Student absenteeism is obviously a factor in how well a child does in school. Turns out, teacher absenteeism is also a leading factor in student outcomes. Published studies reveal interesting findings about teachers who miss school. Some trends in teacher absenteeism are surprising, and not all are easily explained.
- Nationally, half of all teachers miss 10 or more days annually. In 2013-14, 75% of teachers in Hawaii missed 10 or more days of school.
- Elementary and middle school teachers are absent more frequently than high school teachers, presumably because younger children transfer illness more easily than older students. Teacher and student absences decrease when hand sanitizer is used regularly.
- Teachers at charter schools are absent less frequently than their traditional school counterparts.
- Teacher absence rates are higher in schools with schools serving mostly African American or Latino students. However, teachers in high-poverty areas have absence rates that are on par with those with higher median incomes.
- Teacher absentee numbers are higher in districts with more generous leave policies. Not surprisingly, teachers are less likely to be absent when they are allowed fewer paid days off.
In districts where leave is limited, teachers inevitably have to decide: should I come to work if I’m sick, or can I afford to lose a day- or week- of pay?
For teachers, another reality of taking leave, especially for an extended time, is the knowing that their students may not have a qualified substitute teacher. In Seattle, substitutes are required to have completed a bachelor’s degree and teaching certification, plus two days of professional development; pay for a substitute averages $17 per hour. In Alabama, a substitute may only be required to pass a background check and have a high school diploma or GED, but earns just $8.50 per hour. Raising standards on substitute teachers only works if there is a pool of qualified applicants, and money in the budget to pay them accordingly. In places like Nevada, which has struggled to staff classrooms with a shortage of qualified full-time teachers, substitutes may be that much harder to find. Formal policies on taking sick and personal days vary widely by district. In Boston, teachers get 15 days of paid leave a year and can carry unused leave days over into the next. Some teachers in Mississippi get as few as 7 paid leave days annually. For certain types of long-term leave, the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) entitles eligible employees to take unpaid, job-protected leave for specified family and medical reasons.
Reforming policies at the district or state level can help regulate school cultures that discourage healthy leave or don’t restrict time off as well as they should. It is less clear which district or state absenteeism policies are the most effective in balancing the needs of the teacher and students. Restrictive leave policies may put undue pressure on educators, but lax policies may mean students sit in silent study hall instead of a learning environment while the teacher is away. One thing is clear: by analyzing data related to teacher absences and student performance, districts can gauge their current situation and work towards ensuring that teachers can achieve their classroom goals and still take a justified day off when they need one.
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