36% of teachers nationally were absent more than 10 days during the 2009-10 school year, according to Raegen T. Miller, Associate Director for Education Research at the Center for American Progress. Miller goes on to complain about how teacher absenteeism negatively affects student achievement and costs districts billions of dollars, implying that this is a big problem that needs to be addressed.
While this statistic might seem high, it needs to be placed in perspective. Only 5.3% of teachers nationally are absent on any given day. This compares with a 3% rate for other full-time wage earners.
This is not a huge difference, and it can be explained and justified.
The public sector, which includes teachers, has a much higher rate of union membership than the private sector. Thus, teachers are much more likely to be members of unions and have the benefits of collective bargaining, including paid sick leave. A worker who earns paid sick leave is much more likely to stay home when sick or when her child is sick as it will not reduce her earnings. This might explain the following statistic from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights: the number of teachers who were absent more than 10 times per year at traditional public schools (where union membership is high) was 15.2% higher than at charter schools (where union membership is low).
Absenteeism should not be seen as a bad thing. Workers who come to work sick are less productive and they risk exposing their colleagues (and students, in the case of teachers). Also, recovery from illness tends to be quicker when one gets plenty of rest and avoids added stresses, which is easier when one stays home from work. If anything, we should be encouraging higher rates of absenteeism to promote better public health and quicker, more compassionate recovery from injury and illness.
Teachers, because they work with children, are exposed to more germs than other workers. This is particularly true for those who work with elementary school age children, who tend to have poorer personal hygiene (e.g., fingers in the nose and mouth, dripping noses) and who require more hugs and physical contact. If anything, teachers should be given more paid sick leave days than other workers because of their increased exposure to infectious disease and the threat to children’s health when they come to school sick.
Another difference between teachers and other workers is that teachers’ work schedules are constrained by a bell schedule. Someone who doesn’t teach can theoretically take an hour or two off for a medical appointment, return to work and then stay late or come in on the weekend. While teachers commonly do work late and on weekends, they cannot teach classes outside of the regular bell schedule. Furthermore, many districts do not even provide substitutes for partial days, so even if a teacher only needs to miss one period, she could lose a half or full day’s sick leave as a result. Consequently, many take a full day off for medical appointments since they will lose a full day of sick leave either way. Teachers should not be blamed for doing this. It is a rational approach to an irrational system. Rather, if the goal is to save districts money and keep teachers in the classroom as much as possible, districts need to allow absences and provide substitutes for a single hour.
Another factor to consider is that teacher workforce has a much higher percentage of women than the rest of the workforce. 76% of teachers are female, compared with 47% in the labor force as a whole. This means there are far more teachers than other workers who could be taking time off for maternity leave and this could partially explain the relatively high number of teachers who are out more than 10 days in a school year.
Teachers also sometimes miss class for professional development or other school business. Generally, a district pays for substitute coverage for professional development, but not always. When they do not, teachers sometimes take sick days to attend a workshop or deal with school business. In either case, a substitute, rather than a credentialed teacher, is in the classroom with the students. Likewise, not all districts provide substitutes when teachers go on a field trip and they sometimes have to take a sick day. They also sometimes take sick days or personal necessity days to catch up on grading or for collaboration or meetings. Each of these is a legitimate reason to miss class that serves their students’ interests, rather than undermining their academic success. It is unfortunate that not all districts provide sufficient paid leave, substitutes or paid collaboration time for teachers to take care of these responsibilities without having to use up their sick leave.
Rather than assuming that teachers are maliciously exploiting their benefits or that certain schools have dysfunctional cultures (i.e., bad teachers are egging each other on), as Miller has suggested in her article, it may be that districts or schools with high absence rates need to change their bell schedule, build more collaboration time into the regular work day or provide more generous leave and substitute coverage so that teachers do not have to take full days off for 1-2 hour appointments. Even if Miller is correct that some teachers use absences in a “calculative” or “deviant” manner because of low “trust” in their schools, that culture could only be changed by hiring an administrative team that respects and supports its teachers so they feel welcome and appreciated and want to come to work.