Rhode Island · School Talk

Can We Please Have an Honest Conversation About Teacher Absenteeism?

It is no secret that any critique of teachers is seen by many—especially teachers themselves—as an attack or an attempt to vilify the entire profession. So let me say right out of the gate that I am not doing that. I spent a decade as a teacher and it was the most exhausting and draining job I’ve ever had—well, it might be tied with being a stay-at-home-mom with three boys age four and under but suffice it to say, the job is hard and to do it really well, even harder. The schedule, while heavy on holidays and vacations, lacks any flexibility and sometimes it is hard to even squeeze a trip to the bathroom into the day. It’s difficult, especially for those who teach younger kids, to make it to the bank or the post office and scheduling an appointment to get your teeth cleaned can feel impossible. It is designed to be a 10 month a year job—teachers don’t “take the summer off”— the summer break is built into the school calendar. And while it would be nice if teachers could squeeze every possible appointment, illness, and family emergency into those summer months, life doesn’t work that way.

Superintendent Chris Maher

The issue of chronic teacher absenteeism—the term used to describe those who miss at least 18 days during the school year—is back in the news here in Rhode Island because the Providence superintendent and mayor both weighed in on it last week—Chris Maher, superintendent of Providence schools, says the district will begin holding teachers accountable who are chronically absent for non-medical reasons. He called the level of teacher absenteeism “unacceptable”.

Mayor Jorge Elorza also weighed in and called the trend “disturbing.” And he is right, especially when the absenteeism spikes on Fridays on Mondays.

As with most issues that are complex and nuanced—especially in 2019—insults have already started to fly back and forth with some broad brushing teachers as uncommitted and lazy and others claiming that we can’t expect teachers not to be chronically absent when buildings are in disrepair and teacher morale is low. Both sides are right and both sides are wrong. And this isn’t a problem unique to Providence either—many districts are facing a similar situation.

There are some teachers—a small percentage—who are lazy and uncommitted. Anyone who has ever worked in a school knows this and most educators resent these folks because they reflect poorly on the vast majority who care deeply and are working their tails off. These lousy teachers make everyone else’s job harder and can do permanent damage to the learning trajectory of students, not to mention the toxic influence they often have on school culture.

But conversations about absenteeism often upset teachers who understandably feel judged for going to their chemo appointments or for having the flu. They feel like the superintendent, the mayor, and the general public are shaming them for staying home when they are sick or for attending their own child’s wedding. And if we can’t have honest conversations in which we differentiate between those who blow school off to go on a cruise or go Christmas shopping and those who are home with 102 degree fever or getting treatment for breast cancer, then shame on us. We will never get to any solutions in Providence or elsewhere—and yes, it is a problem elsewhere—if we don’t get honest about the issue and stop thinking and debating in all or nothing terms.

One of the main reasons I left teaching was because of what I saw as my own unreliability in terms of attendance. I had three young children and between their stomach bugs, fevers, pink eye and random rashes I was becoming a burden to my colleagues, forced to cover for me when I couldn’t come in. It wasn’t fair to my students either who were missing instruction in a class that already only met a few times a week. But my situation did not look like most teachers. I was teaching part-time, didn’t rely on the healthcare benefits of the job, and wasn’t the primary breadwinner of our family. I could walk away.

Most teachers can’t, won’t, and don’t want to walk away so yelling at them to “find another profession” is not only rude, it’s toxic to the conversation and kills any chance at cooperation towards a solution. But there are ways to chip away at this.

  • Acknowledge that the conditions in way too many buildings are atrocious—and that it’s absurd to tell kids that we value education and then force them into leaky buildings where ceiling tiles fall during class and mold is a real issue.
  • Support efforts to improve the physical condition of our schools at the state and federal level.
  • Notify parents when their child’s teacher is absent. As one parent said in a comment on Dan McGowan’s “Scoop on Providence Politics” Facebook page, “the real concern for me as a parent is that I receive no information from the school/district as to how often this is occurring and that gives me no opportunity to help my child recover some of that lost learning.” If the school can call us when our child is absent, they can call us when the teacher is absent too.
  • Reduce number of sick days in collective bargaining agreements. Is it any surprise that in Cumberland, where teachers get 8 sick days, the chronic teacher absenteeism rates are very low. While some teachers will always take as few days as possible, there are always a few who believe that they should take all of their days each year—so when they are allowed 18, they will take 18. Change that number to 10 and these absenteeism rates will drop. There will still be a sick bank of donated days for those who need more than 10 but those will be outlier cases, rather than the norm.
  • Provide high quality and standard aligned curricular materials so that teachers aren’t searching Google at all hours trying to build the plane why they are also flying it. This will decrease stress, increase time spent focused on actual teaching, and also allow more time for much needed rest that will contribute to better physical and mental health.
  • Continue what Superintendent Chris Maher has started—and replicate it in other districts—so that “teachers believed to be regularly missing for reasons that aren’t related to an ongoing medical condition could be subject to “progressive discipline,” which begins with counseling and follows with reprimands, suspension and termination.

Please share other suggestions on how we can have a more productive conversation about the whole state’s high rate of teacher absenteeism—we need all hands on deck and students—and teachers—need us to get this right.

To view the teacher absenteeism rates for every school in the state, click here. (H/T Dan McGowan of WPRI for sharing this doc on his Facebook page!) It should be noted that quite a few schools zero percent of teachers are chronically absent. We should be looking at them closely too.



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