As the school year winds down, chances are teacher absences will creep up. Although the rate will differ from district to district, the Education Department reports that 5.3 percent of teachers nationwide are absent on any given day. The cost of hiring substitute teachers is $4 billion annually, which is about 1 percent of total K-12 spending. But that doesn't take into account the effect on learning. Busywork left behind for substitute teachers shortchanges students at a time when every day is precious.
In light of these facts, reformers argue that school districts are much too generous in allowing sick and personal leave days. They point to the private sector, where only 73 percent of employers provide sick leave in addition to paid vacation ("No Substitute for a Teacher," Education Next, Spring 2013). The distinct impression left is that teachers are abusing the system. I'd like to present the other side of the story, which I partially addressed in a column about compassion fatigue ("Unappreciated Factor in Teacher Turnover," Jan. 6, 2012).
It's impossible for anyone who has not taught in a public school to fully understand why teachers need ample paid days off. The usual reason teachers call in for a substitute, of course, is that they are ill. Exposure to students who are susceptible to colds and the like is the most obvious cause. But there is also the need to maintain mental health. According to the American Nurses Association, compassion fatigue is "a combination of physical, emotional, and spiritual depletion associated with caring for patients in significant emotional pain and physical distress." Trying to attend to the needs of students the way the school day and school year are set up is likely to induce this malady.
I say that because according to the Census Bureau, one in five students in public schools today comes from an impoverished background. These students do not leave the effects at the schoolhouse door. As a result, teachers have no choice but to perform triage before they can begin to think about teaching the lessons they've planned for the day. The unrelenting pressure slowly takes its mental toll. Periodic days off, therefore, are not a luxury but a necessity. But even a routine day places unusual demands on teachers. Consider the need to use the bathroom. Teachers run the risk of being sued if they leave their students unattended. Therefore, when nature calls, teachers are forced to carry on until the end of the class session or until recess. As teachers age, this postponement can be more than merely uncomfortable. It can cause serious health problems.
But more fundamentally, I don't think reformers appreciate what it takes to engage students on an ongoing basis. In many ways, teaching is performing before an audience that too often doesn't want to be there in the first place. Entertainers do not perform for as long or as often as teachers, and their audience is composed of their fans. So unless public schools modify teacher schedules, the present number of paid days off is not only reasonable but indispensable.