Education Opinion

Trust and Obey

By Nancy Flanagan — August 25, 2014 5 min read
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Years ago, someone in my district’s Central Office read a study showing that teachers who had to call their principals to let them know they’d be absent were less likely to take a day off than those who had to call someone else--a substitute coordinator, say, or a building secretary.

This was in the days before answering machines were standard-issue in most homes and automated sub-finder services did not exist. Thinking he could save a few bucks, the superintendent instituted a system where teachers had to call their building principals two hours--preferably more--before their report time. The principals, in turn, would contact the nice lady at the switchboard who handled securing substitutes.

This effectively turned a single step process (teacher calls, coordinator gets sub) into a multi-step relay process (teachers call, principal calls, coordinator gets subs) wherein messages about teachers’ preferred subs or where to find the plan book were not directly transmitted, and often garbled. Instead of a steady stream of sub requests, the switchboard now got them in late-arriving clusters, and securing subs became a kind of Lucy-and-Ethel race against time.

There were two things about this system far worse than inefficiency, however: First, the superintendent sent a clear warning signal to every teacher that their absences were under suspicion, and being rigorously fly-specked by their immediate supervisors. And in the process, he’d made mornings in principals’ households a living hell.

My own principal lived about 90 minutes from school, so he was often on the road before the two-hour deadline. Privately, he’d asked his teachers not to call after 8:00 p.m. the night before (they had a new baby)--so it was his sleep-deprived wife who was fielding the 4:30 a.m. calls from hacking, sniffling teachers. I can still hear her curt “Yisss?” and slam-down of the receiver.

We never did learn whether the system yielded any cost savings. But when my principal became superintendent, a couple of years later, we returned to calling a sub coordinator. By then, the district had an answering machine and you could call in any time during the night when your symptoms (or--let’s face reality--your child’s symptoms) made it clear that tomorrow just wasn’t happening.

I remembered the way it felt--unwarranted guilt and anxiety--to ask for a sub when I was genuinely sick during that time, when I read this blog, from Raegen Miller, Vice President for research partnerships at Teach for America. In addition to some high-flown-but-incomprehensible references to Mozart and Michelangelo, Miller tosses out some stats on the cost of hiring subs--"real money"-- then suggests that “there’s room for teachers to adjust their leave-taking behavior, given a different set of incentives.”

Most of the blog is a half-baked assertion--Miller’s admittedly “cursory analysis"--that “professional culture in a school can exert a strong influence over the leave-taking behavior of its teachers.” He follows this up with the predictable call for lots more research, presumably to answer the question, once and for all, precisely where teachers are most likely to be slacking off at home with their Kleenex when they should be saving the American economy by building the workforce of tomorrow.

Teaching is one of a very limited number of professions where short-term substitutes are required, every day, which makes Miller’s constant reference to “professional cultures” irritating. There are highly professional cultures in other workplace settings--hospitals, hotels, banks, churches, universities--where workers either cover for each other in the short-term or postpone services and appointments when a valued employee is unable to come into work. The assumption that the right “incentives” will shape a “professional” culture which will compel teachers to come to work, saving the cost of subs, speaks volumes about how Americans regard schooling: a safe place to stow the kiddos every day, rather than a public good, an essential community service, where students learn to become good citizens.

It also speaks volumes about what Raegen Miller thinks about garden-variety teachers. He points out that 24% of teachers in one data set had more than 10 absences in one year (following this up with some vague conjecturing about what subgroups might be more prone to absences not caused by professional development).

He doesn’t indicate what percentage of teachers in that set had only a couple of absences--or spend time musing about why a teacher might be gone more than 10 days in a particular year. What about an injury? Recovery from surgery? Cancer? Child with a life-threatening illness? Would a professional culture make a difference there?

In my experience, teachers routinely neglect their own health and their families in order to show up at school consistently, because they see, every hour of the day, the value of their own work. I am not referring here to the attendance records of young, healthy, enthusiastic, two-year entrepreneurial teachers in charter schools who have put off child-bearing until their leadership trajectory is established--the folks Miller seems to be ambiguously suggesting form the desirable “professional cultures” that save schools “real money.”

I am stating, unequivocally, without the assistance of Mozartian puffery, that it’s often harder to prepare for a substitute teacher, then suffer the subsequent consequences of being away from students who need you, than to go into school when you’re sick--or hyper-stressed, limping or grieving. All of which are conditions that a truly professional culture considers adequate reason for staying home. To recover. So you can return, able to do the work that’s critical to your professional mission.

Miller says:

Paying attention to teacher absence gets at the professional culture in schools through the notion of trust, a universal human tension if ever there was one. In particular, theory and evidence point to trust between teachers and management as a moderator of teacher absences.

I would call Miller’s attention here to the Detroit Public Schools where class sizes are expected to swell, next week, to 43 students per class. Just how much trust are teachers supposed to have in management under these, “money-saving” workplace conditions?

Who is trusting whom?

The opinions expressed in Teacher in a Strange Land are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.