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Absenteeism: A Sobering Trend in Education

The Washington Post just published a front-page article about American teachers. These people (who happen to be heroes of mine) are skipping class. Yep. It’s not only the students who play “hooky,” it’s the faculty too.

The article reported, “More than 1 in 4 of the nation’s full-time teachers are considered chronically absent from school, according to federal data, missing the equivalent of more than two weeks of classes each academic year in what some districts say has become an educational crisis.”

Wow. If a student missed that many days, some schools would dock their grade.

We’ve always heard about students cutting class, but now those leading the classrooms are missing more work-time than in the past. The U.S. Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights estimated a few months ago that 27 percent of U.S. faculty is out of school more than ten days annually, and some miss far more than that. What’s sad is—the schools that need the most help are hurting the most. Some school districts in poor, rural or urban areas saw chronic absenteeism among teachers increase more than 75 percent, according to the latest data available.

Why Is This Happening?

When I reflect on this, it may be happening for the same reasons it happens in other industries. Employee absenteeism is on the rise nationwide. For teachers it may be:

  • Going to work was a “calling” at first, but now . . . it’s just a job.
  • Classrooms are disengaged, disrespectful and de-energizing.
  • District budgets are cut, resources are low and salaries don’t motivate.
  • The school system is broken and doesn’t inspire teachers to give their best.

I just spoke to two thousand educators recently. Afterward, I met Don, a math teacher who acknowledged this trend. He told me he missed a total of 14 days over the entire first seven years he taught high school math. Since then, he’s missed about that many days every year. “It’s been an evolution,” he confessed. “I didn’t plan on missing that many days, but it’s draining. At first, teaching was my life. Now I want a life outside of this job. It’s not worth it.”

I believe him.

What Makes This Especially Sad and Harmful

Believe it or not, this has a measurable, negative impact on students. According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, when teachers are absent for at least ten days, there is “a significant decrease in student outcomes.” One study reports the decrease is equivalent to the difference between having a new teacher and one with two or three years of experience.

Think about this reality for a moment.

In all due respect to substitute teachers, classroom performance rarely improves on a day when the daily instructor is gone. Most classes “tread water” on a day that’s led by a “sub.” When I was a kid, we always gave our substitute teachers a hard time. I can only imagine what kids do today.

Nithya Joseph, director for state policy at the National Council on Teacher Quality, gives us perspective on this issue. “Most teachers are there all the time, as they should be, because they want to be in the classroom,” suggests Joseph. But “when the teacher of record is not in the classroom, it has an impact on student achievement.”

What To Do About This Dilemma

There’s no easy answer to this understandable challenge. If I am right, however, about the reasons for “missing faculty,” then I suggest we consider the following:

  1. Monthly Emotional Support.

Teaching is emotionally expensive. I believe faculty need “emotional fuel” to do their job well. What if administration offered monthly connections to fill their tanks? Greeley West High School just sponsored a creative time of encouragement for staff and faculty. It had nothing to do with information; it was all about inspiration.

  1. Team Teaching.

I realize this can’t happen everywhere but the more we can position teachers in pairs and share the load, the longer educators will last. A burden shared is divided in half; a joy shared is multiplied. If funds are gone, find parent volunteers, retired teachers or seniors who can bring some relief to the solo teacher.

  1. Parent Collaboration Instead of Parent Collision

Believe it or not, the most taxing experience for many faculty is not the kids, but the parents. What if a parent ran point on a new goal for PTA: Stop fighting the teachers for student benefits and start being an ally with the teachers, backing them up on the tough responsibilities they have each week.

  1. Expanded Booster Club Outreach

Most schools have a “booster club” to support athletics. What if we gave equal support to academics? What if we raised special funds to resource teachers, so they felt they weren’t handicapped in the classroom? Resourcing teachers puts wind in their sails and gives them hope.

  1. Leadership Development

I believe there’s no better way to resource teachers than to equip them to be leaders. If they are, indeed, the CEO of their classroom, why not provide ongoing leader training on vision, communicating with Gen Z, interpersonal skills, time management and priorities, etc. Several schools are utilizing Habitudes for Communicators, or Habitudes: The Art of Connecting with Others as their system for this goal.

Here’s to reducing absentees among students and their hardworking teachers!


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