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.
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.
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.
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.