"The whole people must take upon themselves the education of the whole people and be willing to bear the expenses of it. There should not be a district of one mile square, without a school in it, not founded by a charitable individual, but maintained at the public expense of the people themselves." -- John Adams

"No money shall be drawn from the treasury, for the benefit of any religious or theological institution." -- Indiana Constitution Article 1, Section 6.

"If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilisation, it expects what never was and never will be...nor can they be safe with them without information. Where the press is free and every man able to read, all is safe." – Thomas Jefferson

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Teacher Absenteeism

R and R days -- Mental Health days -- whatever you call them...teachers need them.

For the last few months we've been "fighting" with our superintendent about teacher absences. She claims that teacher absences cost the district nearly $1 million in substitute costs. This includes substitutes for teachers who are out of the building at the district's request for in-services and conferences, but the bulk is, as she has expressed, because of teachers using personal days, sick days, illness in the family days, and other benefit days.

These days are bargained as part of the collective bargaining agreement (contract) between the teachers association and the school board. Changing the number of days would require negotiations, something this superintendent has not shown an interest in doing.

One of the items in the contract allows teachers to miss up to 5 unpaid days a year. This does not cost the corporation any money since the teacher, who is paid a higher rate, is not paid, while a substitute, paid at a lower rate, is. The negative result of unpaid days, is that the teacher is out of the classroom and instruction suffers.

Last week, the superintendent instituted a policy of requiring unpaid days to be planned ahead of time. Some principals did not understand that, however and have denied teachers unpaid days. The teachers association responded with an email to teachers clearly explaining what benefit days are available and when a teacher can use them. Unfortunately, the email (written by me) implied that teachers can take an unpaid day at any time without informing the administration ahead of time. This was in error and will be corrected as soon as I can get onto the corporation's email (which seems to be down right now).

Just by coincidence, Walt Gardner, in his education week blog, Reality Check, wrote about teacher absences and its effect on the achievement gap.

He discussed how difficult it is to recruit the best teachers for the worst schools where "worst" equals schools with the highest poverty rates. Teacher absences in these schools is higher than other places and he explains why.
...Not surprisingly, absenteeism was highest in some of the poorest schools, where the problems teachers face boggle the mind.

Although the data collected came from only New York City, it's likely that similar findings would turn up if other large urban districts were examined. That's because they share certain characteristics. The most important is that the schools serve overwhelming numbers of poor students from chaotic backgrounds. As a result, the deficits in socialization, motivation and intellectual development that teachers are forced to deal with before they can even begin to teach subject matter are daunting. Although the best teachers may be better able to cope than their colleagues, they are not immune from the cumulative effects.

The larger question, however, is why teachers take as many days off as they do in the first place. Reformers are clueless. They like to point out that there are typically 184 days in a school year. In the business world, there are about 250 days in a calendar year. So why do teachers, who work fewer days, need to take more than the allotted ten days a year that most districts provide?

It's a fair question that warrants a thoughtful answer. The fact is that teaching in many ways is like acting. Teachers are always in the spotlight. Their audience, however, too often is not there by choice. As a result, teachers are under enormous stress simply to get their attention, maintain order, and attend to non-curricular issues. In short, they have to practice triage. This demand eventually exacts a price, which is reflected in the number of days they are absent.
Teachers need to recuperate from the daily grind of teaching, and teachers in high-poverty schools need to recuperate more frequently.

Until the economic and social conditions for our most at-risk students improve there will continue to be an achievement gap, as well as a teacher absence gap.


Anonymous said...

Not a teacher, I have been immersing myself in education blogs and trying to learn a lot about teachers. You see, I live in the District of Columbia--but that is another story.
However, I am concerned that teachers believe they deserve combat pay in various forms. I know well that teaching is difficult in cities, for a variety of reasons. My concern is that many teachers seem to have given up educating. In my city, they seem to go so far as to disrespect the parents and the kids. If teaching is as hard as claimed, the good people trying to "teach" and suffering should just leave. Otherwise, their hopelessness will be conveyed to the kids. They get enough of that at home, I think.

Attorney DC said...

This is the first time I've read your blog. As a former teacher, I'd like to comment on the topic of teacher absences. When I taught middle school and high school (I worked in a few different schools over the course of my teaching career) I was usually allowed 2 personal days a year. The almost universal rule was that the two personal days (e.g., vacation days) were not allowed to be taken on either side of any "holiday" weekend, including minor holidays such as Presidents' Day. This meant it was almost impossible to plan any vacation (or even get home for Thanksgiving, if your family was in a different state) during the school year.

It was also hard to take sick leave because all the lesson plans had to be organized in advance for the sub. In fact, I regularly came to school and taught while sick because I was too exhausted to plan to be absent! In some districts, teachers are prohibited from missing work unless the teacher personally contacts and retains a substitute.

All in all, I generally missed about 2-3 days per year (due to illness, usually). I certainly don't think that teachers need LESS leave during the year: They are human afterall. They get sick, have to attend weddings and funerals, and engage in all the other parts of life.

Stu said...

In the years that I have taught (34...this being my last) I have not missed too many days a year either and mostly for the reasons you suggest, Attorney. It's easier to come to school sick and stay there.

We too were not allowed to use personal days on either side of other days off...and most teachers I know end the school year with their personal days still unused.

There were a few times when I would drag myself to school, make out lesson plans and then go back home, but for the most part I only missed when I couldn't get out of bed.

There were a couple of times when I missed longer periods of time. I missed a week in 1986 when my dad died...and just this year, I broke my foot and was totally incapacitated.