The Problem with Teacher Absenteeism Is Not Poor Subs
So which is the bigger problem: That substitute teachers aren’t professionally prepared or that the average teacher is absent 10 days a year?
In findings that will come as no surprise to people who work in schools, a group of Harvard researchers discovered in 2007 that there could be a link between teacher absence and student achievement. Students whose teachers missed more than 10 days a year scored significantly lower on tests, the researchers discovered.
In addition, the U.S. Department of Education this spring released data from roughly 72,000 schools that indicated that 37% of teachers were absent more than 10 days in 2009-10. The Department points out that these absences could be due to numerous reasons, including staff development. Still, the results for kids are the same whatever the reason for the absence.
In response to this data, the NEA is now calling for the “professionalization” of substitute teaching and for lifting the bans in some states that do not allow retired teachers to sub or reduce their retirement pay if they do.
Of course we want qualified substitute teachers. We want substitutes who are familiar with the school, its culture and its discipline program. We want substitutes who have good classroom management skills and are knowledgeable about the subject matter. We want substitutes who are good with kids. But most of all, we want regular teachers in the classroom, not substitutes.
The students of teachers who miss 10 days of school – two weeks – actually miss even more instructional time. If the absent teacher doesn’t leave good lesson plans (or leaves none at all), the substitute, no matter how good, can’t walk in cold and stand and deliver. In addition, when the teacher returns, she probably won’t hit the ground running, but spend a couple of days catching up and reviewing. And here’s another problem – when a teacher is absent 10 days during the school year, the days are most likely taken a day here, a couple of days there. A lack of lesson plans coupled with general review when the teacher returns can result in kids losing not just 10 days of instructional time, but 15 or 20.
Some states insist that schools use only certified teachers as substitutes. Unfortunately, in some areas of the country, there are simply not enough certified teachers to comply with the regulations. In one school in which I worked the math department volunteered to cover the classes of a colleague who would be absent for several weeks due to illness. The teachers knew that we would have great difficulty finding a competent substitute, and the department felt it would be better all around if they picked up their colleague’s classes. It was a rare, beautiful, professional gesture and it worked. And luckily, the union let it slide.
I also worked in a private school in which teachers’ schedules were set up so that they had free periods to cover for absent colleagues. On the plus side, we rarely had to hire substitutes. On the negative side, no instruction took place during that time; basically teachers ran a study hall.
Of course it would be great to have a cadre of fully qualified substitute teachers who could appear in a pinch to take over a classroom. But really -- if more than a third of teachers in any school are absent 10 days or more, the problem isn’t training qualified subs. It’s that more than a third of teachers are absent every day.