A new study found that teachers in traditional public schools had an absenteeism rate of 15.9 percent, which was almost three times the rate of teachers in charter schools (“When teachers just don’t show up,” New York Daily News, Sep. 29). Putting aside for a moment the difference, I’d like to examine more closely the reasons why teachers take days off.
Critics will argue that when teachers are absent, their students suffer because few substitute teachers can provide the same instruction. I agree. But what is not fully understood is the effect on teachers when they persist in going to school despite their physical and mental health. Teacher burnout is a serious condition that takes various forms. I’ve seen it in many teachers who refuse to take time off when they are not well. I question if their students would be worse off when a substitute takes their place. I say that because burnout is a slowly developing, cumulative condition. Teachers who deny what they are feeling tend to eventually take early retirement.
Doctors have emphasized the importance of early detection in disease. They’ve also emphasized the importance of rest. So when teachers don’t take a day off when they are feeling under the weather, they are not only hurting themselves but in the end their students as well. Burnout seems to be most common after the first few years in the classroom when idealism is shattered by reality and after many years when sheer exhaustion overwhelms their dedication.
If what I say is true, then how to explain the difference in the rate of absenteeism between teachers in traditional public schools and those in charter schools? Charter school students are there because their parents have chosen them. As a result, they are involved in their education. Teachers see that on a daily basis, which reduces the stress of dealing with disruptive students. Teachers in traditional public schools have no assurance of parental involvement. That’s because they teach in the schools of last resort. Not surprisingly, the stress is far greater.
Accusing traditional public school teachers of abusing the system by taking days off is a denial of the reality of the classroom. I challenge anyone who disagrees to teach for two months in a randomly assigned public school. I bet the person would be taking more than several days off.
The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner’s Reality Check 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.