I Am a Chronic Absentee.

Cranky Blogger’s Warning:  I’m disgruntled today.  If you are looking for rainbows and sunshine, don’t read this post.  If you want some perspective on what life is like for American schoolteachers, though, keep reading.

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A few weeks back, a local news channel here in the Triangle covered an issue that they feel is a major problem:  Teachers who are “chronically absent.”  

Their definition of “chronically absent?”

Any teacher that misses more than 10 days of school in a single school year.

By that definition, I am a chronic absentee.  

I’ve missed right at 10 days of school this year.  I’ve missed six days alone attending professional development workshops and educational technology conferences — coursework that improves my practice and the practice of everyone around me.  I’ve also had to take two days off to take my daughter to doctor’s appointments — something that wouldn’t happen in other professions where I could “slip out” during the workday without question as long as I didn’t have face-to-face meetings or phone calls to tend to.

Oh yeah:  And I took one day off because I was sick as a dog.

#manyapologies

My favorite “absence”, though, will happen later this month when I call in sick so that I can get to our team’s upcoming field trip — a ecosystems-themed scavenger hunt — early.  I want to get the hunt set up before the kids and the parent chaperones arrive, but I can’t do that because I need to cover my first period class.  The only solution:  Call in sick in order to get a substitute teacher in the building to cover that one class and then spend the entire day working with my students anyway.

#sheeshchat

Can you tell that I’m bugged by this story?

The suggestion that teachers are automatically failing their students when they are out of the classroom is flawed thinking to begin with.  The time that I spend learning and thinking and reflecting on instructional practices translates directly into the work that I do with my students.

Need proof?  Check out my digital portfolio project (see here and here), which is a direct result of a session that I sat in on at a county wide professional development day back in November.  Conservative estimate: The lessons that I am learning and the content that I am creating will be shared across dozens of classrooms, both in my district and across the country.

Was that absence worth it?

To make matters worse, I’ve used sick days and pulled cash out of my own pocket for registration fees to attend professional conferences dozens of times over the last decade simply because my schools couldn’t afford to cover those costs or to provide me with a substitute teacher.  So not only was I working to improve my practice while “being chronically absent,” I was subsidizing our poorly funded public school system — covering costs that no other professional would ever be expected to cover out of their own pocket.

And that earns me uncomfortable questions about whether or not I am making a positive difference in the lives of my students?  

A friend asked me the other day to explain what’s changed about education since the time that I entered the profession.  “You knew the work was going to be hard,” he said.  “Why are you surprised by that hard work now?”

The answer is simple:  What’s changed is the professional respect accorded to classroom teachers.  I knew that I was signing up for long hours and low pay when I graduated way back in 1992.  But in return, I also knew that (1). I was going to get to change lives and (2). I was going to have the respect of those in the community that I served.  THAT was a trade-off that I was more than willing to make.

Today — almost 26 years later — I still get to change lives every day.  But I also bear the brunt of a sea of never-ending attacks lobbed at educators– including comments from the President of our nation, who used his inaugural address to push the notion that our nation’s public schools are “flush with cash” but leaving “our young and beautiful students deprived of knowledge.”

That criticism hurts.  And it makes me wonder more and more about my decision to stay in the classroom.  I want to serve kids, but I am really tired of being the community’s punching bag.

#trudatchat

#sorryfortherantchat

 

11 comments

  1. Chris Tuttell

    Hey Bill,

    This posts really speaks to me especially since I just finished going through my educational expenses for my taxes – I spent over $1200 of my own money to attend ISTE – to grow professionally for the students and teachers I serve. I also took sick days to present at two state conferences to build capacity for our profession.

    My husband works in PR/Marketing and NEVER had to pay to attend a professional conference. EVER!

    It makes me sad to read…

    In the end, it’s the criticism that I’m struggling with. I could walk away from the classroom tomorrow and get a position with less accountability and more opportunity for professional growth. I guess I just want critics to realize that if you want accomplished folks to stay in the classroom, you have to provide them with the same kinds of professional opportunities and courtesies provided to people in similar professions.

    Otherwise, there’s no incentive to stay in the classroom with kids.

    We can’t lose teachers like you!!!

    There should be a follow up to the absentee piece – focused on EdCamps, Twitter Chats, teacher blogs, etc. I don’t think many people realize what we do, often to the detriment of our own families, because we are so passionate about serving kids!

    Thanks for sharing your voice! Can’t wait to see you next week!

    Chris Tuttell

    • Bill Ferriter

      Chris wrote:

      I just want critics to realize that if you want accomplished folks to stay in the classroom, you have to provide them with the same kinds of professional opportunities and courtesies provided to people in similar professions.

      Otherwise, there’s no incentive to stay in the classroom with kids.

      —————–

      This. Totally this, Chris.

      Sometimes I think I am being punished because I chose to stay in the classroom. Not only do I have fewer opportunities, I have next to no authority in the system. There’s also next to no flexibility in my position or in the structure of my day.

      If you look at the characteristics that professionals desire in their workplace, I’m pretty sure that opportunity, authority and flexbility would be pretty high on the list!

      #sheeshchat

      Bill

  2. Rachel Jeffrey

    Bill: This was an incredibly heartfelt post even if it wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows. Thank you for bringing an idea like this to our attention – it matters that we, as educators, talk about it!

    • Bill Ferriter

      I think one of the things that I’ve learned over the years, Rachel, is that people beyond schools THINK they understand our profession — but that understanding is based on what they see from the outside.

      If we don’t start to share the truth, we can’t expect change to happen.

      Anyway…
      Bill

  3. aarondavis1

    Good post Bill. I think that calling out absenteeism is an easy out. I wonder how it helps in developing more trust within a school? If teachers attend every day, does that guarantee that they are at their best?

    • Bill Ferriter

      Hey Aaron,

      Here’s the thing: If I attended every day this year, I wouldn’t be tinkering with digital portfolios in the classroom OR be rethinking the role that productive failure can play as a learning experience for kids. I also wouldn’t have new ideas about how to provide more targeted remediation and enrichment to my students. Those are things that I picked up at the professional conferences that I attended while “chronically absent.”

      So there’s no way that I’d be at my best — and that has nothing to do with my physical health. Instead, it has everything to do with my professional knowledge and growth.

      The assumption that being in front of kids is a part of the false transparency that Dan Lortie talked about in Schoolteacher way back in the late 1970s. People assume that’s the only thing that teachers do. They don’t recognize the behind the scenes work that we do is often far more important to the actual success of our students.

      And I don’t think that will ever change. There are too many political forces hell bent on deprofessionalizing teachers to ever get the message through to the general public that our jobs are more than the five hours a day that we spend with students.

      Anyway…thanks for stopping by,
      Bill

  4. Renee Moore (@TeachMoore)

    I’m right with you, Bill. The recent uptick in attention to teacher absenteeism too frequently presents it as yet another example of teacher incompetence. As usual, that is both a gross overstatement and a grotesque oversimplification. I’ve heard it tied to the old lie that “teachers only work 6 hours a day and part of the year.” Ignoring, of course, that the essential work highly accomplished teachers do outside of our classrooms, must be done on our own time and funds, often at the expense of our own children and families. The best solution for students and teachers would include redesigning school schedules and calendars to make professional learning a more integral part of our contracted time; giving teachers more control over their own PD, rather than tying up our existing PD days with ineffective or non-applicable activities; and restructuring schools to make better use of true teaching teams or blended classrooms, to eliminate the need for so many subs or learning interruptions. I know, we’ve been trying to get those changes for a long time, but the benefits are worth the struggle.

    • Bill Ferriter

      Everything that you wrote is brilliant, Renee.

      And simultaneously discouraging.

      Because you are right: We’ve been pushing for the kinds of suggestions that you offer in your comment for what feels like two full decades and we are no where closer to seeing them become a part of our professional lives.

      I don’t know if those changes will ever happen for education — but I’m pretty confident I will have left the classroom long before I ever get the chance to find out.

      I started my work as a teacher leader with hope and optimism that we could really reimagine education and make it a place that promoted teacher growth and encouraged good people to embrace our profession. That hope and optimism has steadily faded over 20+ years of trying with little tangible evidence that anything has changed.

      #sheesh

      Hope you are well — and thanks for being such an articulate voice for what might actually work!

      Bill

  5. Chris Jakicic

    Hey Bill, I remember a time in our district when parents were complaining about teacher absences because they were involved in professional learning. Sometimes we even had subs so that teachers could present what they were doing to others in the profession who wanted to learn from what we were doing. I think we have an obligation–as professionals– to do this work. One thing, though, is that I think that your principal and Superintendent need to communicate regularly with parents about why this is so important. Yes, for the days you’re gone, student learning may suffer, but the reality is that for the rest of the year your students benefit exponentially. Even when you are training others, you are still learning. Your presentations require you to get laser focused on what works and why it works. This reflection only makes your work in the classroom better. Honestly, I’m proud to call you my colleague!

    • Bill Ferriter

      Thanks for the kind words, Chris.

      The crazy part is that I’m never out of the classroom to present to others. I’m only out of the classroom as a learner in other presentations.

      Totally agree, though, that being more vocal about what I’m doing when I am out of the room and why that work benefits my students is an easy first step that I can take to blunt some of the worry/criticism that people have when I am out of the classroom.

      I guess what bugs me most is the notion that missing 5 percent of the year makes me a “chronic absentee”. Absenteeism across professions averages about 3% — so 5% hardly feels “chronic” to me, particularly when the majority of my absences are the result of attending professional learning sessions.

      In the end, it’s the criticism that I’m struggling with. I could walk away from the classroom tomorrow and get a position with less accountability and more opportunity for professional growth. I guess I just want critics to realize that if you want accomplished folks to stay in the classroom, you have to provide them with the same kinds of professional opportunities and courtesies provided to people in similar professions.

      Otherwise, there’s no incentive to stay in the classroom with kids.

      Any of this make sense?
      Bill

      • Chris Jakicic

        This makes total sense except for the fact that someone has labeled professional learning as “chronic absenteeism”! I’m glad you wrote about this because it draws attention to how silly this is. The other thing you mentioned was the fact that teachers can’t just take their lunch hour to run to a doctor appointment or something similar. Because we have to get subs, I can’t see another way around it, but it definitely means teachers’ recorded absences are inflated! I’m really glad this blog started this important conversation.

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