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Teacher Absences

With the fall semester at the mid-term mark, teachers are increasingly using their leave privileges. According to the Center for American Progress, the average absence rate for any given day is 5.3 percent. ("Teacher Absence as a Leading Indicator of Student Achievement," Nov. 5). This compares with 3 percent for full-time salaried workers. The difference is likely to provide fuel for reformers who point out that teachers already work far fewer days than employees in any other field.

But there is more to the story. To begin with, teacher absentee rates vary greatly from district to district. For example, almost 40 percent of teachers in Camden (New Jersey) City Public Schools are absent on any given day. Moreover, 36 percent of teachers across the country on average were absent more than 10 days during the 2009-10 school year. Their absence is costly not only financially ($4 billion annually) but also academically (every 10 absences lowers average math achievement the equivalent to the difference between a novice and experienced teacher). What is not given enough attention, however, are the reasons for the disparity in absences from district to district or from school to school within the same district. Teachers who teach in schools serving large numbers of disadvantaged students are most likely to take the most days off. The demands made upon them exceed anything that taxpayers can imagine.

I've written before about compassion fatigue in the caring professions. It's the result of witnessing the suffering of others and not being able to do much to relieve it. Although the term usually applies to nurses and doctors, I maintain that it also applies to teachers. When students go to school from chaotic backgrounds, they don't leave their issues at the schoolhouse door. Out of necessity, therefore, teachers have to perform triage before they can begin to teach subject matter. Because they're not trained for this, they can't handle the cumulative stress. As a result, teachers resort to using their leave privileges in order to maintain their psychological and physical health.

It's not that students in suburban schools don't have personal problems. Of course they do. But I hardly think theirs compare with those that inner-city students carry with them. As the high school where I taught slowly changed, I inherited classes that I had never faced before. Lesson plans that for years had been successful were suddenly flops. The frustration slowly took its toll, and I began to take days off to regroup. At the same time, I noticed a wave of early retirement by older teachers who found it impossible to go on.

I expect to see an increase in teacher absenteeism as pressure mounts to boost test scores. Some claim that leave provisions are too permissive. I disagree. Tightening existing rules will only exacerbate burnout, leading to higher teacher turnover and lower student achievement. I suggest that policy makers be forced to spend a week teaching in an inner-city classroom before they make their recommendations. But on second thought, I doubt they would be able to last even that long.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.
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