Is a Sabbatical Right For You?

Posted on January 16, 2005 by

Like most K-12 dance teachers, your days are full of responsibilities, but what if you could take a break from it all, just for a while? A sabbatical may be just the thing for you!

Next to summer vacation, a sabbatical is one of the greatest perks that teachers in the public school system receive. Depending on your situation, you may be allowed anywhere from six months to a year off from your regular job to explore, study, travel and recharge your batteries. Your leave can be as ambitious or as relaxed as you choose, so long as it is professionally enriching. In any case, you’ll need to prepare personally, professionally and financially.

Taking a sabbatical is a once-in-a-career opportunity, so do a little soul-searching and ask yourself, “What do I really want to do with my time off from teaching?” You may want to explore an interest or gain new job-related skills, such as researching German folk dances or brushing up on your tap technique. You may also take steps to transition to another career, pursue an advanced degree or certification or fulfill a dream of seeing the world or volunteering. Do you have a yen for travel? Investigate a dance program offered in a different part of the world. The possibilities are endless.

Maybe there’s a particular style or form of teaching you’ve always wanted to specialize in, but couldn’t find the time. If so, continuing education programs could be right for you. For example, the National Dance Institute’s teacher training programs in New York and New Mexico offer college credits through partner universities, as does the Lincoln Center Institute. You may want to specialize in the Cecchetti method, Graham technique or other approaches offered by teacher programs across the country. If an advanced degree is your goal, check out the dance departments of the colleges in your area. (Turn to the 2005 Continuing Education Guide on page 111 to see the range of options available.)

The Nitty Gritty

How do you make your sabbatical dream into a reality? Think of your project as a two-year process. You’ll need a year to research, organize, write applications, meet deadlines, register for courses, make travel arrangements and so on. Then, of course, there is the sabbatical itself, as well as additional time afterward spent documenting, recording, writing, publishing or sharing your experience in some way.

Before embarking on this journey, consult a reliable source. Rules and regulations change from year to year, so don’t depend on your colleagues for information. You’ll need to talk to your union leader, contract representative, human resources department and school board to get answers to the following questions:

-Are you really eligible? How many years of full-time service are required before you can take a sabbatical? Must they be consecutive? Make sure that your teaching license, tenure, certification and teaching status are all in order before you make any final plans. There may also be a cap on the number of sabbaticals allowed per year in your school or region. For example, in New York City only five percent of a school’s staff may be on leave in any given year.

-Is seniority a factor in granting sabbaticals? If so, where do you stand?

-What kind of sabbaticals does your school allow? Some districts are extremely flexible, while others are very specific about what you can and can’t do while on sabbatical.

-Are you required to complete a certain number of college credits? Can you pursue an independent research project or travel sabbatical? Keep in mind that this time off is designed to make you more valuable to your school, so the review board will be looking for some return on their investment.

-Do you need to write a formal proposal or letter of intent for your sabbatical? You may need to provide letters of acceptance; course outlines or transcripts from institutions where you plan to study; letters from people or organizations you plan to work with; and detailed itineraries. Some courses must be approved in writing before you begin your leave, so plan ahead.

-What is the application procedure? When are the applications due and to whom? What supporting documents should be included? (See “6 Tips for Writing a Successful Sabbatical Application” on page 92.)

-Do you get paid while on leave? Usually the answer is yes, but the amount varies. Find out what percentage of your annual salary you’ll be receiving and when. (Some schools factor the summer months into the equation.) In most cases, you might receive anywhere from 50 to 75 percent of your salary—or for the lucky few, 100 percent. Keep in mind that while on sabbatical, you’ll have tuition and perhaps travel costs, but your taxes and day-to-day expenses may be reduced, because you won’t be spending as much money on classroom materials and your reduced income might put you in a lower tax bracket.

-Do your benefits (medical, dental, union, etc.) continue during your absence? Make sure you will have adequate medical coverage, especially if you’re planning to travel out of the country. Take care of routine exams or required immunizations well in advance.

n What happens to your retirement contributions, pension plans and service credits while on leave?

-How will your position be filled? Will the school district hire a substitute teacher or are you expected to find a replacement? Will you be responsible for providing your replacement with training, curriculum guides, lesson plans, materials, etc.?

-What happens when you return? Are you entitled to the same position? Will your seniority and retention rights remain unchanged?

-Are you obligated to teach for a certain number of years afterward? (In most cases the answer is yes, or you must pay back a portion of your sabbatical salary.)

-What is expected in terms of publishing or sharing your newly found information?

-Must you provide workshops or staff development based on what you’ve learned?

-How does your principal feel about your leave? The final stamp of approval may be in his or her hands.

If a sabbatical sounds promising, but financially impossible—get creative. There are hundreds of grants, fellowships, endowments, awards, scholarships and internships that might fit (and pay) the bill. Type “teacher grants” into a search engine. You’ll be amazed by what’s out there, from government sources to private foundations.

If you’re thinking of a project away from home, consider a “house swap.” Many teachers reach “sabbatical age” when their own children are out of the house, so consider renting out a room or taking on a roommate. If you’re interested in a college or university, inexpensive housing options or an affordable study abroad program may be available.

A sabbatical is all about time—time to learn, grow, reflect, renew and recharge. Step off the teaching treadmill and focus on yourself, as a professional and as a person. However you choose to spend your sabbatical is completely up to you, but at least for a while, time will be on your side. 

Lorelei Coutts is a public school dance teacher in New York City.