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Implausible Thesis: Teachers Who Show Up Every Day

November 11, 2001|Sandy Banks

My daughter has announced a new goal for this school year, and it has nothing to do with homework or grades.

"I'll bet," she said, "before the year ends, I'll have a day when there's a substitute in every class." She chuckles at the thought of six periods of videos and games and word search puzzles; a day when class cutups rule a string of befuddled substitutes.

"I feel bad for them," she says, recounting the story of a sub reduced to tears by an unruly class. "But I feel bad for us, too. It's like, what's the point of being in school?"

Almost every day, it seems, she has a substitute teaching one class or another. Her history teacher is ill, the science teacher out on maternity leave, the English teacher off at a conference.

I realize why when I do the math: six teachers each day, 180 days of class a year, at least 10 sick days for every teacher. Add to that the dozens of training sessions and conferences that teachers are pulled from class to attend, and you have a recipe for a school year riddled with teacher absences.

What I'm left to wonder is, how much does it matter?


There has been surprisingly little research on the effect teacher absenteeism has on learning.

"It's a huge issue, but it hasn't been talked about at the same level that teacher preparation and certification are," says Kathy Christie, an analyst for the Education Commission of the States, a publicly funded research group based in Colorado. "You won't find it mentioned in any national reform plan, but you talk to local districts and you hear nightmare stories. It's one of those day-to-day operational issues that can really hold a district down."

Studies have shown that children learn better when their regular teachers are present with consistency. But it's hard to connect teacher attendance to student achievement, because so many factors affect how they relate.

"The impact [of a teacher's absence] depends on the quality of the teacher, the quality of the sub, the quality of the lesson plans left behind," says Christie, a former substitute teacher, who knows the frustration of trying to teach a subject about which you know next to nothing. "I think common sense tells us there has to be some drop-off in learning on days the regular teacher isn't there."

I imagine my daughter would agree. Her substitutes have, by and large, been competent. "But they don't know where we're supposed to sit or what the homework was," she said. "And if you ask them a question, sometimes you just get more confused and they don't know how to explain. They give us work we've already done, or they act like they're mad when we don't know something we never learned. I sure hope Ms. [fill-in-the-blank] comes back soon."

In the giant Los Angeles Unified system, teacher attendance becomes an issue only when the district has difficulty finding enough subs to staff all its classes--which is more often than you'd imagine. On any given day, more than 70 classrooms wind up without teachers, and students must be dispersed, parceled out to other classes.

To cut absenteeism, the district has an incentive program that rewards teachers who stockpile unused sick time. A veteran teacher with years of perfect attendance can earn as much as $1,500 extra a year.

But the 8-year-old plan has cut the absence rate by less than a day. The district's 33,000 teachers still miss an average of nine days each year. That's about one day each month--not unreasonable when you consider that teachers spend their days in stuffy classrooms with germy children, in a setting that must be akin to being on stage, with no downtime, no chance to escape.

"Teachers are in a profession that requires them to give, give, give," says teachers union spokesman Steve Blazak. "There have to be times when they just give out."


District officials say absenteeism doesn't seem to be rising, but teachers are being pulled out of class more often to become students themselves. Most teacher training must be done during the school year, when class is in session, because districts cannot compel teachers--or afford to pay them--to come in on their days off.

The district's substitute supervisor Robert Fisher estimates that about two-thirds of the subs requested this fall have been needed to cover for staff training rather than illness--up from 50% in a typical year.

That mirrors a nationwide trend, said Christie, one that has grown out of our obsession with higher standards and stricter accountability. "What we've found is that the push for professional development is really driving teacher absenteeism because it takes teachers out of the classroom."

Some teachers complain that the push for reform is a double-edged sword. It exhausts them, making them feel overwhelmed and in need of a break. Yet they're afraid to risk a day off, for fear of falling behind in the race.

"It's driving teachers nuts--all the paperwork, the new programs, all going on at the same time," said teachers union official Sam Kresner. "There are so many things going on, we're pulling people out of class all the time. There's stuff coming out of people's ears.

"Professional development is great," Kresner added. "But the district is trying to catch up on 15 or 20 years of not doing what should have been done in a year or two. Our teachers are on overload."

I can appreciate overload; it's a feeling I know well. But I also know that disappointment mounts for my daughter each day, as she tallies another round of classes ledby I-Don't-Know-the-Substitute's-Name.

I realize teachers get sick, take vacations, have babies, need training ... but I also know that there's no substitute for the real thing at the front of the class when a child's education is at stake.


Sandy Banks' column is published on Sundays and Tuesdays. Her e-mail address is

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