Professional Development

Teachers, Here’s How to Land an Amazing Summer Learning Opportunity

By Elizabeth Heubeck — July 10, 2023 4 min read
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Imagine any one of the following scenarios:

  • You’re employed at a school that recently opened its doors to several students of newly immigrated families. You travel to their native country to learn about their culture and the journey they endured to get here.
  • You’re a U.S. history and government teacher who works in a small town with strong partisanship politics. You meet for several hours with professional peers to dig into Constitutional law and its modern-day applications, and hear insights from one of the nation’s leading experts on the subject.
  • Most of your high school students have never traveled beyond their small Georgia town to see the ocean, nor do they know about professionals who earn their living by studying what’s below its surface. But you spend weeks aboard a research vessel, sharing with students live accounts of marine life—including pods of dolphins swimming at the surface—and facilitating interviews between your crewmates and students.

These aren’t just teacher fantasies. They’re examples of real-life learning opportunities made possible by grant-funded organizations that aim to provide teachers with low- or no-cost ways to further their professional interests and passions during the summer. Here are some tips on securing one of these unforgettable summer learning experiences in the future.

Plan ahead

Most grant-funded summer programs for teachers open the application process in the preceding fall and close it by the following March. The applications tend to require far more preparation than filling in simple blanks. Some of the programs, like Fund for Teachers, provide grants to teacher “fellows” who design their own proposals, which requires significant planning by applicants.

So for those serious about applying for an experiential learning program next summer, it makes sense to start sifting through options now.

Show your strength as a candidate

Organizations that offer up to thousands of dollars to support teachers’ summer learning experiences want to know their candidates have sound intentions and that they’re not just looking for a free vacation.

So, what makes a strong candidate? “Someone who can make a great case for how they’re going to use this experience in the classroom,” said Emily Susko, program support specialist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Teacher at Sea Program. The federally administered program has introduced more than 850 teachers to NOAA research through immersive experiences monitoring U.S. fisheries, measuring ocean trends, and charting unknown regions of the seafloor.

Beyond that shared overarching principle, what makes a strong candidate can vary widely depending on the program and its individual needs.

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Georgia teacher Maronda Hastie shows off a snowy grouper captured aboard the ship Oregon II during the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency's Teacher at Sea program.

Flexibility, fortitude, and the ability to follow orders are key for NOAA’s Teacher at Sea Program, said Susko. This makes sense, as teacher participants are expected to work as part of a team, in a confined space for long periods of time. “They have to be able to roll with things,” Susko said.

Demonstrations of initiative and creativity will likely pique the interest of administrators at the Fund for Teachers, whose applicants propose projects of their own design. More important to them than the “what” is the “why,” explained Carrie Caton, director of communications at Fund for Teachers. “We are nationally unique in that we put no parameters on where or what the Prek-12 teachers learn, as long as they can thoroughly articulate the why,” she said. “We trust that teachers are professionals who can best assess what will enrich their students and school communities.”

Be prepared to serve as a program ambassador

Some organizations that make it possible for teachers to embark on valuable learning experiences for free do hope for something in return. NOAA’s Susko makes clear what their Teacher at Sea Program expects from participating teachers.

“Part of NOAA’s mission is to collect all of this crucial environmental information across a range of topics, part of that is to be sharing that with the public,” Susko said. “We find that teachers are incredibly effective ambassadors for NOAA, for helping the general public understand what we are doing in service of the nation.”

Show persistence

Administrators of several summer learning programs for teachers emphasized the need for persistence in the face of possible initial rejection. “If it doesn’t work the first year, try again the next year,” said Carol Peters, director of the division of education programs at the National Endowment for the Humanities. “Eventually, you will get in.”

Start the search here

The following is a sample of organizations that provide summer experiential learning opportunities to teachers at no or low cost. While not exhaustive, the list provides a solid start for educators looking to expand their summer learning outside the classroom.

Fund for Teachers designates grants for teachers’ self-designed summer fellowships. To date, FFT fellows have traveled to 152 different countries.

The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History offers 23 summer programs for k-12 teachers, online and in-person, on a range of (American history) topics.

The National Endowment for the Humanities provides tuition-free opportunities for K-12 educators interested in studying a breadth of topics related to the humanities.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Teacher at Sea Program allows k-12 educators an opportunity to join NOAA scientists aboard an ocean research vessel as a member of the science team.

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