School Climate & Safety Opinion

Teacher Absenteeism: 6 Questions Help Address Cause

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — November 01, 2016 5 min read
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In response to our recent blog post on ethics and academics, we received this comment.

Wait a minute, wait a minute, now you sound just like Donald Trump. You ask that we, “reclaim the honor and purpose of our profession,” just like Trump demands that we make America great again. Well, we have never, NEVER, lost our honor, or the purpose of our profession, just as America has never stopped being great. For your information, most of us have never lost the ability, or forgotten our obligation to create an environment that can teach our students far more than the academic subjects. Yes, we have knowledge, training, responsibility and we have experience, and we also have our ethics and our professionalism intact, despite your spurious assertion. People have lost trust in our institutions because of corrupt politicians, unethical and greedy corporate leaders, misguided educational reformers, and inept administrators, but not because of teachers losing our ethical, moral, and professional values.

The comment, we believe, raises an important consideration. When teachers stand as a group and deny the negative affect of some on all, problems regenerate. The public is teaching law enforcement officers across the nation the same lesson. Denial leads nowhere. When teachers blame “corrupt politicians, unethical and greedy corporate leaders, misguided educational reformers, and inept administrators” and deny the shortcomings of a few of their own, credibility suffers. Well, actually it leads to a dark place where blame deflects responsibility and outrage rises from all sectors. Accountability, responsibility and change becomes another’s work. The broad brush hurts all.

Some politicians are corrupt; many serve with good intention even when they feel powerless to create the results they want. Some corporate leaders are unethical and greedy; does that mean we should not listen to the others? And reformers may be misguided and administrators, inept, but most of those we know are neither of those things. Fundamentally, we must always remember that education belongs to the public who send us their valued tax dollars and their precious children. Doing the very best we can with both of those is our responsibly, collectively...and for most teachers and leaders it is their professional calling. But, heads up....

The Washington Post recently reported that the US Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights found

That 27 percent of the nation’s teachers are out of school for more than 10 days of regular classes-some missing far more than 10 days-based on self-reported numbers from the nation’s school districts. But some school systems, especially those in poor, rural areas and in some major cities, saw chronic absenteeism among teachers rise above 75 percent in 2014, the last year for which data is available.

It doesn’t take a study to tell us the affect this has on student learning.

While teachers and leaders often discuss student absenteeism, they very seldom address teacher absenteeism as a systemic issue. It is not unusual to hear a teacher bemoan the fact that if a student came to school regularly, they could be more successful in teaching them, bringing them closer to success. Face-to-face teaching and learning time and the quality of the relationship between the teacher and the student are valuable and essential learning components. But what if the teacher is absent? According to the study, there are occurrences when teachers are absent more than 10 days in a year. Let’s acknowledge that often teacher contracts are written to make sick days a benefit lost if not taken. That incentivizes using them. Other problems may be related to morale and to school culture. The article continues:

School district administrators do not know what exactly is causing excessive teacher absenteeism. Some point to teachers taking sick leave, maternity leave and personal days to which they are entitled, and others attribute part of the problem to school climate. When teachers don’t feel motivated to go to school and teach, some of them just don’t show up.

The article also acknowledges some possible incorrect reporting. But, we all know teacher absenteeism affects student achievement and there are some teachers who are chronically absent. Some of those have an illness requiring them to be away from work; others choose to be under the assertion that these days are theirs for the taking. Actually, we guess they are in most places.

Attend to the Root Cause
Most school leaders would probably agree that this Washington Post article doesn’t fairly represent the body of teachers in their schools. But, a few can distort statistics. We all know that. We do not want to contribute this as another issue for the larger percentage of responsible teachers to carry and become further disheartened.

Although the data from this report was collected nationally, each school and district has its own data. Everyone in the building knows the one or two who negatively impact the data. It is important to determine the causes before proposing or imposing solutions.

  1. Is chronic absenteeism a system-wide problem or connected to a few individual teachers or not a problem at all?
  2. Is it a result of morale of an individual, a small group, or a school?
  3. How are the terms of the collective bargaining agreement impacting the issue?
  4. Is this a new issue or has it been a perennial one?
  5. How might current working conditions be contributing to this problem?
  6. Who has attempted to address the issue and what steps have been taken?

We are all responsible for student success. No one is exempt; not teachers, not leaders. Ignoring chronic absenteeism as out of reach is a foolish stance although addressing it may call for some courage and preparation for backlash. Before spending energy on more new and better teaching strategies, student engagement techniques, STEM opportunities, after school activities, and tutoring sessions, let’s agree that we need our teachers to be with our students to maximize success. That comes first.

Ann Myers and Jill Berkowicz are the authors of The STEM Shift (2015, Corwin) a book about leading the shift into 21st century schools. Connect with Ann and Jill on Twitter or Email.

Illustration courtesy of Pixabay

The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 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.