Focus

School District Practices That Encourage Teacher Absenteeism

by Evan Pitkoff, superintendent, Newton, Conn

Instruction suffers when teachers are absent from their classes. A substitute teacher generally cannot maintain the continuity and quality of instruction that the regular classroom teacher can. It also is costly because both the regular and substitute teacher get paid.

While most teacher absences overwhelmingly are legitimate and we do not want sick teachers coming to school, teacher absenteeism is growing. According to the National Council on Teacher Quality, the typical student spends the equivalent of one full year during the K-12 experience under the supervision of substitute teachers. District and school policies are partly at fault for allowing this to occur.

What follows is a list of ways in which school districts enable teacher absenteeism and how these practices can be remedied.

* Personal days. Most teacher contracts allow for absence for personal reasons. Unfortunately, these days are often taken as an entitlement rather than for reasons of urgency. Personal days generally expire at the end of each school year, encouraging a “use it or lose it” mentality, and many teachers choose to use them rather than lose them.

Remedy: Personal days should be limited, monitored and re-titled “emergency leave days.” Use contract language such as “emergency leave absence is used solely for circumstances in which absence from service is necessary and unavoidable.” Teachers should be required to provide a bona fide reason for their absence.

* Generous sick leave provisions. Some research suggests the greater the number of sick days available, the greater the number of sick days taken. The number of days often is dictated by state statute, and most states allow for greater amounts of sick time than in business and industry. The result is that educators have a higher proportion of absenteeism.

Remedies: Seek to reduce the number of sick days allowed each year. Most state legislators, however, would consider this a “hot potato” issue that they would not want to touch for fear of losing financial support of the teachers’ unions. At the least, limit your allocations to the state-mandated minimum.

* Sick leave banks. Typically, teachers participate in this program by annually donating one or more unused sick leave days to the district bank. Participating teachers who are ill and have depleted their sick leave accumulations then use or borrow sick leave days.

Sick leave banks result in higher short-term absenteeism. They send the message to some teachers that they can use more of their sick days than needed each year because it really is not necessary to have an accumulation of days in the event of a catastrophic illness.

Remedy: Eliminate sick leave banks.

* Conference leave. It is ironic that often districts attempt to improve the quality of instruction by taking the regular classroom teacher away from the classroom to attend a training workshop, thereby reducing quality instructional time

Remedies: When possible, schedule district staff development opportunities outside of the mandated number of instructional days. Evenings, weekends and after school are good times to hold workshops without reducing student and teacher contact time. Educational service centers and consultants who conduct in-service activities must change their availability to accommodate the needs of school districts.

* Lack of awareness of absenteeism. One day here and one day there adds up, but often school employees are unaware of the cumulative effect of their absences.

Remedies: Talk to individual teachers upon their return from absences. This can be an opportunity to show concern for the teacher’s health. It also is a way to confront those who abuse sick leave privileges.

Provide individual monthly reports that track absences by the month as well as cumulatively. Some districts include this information on employee pay stubs.

Make attendance part of the teacher’s annual evaluation, and reward excellent attendance.

* Lack of direct communication. Often teachers need only to leave a message on an answering machine to report an impending absence or report their absences to an aide who handles the substitute assignments for the district. Nowadays, even temporary employment agencies have become involved in providing substitute teacher services. These agencies have a vested interest in seeing higher absenteeism rates.

Remedy: When teachers are required to speak directly to a principal to report an impending absence they are less likely to be absent.

* Paying the salary difference. Some districts allow teachers to be absent from school with pay for personal reasons when the teacher has no remaining personal days if the teacher agrees to pay for the substitute. The district in this instance is providing a salary incentive for absenteeism.

Remedy: Do not allow teachers to be absent simply because they will cover the lesser cost of the substitute teachers.

* Vacations when school is in session. When school closings abound in the winter due to inclement weather, many districts will reduce the number of days of spring vacation to avoid a late ending of the school year. In this circumstance, some districts allow employees who already made vacation plans for spring break to go on vacation, leaving an army of substitutes and combined classes in the schools. This does not provide for an optimal instructional environment in the school.

Remedies: Districts should make their schedule and potential weather-related calendar policies clear and available for all school employees in advance. Teachers should be warned to have trip cancellation insurance available for vacations that could potentially conflict with school being in session. Teachers should not be allowed to take vacations during the time when school is in session.

Evan Pitkoff is superintendent of the Newtown Public Schools, 4 Fairfield Circle South, Newtown, CT 06470. E-mail: pitkoffe@newtown.k12.ct.us