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Summer School 101: 4 Important Tips

summer school

This year, the demand for summer school is once again high as concerns over pandemic learning disruption loom large. Experts question whether there will be enough teachers to staff a greater number of summer classrooms, which is a valid concern. With burnout rates so prominent, there might be more difficulty than usual persuading people to work in June through August after a long and exhausting year. But for those brave teachers who have elected to work with students through the upcoming months without much of a break, four important tips can make all the difference between having a rough time or a wonderful experience.

Narrow the Focus

Students may attend summer school to play a game of catch-up, but there is just no feasible way to cover everything they need to learn. It’s the teacher’s job to determine what to prioritize, and what can wait. First, it helps to think about what learning is non-negotiable as students enter the next grade level. What will they need to survive, at the very least? Obviously, we want all children to thrive, not just barely make it. But when it comes to what to focus on first, we have to do the “must do” before the “can do.” To help figure out where the urgency with instructional goals sits, it may be enlightening to separate content skills into two categories: those that must be taught in the short span of summer school, and those that can likely wait until the following year of instruction begins. For example, I might want to teach students how to explain the examples they select to include in a piece of writing so that their point is clear, but first I need to teach them how to find the best source material that supports their ideas. If teachers can start to break learning outcomes into chunks, it becomes a little easier to figure out where the urgencies lie. 

Take Suggestions

Unless students have some ownership in the classroom, they will not be as engaged, particularly with summer enticements like swimming pools and available friends providing ample distraction. One or two days a week, ask students to suggest how they would like to learn. Suppose the class must complete a set of math problems, read part of a textbook chapter, and work on a project. Giving students leeway to select what they work on first allows them to make some choices about what is best for them rather than having the teacher dictate what should be done each and every moment of instruction. To go even further, solicit suggestions for how to spend class time (with an instructional content focus, of course) earlier in the week, and then implement those ideas a few days later. If a physical education class is doing a unit on basketball and students ask to practice their shooting with a game of “Horse,” the teacher has time to incorporate that request into planning with a few days’ lead time. When students see that their ideas are taken seriously, they will be more likely to engage productively with other aspects of their summer school classes.

Make it Fun

Not every day can be a party, but summer school has a more casual structure that makes it easier to have some fun with learning. Some days might be nice enough to learn outdoors for a short while, whereas other days might be ideal for playing a game that is connected to learning goals. If activities that take us out of classrooms for a short time aren’t on the table, learning can still be more interactive with strategies like gamification. This article shares some very doable ideas for how to gamify the classroom space while maintaining focus on what needs to be accomplished with curriculum goals. In the summer, we might need to be serious much of the time, but students will appreciate efforts to lighten the atmosphere whenever possible.

Grow, Learn, Prepare

As long as we’re working, we might as well use the time to think about our long game. That way, when school is back in session this fall, a lot of necessary forethought and lesson planning will already be done. Within the school building, there are numerous resources that can help teachers plan ahead, such as media center access to databases that might require passwords or paid subscriptions at home. In addition, having the option to a work in classroom or team room space can be monumentally useful in helping teachers focus on getting ready for the upcoming year without the distractions that are so prevalent in domestic spaces. Sometimes, colleagues also working in the building are available to collaborate with planning upcoming lessons, and that is a benefit that those who do not teach summer school cannot take advantage of. A school might not be many people’s first choice of where to be this summer, but as long as we’re there, we might as well reap the benefits of being in a space with more materials and resources.

The phrase “summer school” is rife with negative connotations for both teachers and students, but it doesn’t have to be a painful experience. In fact, many seasoned summer school teachers come back each year because they appreciate the ambience of their classrooms during less populated months. With the four tips highlighted above, there is no need to fear the months ahead. Sure, everyone would prefer being under an umbrella by the pool, but if that’s not possible, having a good experience with students during the day so that we can kick back in the evening is probably better than dreading each day to come. Like it or not, fall will come sooner than anyone wants. It might be better to look at summer school as a different animal, one that is not quite as laden with stress or burnout as the regular school year. 

Written by Miriam Plotinsky, Education World Contributing Writer

Miriam Plotinsky is an instructional specialist with Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland, where she has taught and led for more than 20 years. She is the author of Teach More, Hover Less and Lead Like a Teacher. She is also a National Board-Certified Teacher with additional certification in administration and supervision. She can be reached at or via Twitter: @MirPloMCPS.