A Lesson from my Students on Teacher Absenteeism

This afternoon I sat down with a student for some “real talk” about their attendance. If you’ve been in the profession for awhile--especially if you work in a high-poverty school--you know the talk:

Once the class gets working after your initial directions, you take the student out in the hall, they’re avoiding eye contact, you’re trying to figure out the best route to take.... “I know your life is very complicated. It’s more complicated than mine was when I was your age. Heck, it’s more complicated than mine is now… I really enjoy having you in class and watching you learn and grow. The class is a better place when you are here…. I want you to graduate on time and be successful in life. I have concerns that given your attendance… you’re setting yourself up for failure down the road.” In an advanced case or one where I have a good relationship with the student I might say something like “I love you, but given your attendance, you’re basically unemployable in the future. I want you to have a better life--you need to pull it together.”  

However, this one went in a direction I really didn’t expect. I went for the usual speech and the kid stopped me in my tracks: “oh yeah, how about Ms. X--she’s never here!”  

You could have pushed me over with a feather.

I caught myself about to get defensive with the student, but then realized that the kid was basically right, so I dapped him up (choosing the route of de-escalation), tried to get a “I’ll do better” out of him and sent him back into class.

We implore our students to be critical thinkers and to support their arguments with evidence, but when they unleash those skills on us we often get defensive. I almost did, but then I realized, he was right. If we are going to talk about teacher quality, if I really believe it when I say the most important in school factor in student growth is the quality of the pedagogue in front of the classroom, we need to have a frank conversation in the profession about absenteeism.

This issue flared up in 2012 when the The Center for American Progress used newly released data from the Office for Civil Rights in the U.S. Department of Education to produce a rather scathing, headline grabbing report about teacher absenteeism. Subsequent reports poked holes in the methodology of the report, noting that the DoE treated all absences the same, whether they be maternity leave, call ups for reservists, AP exam proctoring, long-term illnesses or field trips with students.

When I am not there, no matter how good or well intentioned, my students lose out. I hate missing work. No, I really hate missing work.  When I tell my students I am going to be gone, they groan. Making sub plans is harder than actually teaching. For many reasons, especially here in Washington State (low pay and a silly law about the number of hours retired teachers can work), subs are hard to come by. On multiple occasions I’ve had absences for PD that were scheduled months in advance go unfilled. This forces my colleagues in the building to lose their planning time in order to cover my class and leaves a terrible impression on students. This is insanity: districts can’t guarantee subs in classrooms on days they pull teachers out for PD. But, I digress.

When we dig into the data on teacher absenteeism (note, I am looking at a document that I came across recently and can’t find online, otherwise I’d link to it) we see that a disproportionate number of absences come from a few habitual offenders. Put differently, there a lots of reasons for teachers to be gone, but the same people always seem to be gone and that harms students. It’s like we tell them in class: 80% of the job is showing up. At a minimum, we owe our kids that and we need to know that they are watching.

Nathan Bowling

Republic of Cascadia