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Teacher Absenteeism Is Predictable

The school year is finally over, providing teachers with much needed time to refresh themselves.  On the other hand, critics point to the long summer vacation as an impediment to student learning. I'd like to take a closer look at the issue.

According to a report by the National Council on Teacher Quality, about one in six teachers was "chronically absent" during the 2012-13 school year in 40 public school districts across the country ("Study: About 1 in 6 Teachers Out 18 Days or More," The Wall Street Journal, Jun. 3).  (Long-term absences of more than 10 consecutive days were not counted in order to control for illness or maternity leave.)

With the average school year consisting of 186 days, critics wonder why 16 percent of teachers needed to be absent from school for 18 or more days. After all, they point out that the school day typically ends at 3:00 or so and that the school year typically consists of two weeks off for Christmas and one week off for Easter, in addition to days off for legal holidays.

If I had not taught for 28 years, I would be asking the same question.  But the point is that teaching is like acting. Teachers are always in the spotlight, just as actors are.  Does anyone question why actors don't perform a minimum of, say, three shows a day for five consecutive days?  Everyone intuitively understands that it is impossible to put on a command performance repeatedly each day for days on end.  It is physically and emotionally too draining.  But when it comes to teaching, a different standard is used.

It would be interesting to know which public school districts were involved in the study.  I'd guess that the majority were those serving large numbers of disadvantaged students.  I say that because these students bring huge deficits to the classroom through no fault of their own.  As a result, teachers are forced to play the role of parent, psychologist and police before they can begin to teach subject matter.  They did not sign up for this, nor were they given training for this.

I'd also like to know how many days taken off were for other than physical illness.  I'll bet that many were for mental health reasons.  I've written before about "compassion fatigue" in nursing and allied fields ("Unappreciated Factor in Teacher Turnover," Education Week, Jan. 6, 2012).  Teachers care about their students and want to do the best job they can, but the demands wear them out.  

That's why I propose redesigning the school year so that there are more frequent but shorter breaks.  I know the arguments made against this proposal.  For example, this would make it harder for families to plan vacations.  I understand the difficulty, but if a change resulted in increased learning for students and fewer days of teacher absenteeism, I think it's worth considering.

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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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