The Big Picture of Teacher Absenteeism
Whether for professional development, illness or personal reasons, teachers need to be out of the classroom from time to time. But each absence can chip away at student learning, and districts must hunt down a qualified substitute to fill in.
But teacher absences are inevitable; it’s just not realistic to require perfect attendance every year of their career. That means district and school leaders are faced with a difficult task: to find the right balance that acknowledges teachers as professionals, while keeping student learning at the forefront.
So what can you do to manage teacher absences? Get our free white paper to become an absenteeism expert. We cover:
- What Challenges Do Schools Face from Teacher Absenteeism
- How Often Teachers Are Out of the Classroom
- Why Teachers Are Absent
- How Districts Can Address Employee Absences
What Challenges Do Schools Face from Teacher Absenteeism?
Teacher absences present a unique challenge for K-12 school districts. In business, excessive absences lead to a loss of productivity. In education, absenteeism means a loss in student learning, which can’t be made up in overtime. Every time teacher absenteeism reports play out in the news, teacher leave turns into a tug-of-war between those who claim that the issue is overblown — or point fingers at any number of causes — and those who are determined that “something must be done about these absences!”
There’s no question there are significant costs involved: both student learning and the district’s budget take a hit every time a teacher is out of the classroom. In fact, teacher absenteeism costs $25.2 billion every year.1 But it is, to some extent, unavoidable. Like employees in any organization, teachers will be absent during the school year — it’s only a matter of why they’re out, how often, and who fills in for them.
How Often Are Teachers Out of the Classroom?
The Frontline Research & Learning Institute tracks monthly absence data from more than 5,000 K-12 school districts. The latest annual report reviewing the 2017-2018 school year found that employees who require a substitute were absent an average of almost 11 days a year. This has slightly improved over the last three years.
However, the Institute has also monitored and reported on consistently declining fill rates, sitting at just 82 percent for the 2017-18 school year. This data suggests a nationwide loss of approximately 850 million instructional days due to unfilled classrooms during the 2017-18 school year alone!
When the absence of a teacher has such a lasting impact on the classroom, it’s important to understand the reasons behind teacher absences.
What Does Teacher Absenteeism Look Like?
It’s a fact of life — teachers will be absent from time to time, and for very valid reasons. So, even though teacher absences of all stripes can present a challenge for schools, it’s important to distinguish between individual absences and chronic absenteeism.
The U.S. Department of Education’s definition of chronic teacher absenteeism is 10 or more absences in a school year. Meanwhile, the Rhode Island Department of Education — which took the unique step of designating teacher absenteeism as an area of focus in the state’s Equity Plan — defines teacher absenteeism as being absent for more than 10 percent of the school year.
Data from the Frontline Research & Learning Institute reveals that nationally, 39 percent of teachers fit the U.S. DOE’s definition of chronic absenteeism.
Why Teachers Are Absent
American teachers’ absence rate of about 5.5 percent is much higher than the 3 percent average found in the U.S. workforce as a whole. This is only partially due to the nature of the work: public sector employees have absence rates of 2.3 percent, and similar careers such as community and social services report an absence rate of 2.4 percent.2
What Factors Influence Teacher Absenteeism?
There are always two sides of every story: let’s take a look at each.
Contractually-Guaranteed Paid Time Off
Teachers are provided with a set amount of time off — often 12 days or more — guaranteed by their contracts. Having so many days of leave can encourage teachers to be absent often enough to impact student achievement.
If teachers are given a benefit, such as paid time off, it seems counterintuitive to then rebuke them for taking it. Employees in other fields are allowed to use their paid time off, so teachers should be able to as well.
According to a report from Frontline Research & Learning Institute, nearly 1 in 5 absences are for professional reasons – and half of those are solely due to professional development. Moving professional development to evenings or in-service days keeps teachers in the classroom and in front of students.
Holding PD outside of school hours can be prohibitively expensive: a single day can cost up to $2 million for a large district. And teachers already work long hours — additional demands for their time may be met with resistance.
Some believe that teacher contracts should allow for much less time off in the first place. After all, they claim, teachers have the summer off and many schools are closed during the holiday season.
The average teacher teaches for 8 hours, helps students before or after school for another hour, and spends another 3-5 hours on administrative tasks such as grading, planning and meetings. A large portion of the summer is spent on PD and planning the curriculum.
It’s not unreasonable to think that all of that stress could lead to teachers burning out and needing to take a mental health day. And since we know that high stress levels weaken the immune system, it’s possible that overworked educators could just be falling ill more often — especially when sick students come to school.
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Close Proximity to Sick Students
Hospital workers spend most of their time around sick and contagious patients but have an absence rate of only 2.7 percent, compared to teachers’ rate of over 5 percent. If sick students are to blame, why is absenteeism a bigger problem for education than healthcare?
Teachers are often around crowds of students who may be sick, especially in lower grades. But unlike hospital employees, teachers don’t wear protective gear like gloves or masks, and don’t have to take the same precautions.
Maternity Leave and Children
Teaching is a traditionally female occupation, and maternity leave can account for many absences. Women are also often the ones to take off from work when their own children are sick and need to stay home.
Maternity leave is protected under federal labor regulations and is bound to cause absences in any occupation. No employees, teachers included, should be expected to put work before their family. And it’s worth noting that when analyzing teacher absence data, maternity leave absences are often intentionally excluded. But, that doesn’t account for absences taken to care for sickly children.
How Districts Can Address Employee Absences
Evaluate School and District Policies
Every district needs clear, written policies in place to keep teachers in front of students as much as possible. Part of the solution needs to be ensuring that all employees can easily access information on district policies, so they can know what is expected of them. And when it comes to absenteeism policies, the carrot tends to work better than the stick.
Reports have found that the most common punitive policies are not particularly effective, and may even encourage absenteeism by breeding bitterness and resentfulness instead of encouraging a professional, accountable school culture. Instead, consider policies that reward teachers for good attendance.
Here are a few examples:
- Allow teachers to “cash out” their unused paid time off when they retire or leave the district. This policy works best with older teachers who are more likely to be thinking of their impending retirement, but it can get expensive: some larger districts pay upwards of $10 million per year for these cash-outs.
- Offer a cash bonus (such as the money saved by not hiring substitutes) or a big-ticket item like a car that is raffled off to teachers with excellent attendance at the end of the school year.
- Pay teachers a bonus for unused sick days, possibly out of the funds that would have otherwise been used to pay substitutes.
- Include absence rates as a component of teacher evaluations and using the evaluation process to hold teachers accountable for their absenteeism.
Absence policies will never work if they’re not first clearly communicated to the teachers. Make sure you document, advertise and clearly communicate every policy and incentive program to all the employees in your district.
Take a Look at Culture
Incentive programs tend to work well for districts looking to reduce absenteeism, but they can get expensive fast. So, it’s in your best interest to first take a look at possible root causes, like school culture, before moving on to costly incentive programs.
Attendance trends can be a telling sign of morale and engagement. It’s worth comparing absence rates between schools instead of only looking at district-level trends. And comparing your organization’s data to national or state benchmarks can provide even more context. A stressful or high-pressure culture, unclean school buildings, overcrowded classrooms or a lack of respect can all lead to excessive absenteeism.
Also, if teachers in one school are often absent, their colleagues are more likely to take time off too. The same holds true for school leadership, who set the example for how absences are viewed. When a principal is often out, their teachers may follow suit. So, it’s important for principals to lead by example and only take off when truly necessary.
Trust is also a huge factor. One principal found that trusting teachers to behave professionally and giving them ownership of their absences led to lower absenteeism. Their teachers knew that interacting with students was their top priority and trusted their administrators not to question their judgment when they did need a day off. Part of this meant encouraging teachers to arrange for a substitute two weeks in advance if they knew they were going to be out, rather than calling off that morning — even if an early morning request seemed more “realistic.” Teachers felt — and acted — like the professionals they are, and the school benefitted by having greater lead time to find substitutes to fill in. That’s important — the earlier an absence is reported, the more likely it is to be filled.
Track Absence Trends
For many districts, the easiest way to track and analyze this data is with an absence management system, where teachers can report time off and administrators can track absences and identify addressable trends before they become a problem.
Some districts worry that an automated system makes it easier for teachers to take off because they don’t have to speak with a “real” person. But a study by the Substitute Teaching Division of STEDI.org shows that giving principals access to teacher absence monitoring technology lowers absenteeism by nearly 14 percent. That’s because automated systems report on leave balances, absence trends and absence types — information that principals and administrators can use to start conversations with employees and address issues.
This is an obvious step, but it’s the only way to address the root of your absenteeism problems — whether that problem is a few individual employees who are chronically absent, or absence rates spike on specific days or in certain months. Maybe you’ll find that your teachers aren’t absent more than usual, but the problem is finding enough substitutes.
Address the Root of the Problem
Often, high absence rates are due to a few individuals with high absenteeism. After all, nearly a quarter of teachers have perfect attendance for the school year. Rather than implementing broad policies, first identify those who are chronically absent and have conversations to understand why they are absent.
For many districts, professional development is consistently pulling teachers out of the classroom. Here are a few suggestions:
- Hold trainings over the summer or during in-service days
- Send one teacher to each training and ask them to teach their colleagues when they return
- Leverage technology to have teachers learn at home, instead of pulling them out of class
If absences are mainly due to sick leave, here are a few more ideas:
- Design employee wellness programs to encourage healthy behavior
- Host or promote flu shots for all employees before flu season begins to prevent sick days
- Consider more frequent — but shorter — breaks in the school year to give teachers time to rest
Strategically Manage Substitute Programs
While you can’t completely avoid teacher absences, you can mitigate the impact on students by having a qualified substitute in the classroom. The negative effects of teacher absenteeism are exacerbated when your district has a shortage of qualified substitute teachers. That’s why it’s important to develop a healthy substitute pool with plenty of active substitutes with a diverse skill set.
Part of having a strong substitute teacher program is keeping substitutes engaged and properly trained. Offering professional development for substitutes beyond a brief orientation can help them manage their classrooms and teach students more effectively. And it’s not just about recruiting more substitutes — explore your district’s data and ensure that you’re engaging and retaining the best substitutes, too.
Benjamin Franklin said, “In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes,” but maybe absences can be added to that list! People get sick, have unavoidable appointments or have something important come up. But that doesn’t mean that student achievement has to suffer every time a teacher is out.
Consider ways to encourage your teachers to demonstrate greater attendance and provide clear guidelines around absenteeism. Most importantly, understand your own data so you can be informed of absence trends before they become an issue.
Need to get a leash on teacher absences?
- Addressing teacher absenteeism and attendance. (2012). District Administration Practice.
- Clotfelter, C., Ladd, H., & Vigdor, J. (2007). Are Teacher Absences Worth Worrying About in the U.S.? National Bureau of Economic Research.
- Miller, R. (2012). Teacher absence as a leading indicator of student achievement. Center for American Progress.
- Joseph, N., Waymack, N., & Zielaski, D. (2014). Roll call: The importance of teacher attendance.
- Becoming a Substitute Teacher – STEDI.org, Substitute Teaching Division.
- Miller, R., Murnane, R., & Willett, J. (2007). Do teacher absences impact student achievement? Longitudinal evidence from one urban school district. National Bureau of Economic Research.
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