Sweetening the Pot To Discourage Teacher Absenteeism

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Employees of a manufacturing plant in Freeport, Tex., were recently enticed to lose weight by participating in a contest devised by the company's nurse. Those workers who met the eligibility requirement--the loss of more than five pounds--participated in a drawing for a total of 11 prizes, including a day off with pay, fishing trips, and movie tickets. Of the 686 employees who signed up, 176 met the goal, shedding a collective ton of fat in the process.

A different kind of contest was announced recently for the 6,300-student West Haven, Conn., school system by its superintendent, Alfred J. Maiorano. He and other administrators who were concerned over the high absenteeism rate of their district's teachers, which cost the West Haven taxpayers more than $169,000 in 1983-84, received approval from the board of education for their plan to hold a year-end prize drawing open only to those teachers who maintain perfect attendance records for the year. The winners will receive free air fare to Hawaii and a week's accommodations there. Other employees who have used no more than two sick days in the year will be eligible to participate in a drawing for a "getaway weekend" in Boston. Funds for both trips will come from money budgeted for substitute-teacher salaries.

The West Haven attendance plan was not received enthusiastically by Mary Moninger, president of the West Haven chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, who expressed doubt as to whether the plan would actually save any money. She called it "an insult" and a reward to one employee for what is expected of everyone. She predicted it would create antagonism among staff members.

But I think that by choosing the "carrot" rather than the "stick,'' Mr. Maiorano is on the right track. No one is suggesting that teachers should come to school when they are ill. The fact is, however, that some teachers do take advantage of their allotted sick days by "calling in sick" in order to shop, run errands, or take long weekends.

In many communities, when children are absent from school, a school attendance officer calls their homes to check on whether the children are actually there. Some police departments have procedures whereby policemen who "book off" sick are subject to a home visit by a department official and possible disciplinary action.

Should districts across the country facing the problem of high teacher absenteeism institute a similar policy of checking up on absentees? I don't think so. Mistrust and the implication that teachers lack a professional attitude solves nothing. Yet the fact remains that excessive and unwarranted absenteeism can break a school's budget. When this happens, funds earmarked for other purposes, such as supplies and classroom materials, are often diverted to cover the cost of substitutes and the quality of instruction suffers as a result.

The cost to taxpayers for substitutes is high. A few years ago, substitutes in West Haven's neighboring city of New Haven were paid $23 per day. This figure has been raised to $30. With an average of 80 teachers absent in New Haven's 17,000-student school system each day, the cost to taxpayers for substitutes can therefore approach $440,000 in one school year. Just think how many textbooks $440,000 could buy.

The cliche, "you get what you pay for," is especially apt in the case of the general quality of substitutes. Often, the only requirement for the job is a high-school diploma. Consequently, many substitutes are ill equipped to teach. At the elementary level, where the subject matter is basic, teachers still need a background in child development and teaching in order to be effective. The problem is particularly acute at the secondary level, where substitutes also tend to be unfamiliar with the content of the subjects they must teach.

"Prime time" is an important concept in today's curriculum. Regardless of their knowledge of the subject matter, substitutes waste time simply because they don't know the students. They must get to know the classroom routine and the students before any teaching can take place. Students often "psych out" a substitute and take advantage of his or her inexperience. Classroom management and discipline become the major, if not the only, problems.

In most schools, classroom teachers are supposed to keep "substitute folders," in which the classroom schedule, class roster, lesson plans, seatwork material, and other pertinent information are stored. When this folder is not available, little of value can be accomplished. Even if a folder is available, the stacks of mimeographed sheets given to students constitute meaningless busywork to complete while the substitute serves as a glorified babysitter.

It is not unreasonable to suggest that a good substitute could pick up the instruction where the teacher left off with only minimal disruption of the learning process. But this is an optimal expectation--one that only a few highly experienced substitutes can meet. Most are forced to "wing it." Students simply get shortchanged when their teachers are absent.

What are some possible solutions to this problem? The West Haven plan is a good one: Let's attack absenteeism in the context of a reward system. Every teacher with perfect attendance should receive a certificate signed by the mayor or some other public official and awarded at a year-end ceremony by the superintendent. Commendations for perfect attendance should appear prominently in the teacher's evaluation document. Teachers with perfect attendance should also be noted in the superintendent's bulletin or similar newsletter.

Other rewards for perfect or near-perfect attendance could include free membership in a professional organization of the teacher's choice, along with a free subscription to an educational journal. Teachers should also be awarded an extra, expense-paid "professional day" to attend a seminar, conference, or workshop in their subject.

To sweeten the pot even further, corporations and business firms should be asked to donate funds to finance small cash awards--of $100, for example--to a number of teachers who have good attendance records. School districts could also adopt a policy of allowing a teacher whose attendance record over a number of years has been perfect to skip a salary step.

The entertainment industry has its Tony, Oscar, and Emmy honors. Why can't the education profession honor teachers who have perfect or near-perfect attendance? Even in the best of all worlds, there's no substitute for experience in the classroom, and if it takes lotteries, certificates, and other rewards to reduce absenteeism, I see nothing wrong with those methods. Substitute instruction rarely translates into quality instruction for kids--and that's the bottom line.

Vol. 04, Issue 18, Page 24

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