Early one Monday morning this summer, Ronda Larned was working in her classroom at the new Mundy Mill Academy when Principal Crystal Brown walked in to say hello.
Larned’s kindergarten classroom was almost completely set up for the school year with handmade curtains and decorations that matched the pirate theme she plans to use in her 28th year as a teacher in Gainesville City School System.
Larned talked with pride as she told the principal about her plans for the year and all the things she wants to accomplish before the school year begins.
But she would have plenty of time for that. On this day, it was only July 3 — more than three weeks before July 27 when teachers in Gainesville are scheduled to return to school.
“Every summer I do this, especially when I come to a new school, because it’s like setting up a small house,” said Larned, who has taught in the four other schools in the Gainesville system, including two for which she was there for the school’s first year.
Larned was back at Mundy Mill last week, still working to perfect that room before students arrive Aug. 2. She even had a meeting scheduled during the week with other teachers to talk about lesson plans.
“Even though most of my room is finished, I plan on coming a few more days because there are just little things I want to do,” she said. “But I enjoy what I’m doing, so it’s not really work. I enjoy setting everything up.”
Paula Smathers doesn’t officially return to her job as a teacher at Spout Springs Elementary School in South Hall until Aug. 1. But on July 13, her room looked nearly ready for her 15th year of wide-eyed kindergarteners who will show up for the first day of school Aug. 7.
“I probably take a month off totally, just to rejuvenate, relax; you really need it physically and mentally because you’re so tired at the end of the year,” Smathers said. “Probably by the end of June, I’ve already started thinking about what I need to do and making my lists.”
So much for the traditional idea that teachers get three months off from school in the summer.
Kevin Bales, assistant superintendent for teaching and learning for Hall County Schools, estimates more than 80 percent of teachers come to school to work during the summer, days when they are not being paid.
“We have teachers that visit their classrooms and work throughout the summer,” Bales said. “I believe the field of education is more than a job; it is a mission and a calling. I believe teachers are driven in this manner because they care, and they recognize their ability to impact the lives of younger ones. When I visit schools in Hall County during the summer, I often find teachers in the building getting a head start for the next year. And while it is common, I would also describe it as being a very special sight.”
For Smathers, the work began in early July once her classroom floors had been cleaned by the custodial staff. She came to Spout Springs and moved all of her furniture back into the classroom. She also brought in new items for her classroom that she had made, printed and laminated — at home.
“There is absolutely no way I could come in on the day work starts back,” Smathers said. “It took me a day just to move my furniture in and then I start hanging up bulletin boards and getting things ready for Open House. When we come back, we have lots of meetings.”
While she says she does take time to rest, go to the beach, read books and do something special with each of her three kids, Smathers said school is “always in the back of my mind.”
“It’s hard to shut off,” she said.
“I’ve been researching through different teaching blogs and I go on Pinterest, of course,” she added. “Every year I try to add a new element that’s fun and inviting. I want them develop a love of learning and love for school, that’s my goal. We want to be ready and get it right for the first day of school. It’s my favorite time of the year.”
Arlene Thomas, Smathers’ principal at Spout Springs, said she sees many teachers working to make sure they are ready for students when they arrive in August.
“They want to provide the most enriched learning that they can for their students,” Thomas said. “Many of them spend time taking additional courses just to strengthen their current practices to learn new strategies to help the children, and many of them look for different ways that they can just make the learning environment more inviting, just to motivate and encourage their children.
They’re working for the benefit of the children. They don’t watch clocks.”
Larned taught at Fair Street International Academy last year and had her father bring a trailer over at the end of the school year to carry boxes of items she purchased over the years for her classroom. By the time the trailer was loaded, there were more than 100 boxes. She stored them at home for a couple of weeks before moving them to her new classroom at Mundy Mill.
“I guess I worked about four weeks off and on and had a four-day vacation in Panama City,” she said, adding that she and her daughter worked in the classroom one day for 10 hours.
As she spends those summer days in the classroom, Larned said she is mostly thinking of students she will meet.
“I like for them to come into a place that’s homey and bright and exciting,” she said. “I like to make sure I’ve got everything ready, so that I can put all of my energy and concentration into them.
“I think with all teachers there’s a passion for your job and a love for it in order to be a teacher,” she added. “I enjoy coming into my classroom and working. It’s not like a job to me. I choose to come here.”
Brown said Larned was not the only teacher at the school.
“I have seen about 20 and often multiple times during the week,” Brown said. “Some of them come in as they are able to, they’ve worked it around their vacation schedules but they’ve been in and out constantly. I think they have a passion for helping the boys and girls that they serve and they take their job very seriously.”