Surviving Summer School

It’s June, July or August. For most people, this means summer holidays, relaxing on beaches, and doing very little work. For the TEFL teacher, it’s a different story. Every summer we once again pack our lives into a suitcase and prepare to spend the next few weeks working harder than some of us work all year.

In the summer of 2009 I started work as a Residential Activity Leader for Stafford House Study Holidays in Reading. Little did I know it would change my life forever. Summer school led me to the weird and wonderful world of TEFL, and I have since ‘done summer school’ every year since 2009, making it seven summers, and a total of nine summer schools (some summers I worked at more than one school). 

The rite of passage that is summer school can be a slog – something you do simply to earn money during an otherwise miserable few months of unemployment – or it can be the best job in the world. In this series I hope to help you make the most of it, so that it can be the less of the former, and more of the latter.


Surviving Summer School Part 1: It’s Day Zero.

Before leaving for summer school (assuming your position is residential), check what you need to pack. It sounds like the most obvious thing in the world, especially if you’ve spent the last nine months living out of a suitcase, but what you need to take may well vary. A few errors of my own:

  • I have arrived at a school campus 13 miles from the nearest town with no towel, only to discover that towels are not provided. Conversely I have also dragged a rucksack with contents of approximately nine-tenths towel across London, only to discover that the school does provide towels. If you have someone you can email or otherwise contact beforehand, check.
  • I repeat: check where the school is. Summer schools tend to routinely call themselves after the nearest civilisation. They are normally based in boarding schools or university campuses which are nowhere near that civilisation. Do not assume you will be able to walk there or easily access it from public transport.
  • I have arrived at summer school only to discover that I need to submit copies of almost every document I own as the school has suddenly decided that I am due for a new DBS check. My parents were not amused when I had to phone them and ask them to find, scan and email said documents.
  • (A note for the female teachers: I have also had a string of miserable summer school experiences which will be forever etched in my memory as ‘the tampon day’. Unless your school is within easy walking distance of a shop, make sure you are prepared.)

Expect information overload. 

Most importantly, don’t panic. Summer school inductions almost always involve you being talked at for most of a day until random facts and figures and company policies feel as if they are going to start dribbling out of your ears. During the induction, remember:

  • You do not need to remember everything. Prioritise what seems to be the most important information. You need to know what to do in the event of a fire or other emergency situation. You need to know what will happen on the first day of the course, and what will be expected of you. You need to know if there are any particular places that are considered out-of-bounds (for both staff and students) and if there are any access codes for particular buildings or rooms. You do not need to know about the company’s ‘lost’ procedure when you will not be going on any trips for at least the next week. You do not need to know about the company’s complaints or disciplinary procedures – and if the event occurs where you do need to know about them, you will be able to find the information at a later date.
  • Most summer schools (certainly all the ones I’ve worked for) will provide you with a staff handbook, often in digital format and then as a hard copy. If they are nice enough to give you a hard copy, make use of it! This is your place to highlight important things and make notes of the relevant important information during the induction training. This way, everything is all in the same place should you need it. (If you don’t have a hard copy of the staff handbook, allocate the first page in a notebook or a piece of paper you plan to keep very very safe for the same purpose.
  • Find out who to ask if you need a recap. It’s inevitable that you won’t remember everything from the induction training – I’ve often finished the day feeling like there was so much information that I’ve absorbed almost nothing. Find out who to ask (or where to look) if you want a recap on something that you’ve missed.

Enjoy the calm before the storm.

Generally the staff arrive the day before the students at summer school. Make the most of it. Take the time to figure out where things are: most boarding schools/university campuses are built on intricate labyrinthine designs with one-way fire escape exits and stairways that rearrange themselves as in Harry Potter. Tomorrow you will be faced with endless questions from lost students. Figure out where things are now.

Make friends. 

The people you meet at your summer school induction will be your friends and family for the next few weeks. You will spend almost every waking moment with them. You will dream about them. (I only wish I were joking). Day 0 is also the opportunity for you to get to know people without lesson planning, teaching, activities, or students getting in the way. In all seriousness though, some of my best friends are people I met whilst teaching at summer school. It’s really interesting to find out about people’s experiences of working for different schools or in different countries (and can be great if you’re not quite sure where to go next!) and it can be helpful to find out who you could potentially turn to for support when the going gets tough.

Keep calm. Get some sleep. Day zero is only the beginning.

Part 2: The First Lesson

Congratulations are in order first of all: if you’ve made it this far you’ve survived both day zero and day one. At most summer schools the order of the day tends to be for the staff to arrive and be talked at for a day (Day Zero), followed by a day of relatively organised chaos (Day One) as the staff of each summer school try to receive their students, not receive anyone else’s students, deal with the inevitable lost bags/forgotten items/lost students, persuade teenagers to call home, and then somehow get everyone into allocated bedrooms and sorted into what are (hopefully) the right classes. For management staff, day one is a living hell that you then want a holiday to recover from, but for teachers and activity leaders it’s mostly a day of listening carefully, being flexible, and doing what you’re told.

So now it’s Day Two, the day when lessons actually start. You already feel as if you’ve been here for about a year, the ‘real world’ is starting to seem like a figment of your imagination, and you’re slightly worried that you’ve forgotten how to actually teach. As with Day Zero, Day One, and actually almost every other day of summer school, don’t panic. Your first lesson(s) at summer school have three real aims. 1. Get to know the students, and let them get to know you, 2. Lay down some ground rules, 3. Figure out what you’re dealing with. 

1. Get to know the students, and let them get to know you.

Summer school is quite a different environment to where you’re likely to be working for the rest of the year, simply because the students are going to be there all the time. This can be a blessing or a curse. It does however mean that rapport is crucial.

I usually start my first lesson with a simple ‘getting to know you’ type activity. This can be something like ‘3 Truths and a Lie’ (write 4 sentences about you on the board, 1 of which is not true, students must guess the lie, ss. then repeat in pairs or small groups with their own sentences),  ‘Find Someone Who’ (the inevitable worksheet of the same name) or my personal favourite, ‘Question the Teacher’ (elicit what information ss. want to know about a person they’ve just met, ie. name, age, favourite colour, favourite food, hobbies…, then ask them to work in small groups and guess your answers, give feedback on what they got right or wrong, ss. can then repeat the guessing or simply ask each other the questions). The main aim however is that it introduces the students to each other (they will have doubtless made some friends at the airport/in the dining hall/in their room already, but they are unlikely to have already spoken to everyone in their class), and also makes you seem more human.

2. Lay the ground rules.

Once everyone has got to know each other a little, the first lesson is time to lay down some ground rules. I used to ‘wait and see’ what students were like during their first class, and then use that to decide what rules to enforce from my second lesson on. Then I learnt that a combination of nerves and novelty tends to mean that students are always nicer in the first lesson than they will be in any subsequent lessons. Start as you mean to go on.

So as not to be too ‘school like’ – these students are on their summer holiday as well, I normally tend to ensure they are pretty involved in the decision process. Students can work in groups to decide what is acceptable and unacceptable classroom behaviour, then propose what they feel the rules should be. The class can vote for the most important rules which can then be displayed on a poster, signed by all the class. Good luck if they try arguing later down the line – because they wrote and chose those rules themselves. For teen classes I often encourage them to think what the penalties should be if the rules are broken. I have found forfeits for speaking L1 particularly effective when the forfeits are chosen by their peers!

3. Figure out what you’re dealing with.

My favourite ‘getting to know you’ and ‘class rules’ activities contain three specific elements: they require the students to work in a group, they require the students to speak in English, and they require the students to write. Some students take a ‘placement test’ before arriving at the summer school, some take a placement test on their first day, and others simply are taken on the word of their Dad/English teacher/Auntie that they ‘really are pre-intermediate, honest!’. Hopefully they are in a class of students who are roughly all the same level, but there are no guarantees of this.

It’s important to mention that ‘first day nerves’ can very much play a part here. The students may be nervous, they may be homesick, they may be jet-lagged or they may simply be very determined to be in the same class as their best friend from home/that cute French guy they met on the coach. As a result, I’d always recommend waiting a day or so before deciding that a student is definitely in the wrong group. These first lesson activities do however give the teacher an opportunity to get some idea of the class dynamics – are there any students who are very dominant or very quiet? Are there any students who you want to ‘keep an eye on’ as first impressions at least say that they might be in the wrong level?

After a busy couple of days, the first few hours spent teaching can feel very long. If it doesn’t go as well as you’d hoped, don’t worry. One of the great things about teaching at summer school is the sheer amount of time you get to spend with the students – it means that any mistakes, problems or ill-feeling are quickly forgotten. Tomorrow is another day.


Part 3: What the Activity Leaders Want You to Know

At every summer school I’ve worked at so far there has been, to a greater or lesser extent, a Great Divide between ‘them’ and ‘us’ – the teachers and the activity leaders. Everyone on the staff at a summer school is working together to make it an enjoyable experience for the kids, so we’re all on the same team, right? In theory, yes. But it can be hard to believe. As one of the seemingly rare hybrid species who have done both roles, here are some mediating letters to both sides.

Dear Teachers,

You may think that our role as Activity Leaders is less important (or you may have even been told as such by well-meaning but ill-informed management). The fact of the matter is that this is simply not true. Much as the sense of taste is damaged with no sense of smell, we are a team. Without you, the students would simply play games, do sports and do arts and crafts for the whole summer – all in their own languages. Without developing their English skills, they would not have the ability or the confidence to strike up a conversation with a student with a different first language… and as a result everyone’s experiences would be far less rich. During activities, however, is when the language they have learnt in class becomes a real, ‘living’ thing. Using English as a tool to communicate will develop their confidence, their self-esteem, and their English as well, and this is something the students will hopefully experience outside the classroom as well.

We know you are tired after teaching for the morning and are mentally busy planning for the following day. But please, please try to be enthusiastic about activities. Unless we tell you otherwise, you aren’t in ‘teacher mode’ here, we are – so a lot of the time you can simply join in and have some fun! You don’t need to be a skilled sportsman/woman. Some of the students inevitably won’t be either, and the best thing you can do for the reluctant student who wants to sit on the sidelines is to take part and show enthusiasm yourself.

Likewise, please try your hardest to be flexible – as in the classroom, things can and do go wrong. If the plans suddenly change or something doesn’t work as intended, please try to be understanding. The best thing you can do is to offer to help or to ask what needs to be done – then do it.

Often we are pretty young – most of us are university students. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that we are immature, irresponsible or simply in this job for the money. Who knows, one day we might do a CELTA and become one of you!


Your Activity Leaders



Dear Activity Leaders,

Teaching for the day and then being expected to do activities is hard. Teaching takes a lot of energy, and by the time we come to you in the afternoon we may well be occupied by the events that happened in our lessons – the student who was struggling, the student we think should probably move up a level, the one who doesn’t seem to mix well with the others and the one who is downright angry about being here.

Activities are your time to shine. Please take the lead here and make sure you plan what we’re going to do, where we’re going to be, and make sure that the space and equipment are available. As teachers, we know all about planning, and no one enjoys an unstructured ‘let’s just go down to the sports field and kick a ball around’ as much as a properly organised event.

As previously mentioned, by the time we get to you we are tired. We don’t intend to be deliberately obtuse, but it can really help us if you give us specific tasks to do – collect the footballs from here, supervise this group of students, help this group of students sort themselves into teams. After a morning of making tens of decisions, we don’t really have the energy to play guesswork to figure out what you want us to do. (This is why we might be standing in a little group in the corner of the field talking, not because we are deliberately trying to annoy you).


Your Teachers


Part 4: Free Time Fears

Summer school is a full time job – and then some. Make no mistake, no matter how well-prepared you think you are, how much teaching experience you have, or how much energy you think you have to spare, by the end of the first week you will be exhausted. Don’t despair, don’t panic, and above all else please don’t think about quitting. You can survive 6-8 weeks of this, and there are some ways to make it far easier.

Know what you’re letting yourself in for.

Most summer schools have a disclaimer in their contracts where it states that on some occasions you will be required to work for more than 40 hours a week. This is there for a reason. It’s also not as terrifying as it initially sounds. Here’s why. It isn’t all ‘work’ as you know it. Some of those hours will be when you are having the time of your life dancing at a disco (trust me, it’s amazing – it’s like going clubbing but without the pressure to pull, and the lack of alcohol means no hangover the next day). Some of those hours will be on the glorious sunny afternoon when you are lounging by the swimming pool, or playing volleyball in blazing sunshine with a group of Spanish teenagers. Some of those hours will likely be supervising students at meal times, or during their free time, or during the ‘lights out’ period. It’s all ‘work’, but not all work is equal, and it isn’t all equally tiring – in fact a lot of it’s pretty fun!

Saying that, it is wise to make sure you’re as well-rested as possible before you head to summer school. If at all possible, don’t start work there immediately after finishing a contract elsewhere. If that’s unavoidable, know that you are going to get tired. Cut yourself some slack.

Look after yourself.

Tiredness, working hard, a change in diet, lots of students coming from all different countries… it only means one thing: getting sick. It sounds like typical ‘Mum advice’, but regardless of what you do the rest of the year, summer school is the time to make sure you are getting enough sleep, eating as much fruit and vegetables as possible, drinking enough water, and ideally taking multivitamins. Taking precautions won’t necessarily prevent you from getting sick, but it will mean that if you do, it will likely be less severe and you’ll recover more quickly. It can be difficult to get good fruit and veg (UK boarding school food is notoriously dire) so this is where either stocking up on your own supply or bringing multivitamins with you comes in. It can also be tempting to stay up late socialising with your new colleagues/hopefully friends – don’t do this every night. I speak from experience!

Don’t work all the time.

This advice also comes from personal experience. The first couple of years I did summer school, I was at something of a loss as to what to do with myself when I did get time off. I’m an extrovert by nature, and spending my day off by myself in a city I didn’t know didn’t appeal in the slightest – so I did what seemed natural: hung out with my colleagues. Who, obviously, were working. Meaning that I ended up working too. When you’re nineteen or twenty (as I was) you can deal with being constantly ‘on’. It’s not ideal, but it’s doable. However as an elderly lady of twenty-seven, I now find that I need my time off. I’d advice anyone valuing their sanity to do the same.

If you have a hobby you can easily indulge in while at summer school, make sure you pack whatever you need for it. Take some good books or a laptop with films or TV shows you love on it. If at all possible, leave the site on your days off. It might seem easier just to stay put, but you will feel far more refreshed and relaxed if you physically leave for a few hours and go somewhere else. This is also where befriending your colleagues comes in! It can be harder as an activity leader (they generally have their days off during the week and, at least at smaller schools, take separate days off) but as a teacher you will tend to have a weekend day off – along with other teachers. See if you can go somewhere or do something with them – and if they’d rather just stay in their room and relax show them this post!

It is only X weeks.

At the end of the day, no matter how exhausted you feel, remember that summer school is invariably only for a limited number of weeks. This is not your life from now on (although it might feel like it) and things that would not be sustainable in the longterm are perfectly ok if you’re only doing it for a short period of time. Expect to sleep well for the first few days after you finish your contract!

And a final word… talk to someone.

If at any point you’re feeling tired to the point that you can’t cope, talk to someone. Your senior teacher/ADOS/course leader is there to help you – and as it won’t be their first summer school, they’ve definitely been in your position. Maybe you can swap a shift with someone so you can go to bed a little earlier, or supervise a slightly gentler activity. Maybe another teacher or your senior teacher can help you a little with planning or photocopying so that you get a bit more free time. Don’t make yourself suffer in silence.


Part Five: Lesson Planning 101

For many new CELTA/Trinity graduates, summer school is their first teaching job. If you are one of them, then this post is for you!

Summer schools all work a little differently, and one of those differences is in terms of *what* exactly is taught. Whilst I can’t offer one-size-fits-all advice here, I can offer some hints and tips to make teaching a little easier.

1. Find out what materials are used.

Some summer schools do base their syllabus on existing coursebooks. Others produce a ‘lesson plan pack’ that is individual to that particular school. Still others have school-unique workbooks for the students to complete during their stay, and the lessons aim to cover those topics. This is something that’s helpful to find out about during your interview. If you didn’t ask and they didn’t tell you, don’t panic – do some scouting around on the summer school’s website, email the company, or even just wait until you get there; it won’t be the end of the world. Once you’ve found this out, there are three main questions you’ll want to address:

  • What exactly is it? If you have a standard coursebook to work from (which will likely be accompanied by teachers’ notes), teaching isn’t really likely to be too different from what you did on your CELTA. The same theories still apply – for each lesson figure out what you want your students to be able to do by the end of it, and then work backwards from there. If you have lesson plan packs, that’s potentially great! Lesson planning done! (At least to some extent – see the next point). If the students simply have a workbook, or a designated ‘theme for the week’ and nothing else, chances are you’ll need to be a bit more creative with your planning. Importantly though, don’t panic!
  • How useable is it? This is probably more likely to apply to lesson plan packs or workbooks, as coursebooks are normally rather more thoroughly ‘tried and tested’! However: if you’re teaching teens and you’re given an adult coursebook (has happened!) then be prepared to do a little more work when it comes to figuring out how to teach it. I’ve worked with teachers who have assumed that because the summer school provides lesson plan packs, that means no lesson planning required – it’s all been done for you! Check what you’re working with before you decide if this is the case 🙂 Often provided lesson plans will do the majority of the work for you, but there will still be parts you’ll want to change and things you’ll want to add or leave out, depending on your students.
  • What can you add to it? Just because you’ve been given some kind of material to follow, it doesn’t mean that you have to only do that. Don’t be scared of the idea of using supplementary materials. I share some ideas about how to choose what to use here.

2. Start from the very… end?

I remember in my first few months of teaching finding the idea of ‘lesson aims’ utterly daunting, and something I’d rather avoid thinking about. After all, it’s much easier to simply aim to cover page 66 and 67 of the coursebook. What I found completely changed my approach, however, was the idea of starting at the end and working backwards in order to figure out what your aims actually are. Whether you’re considering a set of vocabulary words, a grammar point, or even just a couple of pages in the coursebook, think about what you’d ideally like your students to be able to do at the end of the lesson. Do you want them to be able to talk about their favourite film? Do you want them to write a story using past simple and past continuous? Do you want them to ask another student in the class questions about their family? Once you’ve identified that ‘end aim’, what you do in the lesson should enable your students to get there. For example, if you want them to ask questions about family, they need to remember words for different family members, they need to know how to form questions, and they perhaps need some work on intonation/pronunciation in questions. These are the things you need to include in your lesson. Working backwards suddenly makes it very easy to work out what you do (and don’t!) need to include, and so helps you to work out what the different stages in your lesson will be.

3. Teamwork is your friend!

At most summer schools, there will be more than one teacher for each level – for example, there will be several classes of pre-intermediate students, several of upper-intermediate students, etc. This means that there is likely to be someone else teaching the same material as you. Make use of each other! One of the nicest summer schools I’ve worked at was where one of my colleagues and I set up a ‘photocopying agreement’. The syllabus involved lots of worksheets/bits of paper on most days, which meant lots of time spent at the photocopier. We agreed that on one day, one of us would do all the copying for both our classes (we would be teaching the same lessons, so it simply entailed making double the amount of copies), on the other day the other would do all the copying. More free time, everyone wins! It’s also nice to have someone to plan with/bounce ideas off – often other people have fantastic ideas that you might not have thought of.

4. Ask for help if you need it.

I feel as if I spend a lot of time reiterating this point, but it is an important one. Your senior teacher is there to help you, so don’t be afraid to ask for help if you’re uncertain or even if you simply want reassurance that you’re on the right lines. No one starts out teaching knowing everything (in fact it’s the people who think they do who often run into problems!), and all of your colleagues were new to teaching once. At some point in the future you’ll be the one giving advice to the scared-looking newbie, and realise just how far you’ve come!

Good luck, and happy teaching!


Part Six: After It’s All Over…

Today’s the day: it’s under two weeks until the usual start of summer school season, and my final post in this series. In this post I’m talking about after it’s all over – you’ve completed your two or four or six or even eight weeks at summer school, and now you need to relearn how to survive in the real world.

Expect withdrawl symptoms.

If you thought starting at summer school was a culture shock, finishing summer school is even more so. For the last x number of weeks, you’ve lived in a bubble. A somewhat hectic, crazy bubble, where you’ve not had much free time, you’ve had a very rigid schedule, and you’ve been working (and living) with pretty much the same group of people 24/7. Leaving that is almost guaranteed to be strange.

Personally, I know that for the first few days after my summer school contract finishes, these thoughts will be at the forefront of my mind:

  • Where are the children? Am I meant to be supervising them?
  • See above, preceded by variants on ‘It’s suspiciously quiet…’
  • What do you mean dinner isn’t at exactly 6pm every night?
  • What do you mean I have to cook my own dinner? And then wash up after?
  • Wait, I get to choose what food I want to eat?
  • What exactly am I meant to be doing right now?
  • Just wait til I tell (insert name of summer school colleague) about this!

All I can say with regards to any of this is a) it’s normal, b) give it time.

This one time, at summer school…

The double-edged sword of returning to the ‘real world’ post summer school is that not only are you rejoining your previous life, but you’re also suddenly spending all your time with PWWNASSs – People Who Were Not At Summer School. Understandably, the only known cure for this is both to keep in touch with your summer school colleagues, and to start (or restart) a teaching job in the autumn with a load of other recovering summer school teachers.

In the meantime, I must offer my condolences to all your friends, family, and loved ones. If you’ve ever seen the first few American Pie films you’ll know where I’m coming from with the title of this section: recovering summer school staff are destined to retell all of the hilarious summer school stories at any available opportunity. PWWNASSs will not get it. That’s ok.

Taking it back into the ‘real world’.

I’m well aware that this is a pretty light-hearted post, but I do still have some wisdom to impart. Hopefully, over your time at summer school, you’ve learnt something – now is your chance to put it into practice.

  • During your time at summer school, chances are that you’ve come across something new. Be it a new game or activity, a type of lesson you taught that worked really well, or a coursebook or online resource that you hadn’t used previously – make a note of it, and use it again! If you’re returning to or starting a teaching job in the autumn, you’ve got a great excuse to try it out. If you’ll be returning to uni or looking for work, simply make a note of it that you’ll have available when you are next in front of a class.
  • Never underestimate the amount that summer school can help you grow in confidence, or in your ability to be flexible and think on your feet. I can honestly say that if I’d never done summer school, I’d be a very different person to who I am now – and I can’t imagine any situation where that would be a positive thing.
  • Don’t forget to keep in touch with people!* If you don’t keep in touch with your summer school colleagues, where else are you going to share those summer school memories? Perhaps I’m biased, as I met the love of my life when we were both teaching at summer school. But I’ve made some great friends that way as well!
  • On a slightly less sentimental note, people can be a resource too. If you’re in the market for a job come the autumn (or even thinking about what you’re going to do the following year) summer school is a great opportunity to find out what working in different countries/for different schools is really like. Where else are you likely to find someone you know personally who’s been working for IH Madrid, or who has backpacked across Asia, or who has taught primary school students in Poland?

Looking forward to next year…

…in more ways than one, I hope! If you loved your summer school experience (and I really, really hope you did) then it’s never too soon to start thinking about next summer. The summer school recruitment season doesn’t seem to start properly until spring, but most schools tend to prefer returning staff to get in touch early. When I worked in the Head Office for a language school, we had one staff member email to let us know he’d like to come back the following year – on the day his contract finished! While perhaps that’s a little too keen, remember that summer schools do tend to work on a first-come, first-serve basis. If you really want to return to the same school you worked at this year, or you want to work with a particular colleague (and have made plans to return there together) it’s probably wise to get in touch early. Otherwise, there’s always the option of applying to work for a school in a different location, or even a different summer school company.

If by any chance your summer school experience wasn’t a good one, I’m truly sorry. I have to admit that just as not everyone is a talented artist or a skilled sportsman, summer school simply isn’t always for everyone. It can be a demanding job, an intense environment, and particularly if you’re dealing with problems of any kind back in the real world, it can all be a bit much. If this is you and you’re still struggling through, well done for making it as far as you have, and please talk to someone.

Do you have any other questions or things you’d like to know about summer school? 

Please do get in touch – I’d be happy to help!

*Disclaimer: Pretty much every summer school has a policy about staff not keeping in touch with students via social media etc, and if they don’t, they should do. Keeping in touch with child or teen summer school students is never a good idea, and can result in you being disciplined or even fired. If one of your students asks if they can add you on Facebook etc, politely decline, let them know it’s nothing personal, and if they persist tell them that it’s the company rules and you are simply not allowed. I’ve never had a student argue with that.