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When The Teacher’s Out Too Often

Teacher Absences & Subs

Many districts bemoan the substitute shortage: there’s never enough qualified substitutes, or they have substitutes but not enough actually taking jobs, and fill rates are lower than ideal. And for every empty classroom, there’s an opinion on why there are too few substitutes.

Maybe it’s time to look at the other side of the coin: why the substitutes are needed. Yes, we’re talking about teacher absences. It’s a given, of course, that teachers will be absent at some point during the school year — they fall ill, have other responsibilities come up, or need to attend professional development activities during the school hours.

But the fact is that substitute teachers cost school districts an estimated $4 billion per year, and the average teacher misses 11 out of 186 school days. Because this has serious implications for the district’s budget and student learning, we need to understand the causes behind absenteeism and support teachers in the classroom. Part of this is to understand that teachers will need to be out of the classroom sometimes — they’re only human.

But you do have a priority to ensure that your students receive the best education you can provide, and you also need to keep costs down. Managing absenteeism is one way to do both — but no one ever said it was easy. You’ll need to approach the problem from more than one angle — the biggest areas to focus on are district policies and school-level leadership.

At the District Level

District administrators can develop and implement policies aimed at keeping teachers in the classroom. Some of the more popular incentives center on offering rewards for good attendance: a cash bonus or raffle prize, or the option to “cash out” unused leave when retiring or leaving the district. Other districts require teachers to obtain a doctor’s note when absent, include attendance data in performance evaluations, or dock the teacher’s pay for the day. In most districts, the carrot works better than the stick — punishing teachers for absences tends to breed resentment and sour the school culture. Positive reinforcement, like financial incentives, is often much more effective.

Regardless of district policy, you should make sure that guidelines around teacher absences are clearly communicated and any financial implications have been thoroughly analyzed.

At the School Level

In many ways, principals and teacher leaders have the greatest influence on teacher absences. After all, they set the tone for how absences are perceived and treated within the school, and school culture is one of the primary factors determining how often teachers are out. Principals should be equipped with the means to facilitate constructive dialogue around absence rates — and the most important tool in their arsenal is information: how often teachers in the school are absent and how individual teachers compare to their peers.

At the Data Level

Both school and district leaders need one tool to create an effective district-wide policy, or start a conversation with a teacher about their absences: data. Ideally, you should be looking at high absence days, reasons teachers are out, trends by building or specific teachers who may be struggling.

Want to learn more about teacher absenteeism and how you can keep absence rates low? Download our white paper!

Annie GrunwellAnnie Buttner

Annie is a writer and part of the award-winning content team at Frontline Education. She's passionate about learning, exploring data and sharing knowledge. Her specialties include substitute management, the K-12 staffing shortage, and best practices in human capital management.