Teacher Attendance and School Culture – Revisited

Note: This is an update of an article originally posted on June 3, 2014

“Culture eats strategies for breakfast.”–Peter Drucker

Great schools can be average in some areas, but great schools cannot have a glaring weakness and be considered great. Great schools find a way to solve the problems that stifle or debilitate good schools.

Increased accountability coupled with new, more rigorous standards and more challenging assessments place increased pressure on principals to improve classroom instruction. Maximizing instructional time is a key way to raise student achievement. Teacher absenteeism and the use of substitute teachers, which reduce instructional time, have long been problems faced by every school. Faced with budget shortfalls, many districts have resorted to removing teachers from classrooms during the school day in order to attend professional development sessions. Labor agreements have been structured in a way that encourages teacher absence. States have reduced the number of school days in a school year.

While principals often face district and state policies that actually encourage teacher absenteeism, principals can impact teacher attendance. Like every school problem, the long-term solution lies in the culture—attitudes, beliefs, mindsets, expectations, and relationships—of the school.

In Teacher Absence, Leading Indicators, and Trust, Raegen Miller made some important points regarding teacher attendance pointing to the need to look more closely at school culture:

  • If teachers’ presence in the classroom matters so much, shouldn’t we pay more attention to teachers’ absences?
  • Professional culture in a school can exert a strong influence over the leave-taking behavior of its teachers
  • Forty-five percent of the variation in teacher absence is between schools working under the same district and state parameters.
  • 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.

Teacher Attendance and Student Achievement

Here is the reality. When teachers are absent, students lose valuable instructional time. No matter how qualified they are, substitute teachers do not improve student achievement. “When I was absent I knew that my classes would regress no matter who was the substitute or how well I planned.” – Stuart A. Singer, Author of The Algebra Miracle

A recent study indicates that teacher attendance is an overlooked factor in improving student achievement. “Given the time and attention spent on school programs, new curriculum and strategies to strengthen teacher quality,” the report’s authors wrote, “we may be overlooking one of the most basic, solvable and cost effective reasons why schools may fail to make education progress.”

The study goes on to point out the following:

  • One in six teachers in some of the country’s largest public school districts are out of the classroom at least 18 days, or more than 10 percent of the time, for illness, personal reasons and professional development.
  • Overall teacher attendance rate is 94 percent.
  • Districts spend an average of $1,800 per teacher to cover absences each year.
  • No measurable relationship between teacher absence and the poverty levels of a school’s students
  • No difference in absentee rates among districts with policies meant to encourage attendance, such as paying teachers for unused sick time, and districts without those incentives.

A study by the Columbia University School of Business offers some interesting findings:

  • Substitutes are worse than the regular teacher. “In teaching, the person with whom an absent teacher is replaced is clearly worse in a substantial way. Substitute teachers are less likely to be highly skilled, since otherwise the chances are she would already have found a full-time teaching job. Even if a substitute is highly skilled, there is a start-up cost: just because someone has a degree in math doesn’t mean she can hop in and be a great sixth-grade math teacher.”
  • Students do worse in years when their teacher takes more time off.
  • “When a teacher takes an extended medical leave, it causes a drop in math and English test scores on par with putting a rookie teacher in the place of a teacher with four years of experience for an entire year.”
  • Shorter absences are more detrimental than longer ones. Ten one-day absences over the course of a year were found to lower student scores more than when a teacher missed two consecutive weeks.
  • Incentives for teachers to not be absent don’t work.

A Short Success Story

I received a call from the district’s Assistant Superintendent for Human Resources. He was calling to arrange a time for his staff to visit our high school. Unbeknownst to me, our school had the highest rate of substitute coverage for absent teachers in a district of approximately 270 schools.

In our school, when a teacher was absent, we had substitute coverage approximately 96% of the time. I was shocked to learn that other high schools averaged 65% coverage. In addition, our school had the highest teacher attendance among the almost 30 high schools in the district.

This came as a shock to the district staff because our school was, by far, the poorest high school in the district. In addition, our location in the older, eastern, more urban section of our district made it difficult for our teachers and most substitutes to get to. Because most affordable housing was located in the outer suburbs, many of our teachers drove past five or six high schools on the way to work each morning. So, attracting teachers was difficult and it was even more difficult to locate substitute teachers.

The district staff arrived expecting to learn that there was a simple, scalable solution to teacher absenteeism and substitute coverage that would solve all the district’s problems, and, of course, they were disappointed. Not one of them had ever worked in a school. Thus, they were not aware of the fact that, because schools are complex social systems each with their own unique DNA, no school problem ever has a simple solution.

Our Secret Solution

To begin with, we never started out to reduce teacher absenteeism. Our challenge arose in the form of a teacher complaint. Our teachers objected to having to cover their colleagues’ classes when they were absent and a substitute teacher could not be obtained. Thus, while arranging for classroom coverage was an inconvenience for administrators, it was a real problem for the teachers who provided coverage for the classrooms. Not only were the teachers losing valuable planning time but their entire school day was disrupted, not to mention the fact the lost instructional time. So, we worked with our school leadership team and over time, we came up with a workable system that, in the end, made life better for everyone.

Mindset – We started with the belief that teachers were trusted professionals. We told them that, if they needed to be absent, we would not question them and we never did.

Trust – The aforementioned study suggested that one solution to improving teacher absences was to have the teachers call the principal when they were absent. This advice tells me two things. First, the authors never worked in a school. Second, I would not want to work for or with anyone who practiced Theory X/Draconian leadership styles as suggested. We trusted the teachers and we asked them to trust us. It turns out that in most schools, even though teachers knew in advance that they would miss school, they waited until the last minute to call for a substitute. Last minute calls put them at the end of the line and obtaining a substitute less likely. Teachers didn’t trust the administration and the administration didn’t trust the teachers.

Current Reality – We simply pointed out the reality of the situation. There were twice as many teachers absent in our district on Thursday and Friday as there were on Monday or Tuesday. Therefore, it would be likely that, if teachers were absent on Thursday or Friday, no substitute would be obtained. When teachers were absent, and we could not secure a substitute, their colleagues would have to cover their classes.

Commitment – We appealed to their collegiality and commitment to each other. We asked them to do their best to work with us to arrange for a substitute as far in advance as possible. We kept our promise and never questioned an absence.

Ownership – We impressed on our staff, that if we all worked together, we could make life better for all of us. Everyone had a part in the solution. This was not about control, but about cooperation.

Obtain Resources and Remove Barriers – We assigned a front office staff member to coordinate substitutes with the teachers. Not only was this person helpful to the teachers, but she welcomed every substitute with a smiling face and cultivated a relationship with them. In addition, she diligently developed a list of top substitutes and distributed the list and updates to the entire staff.

Relationship Building – Our teachers welcomed the substitutes and as many of the subs told me “treated me as though I were a part of the staff.” Our teachers did treat them well. They welcomed them, checked in on them during the day, and invited them to eat lunch. In addition, when the teachers found a “good sub” they made sure to get their name and phone number. They would often take the initiative to contact them and arrange for the person to substitute well in advance.

End of the Story

We trusted our teachers and treated them like the professionals they were. They trusted us and cared about their students and fellow teachers. They took ownership of the problem and the solution. Our teachers didn’t feel as though they needed to sneak around or feel guilty because they were absent. Many of the substitutes developed a loyalty to the school and would only sub for us. They felt wanted and appreciated. In this scenario everyone wins. We had the lowest teacher absence rate and the highest percentage of class coverage by substitutes and the best pool of quality substitute teachers in our entire school district. Most importantly, we faced a challenge together and we solved another problem by trusting each other and working together.

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