By Stuart A. Singer, author of The Algebra Miracle
This is the first of three posts on student attendance and classroom disruptions from the perspective of the classroom teacher. Part two will address the issue out-of-school teacher training and the third will discuss field trips.
Some attendance problems are self-inflicted.
In an excellent three-part series Mel Riddile created a substantial argument for the direct correlation between good attendance and academic success. No teacher would disagree with this premise. To this point he began his second article with a quote from my book:
“Successful teaching cannot begin until students are regularly attending class.”
In one blog Dr. Riddile referenced the various responsibilities required of the states, courts, districts and schools in ensuring that students attend on a regular basis. Another outlined the strategies he employed as a principal which resulted in significant improvements at the school.
While every item mentioned was critical to achieving the goal of improved attendance there is another area of major concern that needs to be addressed in much greater detail.
Absenteeism can take many forms
Before continuing a few realities concerning the sanctity of the school day need to be addressed. A stream of distractions, interruptions and diversions to the traditional day are both inevitable and in many cases a positive component of the educational experience. Pep rallies that increase school spirit, field trips that enhance education and assemblies that address critical issues should have their rightful place in a school schedule. There are also the unavoidable and often unexpected problems—inclement weather, fire drills, power outages to name a few. But the key to successfully navigating these disruptions is the time and energy a school employs in dealing with them.
My former school is an example of how such problems can be addressed. Despite the dramatic gains Dr. Riddile’s strategies had made in reducing absentees some significant attendance problems continued in the classrooms. In my role as Curriculum Coordinator I was receiving a constant chorus of laments from teachers about the various disruptions that forced students to miss their classes or disproportionately reduce class periods.
Pay attention to the details
While teachers rightfully tend to be extremely protective of their class time, they are also a very resilient group of professionals. When given adequate notice they can deal quite effectively with occasional alterations of the bell schedule. With sufficient time to prepare the loss of twenty minutes from a ninety-minute block is not a deal breaker. Methods can be employed to keep classes in sync even with such changes. What is not nearly as easy to fix is the loss of an entire class period or multiple smaller losses within a short period of time. More importantly there are approaches that can minimize the impact of many potential disruptions.
A good example of such adjustments could be found in the first month of our school year. The district required one fire drill each of the first four weeks. During the same time frame the traditional opening game pep rally and class meetings were scheduled. Throw in a tornado drill, the “Students Rights and Responsibilities” requirements, and Federal Survey form collections and it was a very busy time for non-academic endeavors. After several years of what could best be described as academic chaos, the department chairs and the administrative staff heard the desperate cries of the staff and created a plan.
It was decided that one person—the Curriculum Coordinator—would be the clearinghouse for all of the requested interruptions. Since this individual was also a classroom teacher, there would be sensitivity to the classroom teacher’s concerns. The plan was simple—look at all of the components as a group rather than individual events. Then a schedule could be devised that would best serve the needs of everyone. The school operated on an alternating red/blue day block schedule. The pep rally was best held on Friday afternoon (blue) in the first week. The fire drill of that week occurred in the morning of a red day. Class meetings would be held in the morning on a blue day in the second or third week. The remaining fire drills would be conducted in an alternating am/pm format between different colored days. In the past when these events were determined by the various individuals responsible it was not uncommon for one or two class periods to be unintentionally impacted on numerous occasions.
Special bell schedules were incorporated for some activities. Instead of dedicating an entire period to the “SR&R”, one was expanded by forty minutes for a day to allow for the reading of the statutes and signing documents. Meanwhile, every other was reduced by an average of ten. Teachers were given the dates of all of these events well before the start of the year.
Monitoring school activities
On a second front the school decided it was time to regain control of some very poorly run events.
The annual blood drive was a noble endeavor. For many years it was run efficiently with little impact on classes. This was true in part because the majority of the students based on age, weight or lack of parental consent were ineligible to participate. Unfortunately, when a new sponsor took charge problems quickly surfaced. Dozens of students were excused from classes for the entire day to “assist” the professionals. With volunteers outnumbering donors by a ratio of twelve to one, the location quickly became a student hangout. Entire school days were being missed.
After two controversial drives the administrative team intervened and order was restored. The event became a model for the need to monitor the potential negative impacts of such worthwhile projects. Similar adjustments in other programs helped reduce the “absentee footprint”.
Next: Monitoring field trips