Upping the Price of Teacher Absenteeism

By Stuart A. Singer, Author of The Algebra Miracle

In a recent post, Mel Riddile explained in great detail one of the primary reasons for the academic success of the students at our school—low teacher absenteeism. The conclusion of his post accurately summarized the overall plan:

“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.”

The problems inherent in teacher absenteeism are obvious. It is common knowledge that any time a student misses a class it has a highly negative impact on their academic progress. A classroom without its regular teacher is the equivalent of twenty-five students losing a day of instruction multiplied by every period in that day. In addition, as Dr. Riddle points out, the costs in teacher coverage and potential additional administrative discipline issues increases the price exponentially.

The view from the classroom

In his post Dr. Riddile listed a number of important steps that resulted in lowering teacher absenteeism. But there was one that was the most important from the perspective of the classroom instructor:

“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.”

Teachers are not immune to illness. Nor are they miraculously protected from a variety of mandatory appointments, family needs or mental fatigue. The issue that determines the impact of these disruptions is timing. Some cannot be predicted, but many can. That is the area that can be mitigated in order to minimize the negative effects of teacher attendance.

From the teacher’s side here were the most important aspects of this approach to dealing with those types of absences:

  • The administrative team would much prefer knowing that you were going to be “sick” two weeks in advance rather than the more “realistic” scenario of calling in the morning. I always told my department members that I would vastly prefer significant notice to a dramatic portrayal of disease in a 5:00 a.m. phone call. The word quickly spread within the staff that this approach was strongly embraced by all school leaders.
  • It was clearly delineated that teacher/student interaction was far more important than teacher workdays. Faculty members were strongly encouraged to schedule routine appointments on the numerous in-service days that were scattered throughout the year. This approach was not demeaning to the staff development; rather it was a prioritization of the importance of the classroom. The message was simple—plan that annual dental visit when it will have the least impact on your students and colleagues.
  • Educators need mental health days. Every job within a school building is highly stressful and often requires an occasional day away. One of the positive outcomes of this approach to teacher absence was a significant lessening of that need for downtime. Being able to approach outside-of-school demands in a professional manner often served as an avenue for reducing this pressure.
  • The elevation of the importance of teacher attendance led to other improvements. Teachers began to feel as though they were letting “the team” down if they did not give their best effort to finding ways to avoid somewhat frivolous absences. To lessen the negative impacts teachers formed a “substitute buddy” system. In the case of an emergency absence a staffer would contact a colleague to explain the lesson of the day and the resources needed and that individual would provide guidance to the substitute teacher. This dependency had the added positive effect of improving morale.


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