Remember when you were in high school? On the rare occasion that you had a substitute teacher, what happened in class that day?
When I was in high school, there was one substitute everyone loved. Rather than follow the plan outlined by our teacher, he would instead regale us with story after story from his, uh, colorful past.
Needless to say, my classmates and I didn’t get much learning done when he came around.
Despite the best efforts of substitute teachers, there’s no replacing the benefits and knowledge of a full-time classroom leader—someone who knows the students, plans the lessons, and can anticipate every little thing that happens in their classroom.
The occasional substitute teacher is a good caretaker. But part-timers can’t be expected to keep the class moving with the same forward momentum of a staff teacher.
So, what happens when some of your best full-time teachers suddenly start to miss multiple days of work? That’s a question that administrators are grappling with more often these days.
New data from the Department of Education and analyzed by the Education Week Research Center, shows that one in four teachers missed 10 or more school days in the 2013-2014 school year.
That might not seem like a lot of days, especially if you work in another profession. But in schools, it’s akin to trying to carry a professional football team to victory with a backup quarterback.
And here’s why:
While the number of teacher absences are on par with other professionals, they have a bigger impact on productivity.
Ten days off during the average school year equates to one school day per month over a 10-month period.
That’s on par with the average leave provided to teachers in most school districts, according to Education Week’s Sarah D. Sparks, and it’s on par with the leave time provided in other professions too.
The problem: In the lives of students, even one day can have a significant impact. Research shows that when teachers miss 10 days of school, their students tend to produce lower math scores and are less engaged in class, according to Sparks.
Trends and causes of chronic absenteeism are hard to pin down
Teacher absenteeism is a hard nut to crack, simply because we’re not sure when or why it will happen.
While some states report higher rates of teacher absenteeism than others—Hawaii and Nevada, to name two—teachers serving in high-poverty schools don’t miss more days on average than, say, teachers serving low-poverty schools.
Studies have failed to identify a link between school district absence policies, including incentives and/or demerits, and teacher absenteeism.
So what to do?
Even the best, most dependable teachers have to take a day off on occasion.
Absent more complete data, it’s impossible to name a silver bullet to quash the rising tide of teacher absenteeism. One idea: ask teachers what schools can do to keep attendance rates up.
When teachers do have to be out of school, experts agree that better-trained substitutes are needed to keep students on track.
Several states are experimenting with higher degree requirements and pay for substitute educators. Consistency is also important. Some school districts assign substitutes to specific schools and classrooms to increase their familiarity when called on in a pinch.
Because there is no one-size-fits-all solution to teacher absenteeism, it’s up to school leaders to identify workable solutions.
How do you prepare for and staff teacher absences in your district? Have you taken steps to better prepare or train your substitutes? Tell us in the comments.
If you’re looking for ideas about how to keep full-time teachers in class, or want to better train your roster of substitutes, a carefully crafted teacher engagement survey might be the right way to start that conversation.