements of intent.

Furthermore, teachers simply themselves need time and space to take care of themselves. I have finally found the time to do things I consistently put off, such as complete allergy testing and have a minor sinus surgery done, not to mention a few other important checkups. Teachers really do delay such things because of the hours and limitations of their schedules. Even just having a break from the cortisol rollercoaster of living life by a daily bell schedule has to do wonders for the psyche.

Perhaps most important is that, given time and space (with a meaningful project to work towards), teachers are better able to understand what motivates them and what makes them tick. I, for instance, would never have realized how much I thrive on a set routine and schedule had I never had this sabbatical year. This year, I learned that, given a lot of space and autonomy, I have to really push myself to remain engaged, whereas when I have a lot to keep up with in a regular routine (such as that of a school day with a regular bell schedule…oy) I am much more productive because of the constant forward momentum.

Bottom-line, kids deserve healthy, passionate, experienced teachers. Sabbaticals help cultivate these teachers. In practical terms, the how-to of taking a sabbatical was a lot like the experience of studying abroad in college for me. It began with thinking “I could never afford that!” to dreaming about “But what if I could find a way to make it a possibility” to finally doing the real legwork to sit down and talk with my administration. When I finally did that, and realized that I could have my position held for a year while I was paid a portion of my salary and received full benefits, I knew I had to try! (Side note: now that I am feeling more refreshed and have the benefit of hindsight, it’s also worth noting that it would be much cheaper for a teacher to pinch pennies to take a sabbatical for a year than it would be to continue full-speed only to burn out entirely and then have to pay to retrain in a new profession altogether).

Sabbatical processes differ from district to district, but I would definitely encourage any teacher not to simply dismiss the idea as impossible. Remember what we tell our kids each and every day in the classroom about growth mindset and the idea that you can improve, you can grow, and you can get better at learning a language, just like you can strengthen a muscle. Don’t settle for feeling stuck or burnt out. Rediscover your passions, or explore a new interest, try to find a way to connect your work with language education, and discover what’s possible!

This entry was posted in General, Uncategorized, Winter 2017. Bookmark the permalink.

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