Time Off!

Well, a lot of teachers got Tuesday off as schools are increasingly closing on election day to make it easier to operate as polling places.   But, as Ed Week reports here and here, teacher absenteeism is a larger issue than that.   I get the idea that different policies can influence consumption of sick leave and so forth and those are issues worth considering.  Still, aren’t there larger issue here? 

Teachers get very frustrated that they end up spending their Saturdays doing the things that other workers get to do during the week.   They can’t take lunches with friends for 9 or 10 months of the year.   It’s hard to take a morning, or an afternoon, for personal issue.   And even trips to the doctor become a logistical hassle.

Of course, when you’re thinking about schools there is a basic custodial function that matters.   At a lot of jobs if you show up late it’s not that big of a deal.  If you’re a first-grade teacher, it’s a big deal…

Yet shouldn’t we be having a bigger conversation about how to organize schools so that teachers have more discretionary time both for personal issues but also to collaborate together and so forth around the work?  We could address some lifestyle issues that matter while also addressing the larger absenteeism issue through creative use of schedules and other ideas in that vein.  Someone has to be with the kids at all times, but we can be a lot more creative about who that person is in a way that makes schools a more attractive place to work for the key members of our labor force — teachers.  One school I’m aware of uses a concierge to help teachers with basic life maintenance issues to free up their time.  Sounds gratuitous but is actually a really smart way to look after your people and one that is not uncommon in some other fields.   Other places are experimenting with schedules.

Coupled with sensible policies on leave seems we need a lot more ideas in that spirit. 

11 Replies to “Time Off!”

  1. Wow. It is a huge issue. As I drive, in heavy traffic, each morning to teach my 2nd graders I can’t help but wish I could drive in the diamond lane. If there is an accident, or some other reason for a delay, my students are left getting split among other classes until I show up.

    Thanks for beginning this conversation. We do need to figure out how to allow teachers a little more discretionary time than the 5-minute pee break, that is often co-opted by a kid needing a band aid.

  2. Although there’s some debate about how much effect student-teacher ratio has on academics, more teachers and staff could help this issue a lot. Assigning two staff members to a 40 student class instead of to two 25 student classes would give a lot more freedom in day-to-day schedule, discipline during class, more individual attention as needed, etc.

    The additional staff could also be assigned more as teacher assistants, which would be a really great way to let first-year teachers get on-the-job experience and get their feet wet without having to handle 30 students and learning the curriculum and all the other first-year challenges.

  3. Link up this post with your report on encouraging innovation and we’d be making some great strides towards a NCLB II proposal. Absenteeism is especially acute in high poverty secondary schools, and those schools need a lot more caring adults from all backgrounds. It would be nice, I guess, if the adults all had professional certification in established educational or educational fields. But that’s a pipe dream. We need to throw the net much wider.

    My school once had the best attendance rate for teachers in the district, but that’s because we were mostly thirty and forty-somethings. As our faculty aged, and as we were unable to retain young talent, absenteeism became huge. I still remember the first time we knew that 20% of our teachers would be gone on the next day so we had a special meeting. Now its not unusual to have 20% gone. The State has been very understanding as they investigate our problems but its team was freaked by our absenteeism rate. But our small 700 student school had nine educators last year who missed significant time due to cancer, blindness, and other exteneded hosptial stays, others with ill parents, and one death.

    We can’t forget why its impossible to keep young teaching talent. Its the interconnected problems of discipline and the magnets recruiting our best teachers. We’ve got two twenty-somethings who are superstars so we have to send them to professional development and other meetings. (one wakes at 2:30 am and rarely gets home before 7:00) But every time they leave the school the magnet schools keep begging them to come to a place where they can teach more easily.

    The NEH has “Artists in Schools” programs. Why not recruit a cadre of twenty-somethings with video game skills to set up gaming programs in schools? I bet they would produce much higher gains in reading comprehension and the underwhelming results of “best practices.” David Boren was ahead of his time in advocating “circuit riders” or traveling teachers with special expertise. Remember the old Eduwonk readers contest that was won by a proposal, as I recall, for interns in classes. Think of how many Baby Boomers and career changers who would love such a career ladder. Pay people from the community to work in schools and pay for their continuing education. We’ve all known cafeteria ladies, security guards, bus drivers, contract coaches, etc. who were wonderful with kids, and who could provide even more help if we set out to maximize their talents. Unleash our imaginations and we’ll find plenty of creative people who want to join the front lines of the 21st century’s civil rights movements. (My first two years, technically I worked for the school system but I was first hired by a mental health institution and in the second year I was hired by the curriculum dept. Back then, those arrangements were sealed by a handshake.)

    Lynn Canady correctly argues that we need to rework schedules for the benefit of students not the convenience of adults. He says that 20% of students are obviously failing by October, and we can’t come up with a better idea than to let them fail until June? Why not start some contracts in October so that those failing students can chose to take advantage of a second chance to take a real class, and not just hope that they will be passed on by some CYA “safety net.”

    KIPP has a lot of inspiring stories, but if we want to bring them to scale in a sustainable way, we can’t depend on heros working 16 hours a day. Two qualified teachers working eight hours a day will produce far more good for a greater number over a longer time.

    Besides, we rarely consider the down side of those heroes working themselves to exhaustion. In my experience, most really stupid ideas were ordered by people who were literally not in their right minds. They were so stressed out by political pressures and exhaustion of 90 hour weeks that you can only imagine the cortisal or whatever chemicals that were being pumped through their overstressed systems.

    Why not grow community schools programs that work. Invest in efforts to get the community into schools and students into communities? Compare the costs of these programs with the total cost of instruction-driven reforms that have grown out of the Washington Consensus, and if you take into account the capital costs of computers, software, etc. and the operating costs in the Title and PD budgets, and I’d expect these new ideas would be very cost effective. And common sense and the professional judgement of teachers argue that they would be much more effective.

    Of course, it would be impossible to pursue these ideas and continue to seek value-added or other test-driven models for accountability. Already its impossible to distinquish between what individual produced what gains. But if we created dynamic teams of educators, its hard to believe than anyone would try to create models to attribute blame and individual credit. We’d just have to reward teamwork, or be satisfied that our teams were better serving kids.

  4. This is a really big issue and something that I never really thought much about until I took a “normal” job outside of the school for a while. It is really nice to be able to have so much control and freedom during your day! Of course the ideal would be to cut back teachers’ class load so they can have more time for planning, etc. while still “at work” but not with kids, but I think we all know how likely that is. Dave has some interesting ideas though.

  5. The situation described here is an obvious sign that public schools are terribly understaffed. Teachers need fewer students, fewer classes, and more time to be free, thinking adults. Tougher standards, accountability, and even school choice are doomed if even our most talented, efficient teachers feel chained to their classrooms.

  6. Creative scheduling is a great topic for conversation. For all those people who claim, “it isn’t the schools job to parent,” the bottom line is that many of our students need and would benefit from public schools that devote time, human resources, and money to a more holistic approach to education. This would benefit teachers greatly, who feel so much pressure to improve test scores while dealing with kids who have other needs.
    Like John says, schools are TERRIBLY understaffed and overcrowded. In many schools, even if more adults were hired to initiate a more creative schedule, you’ve got the problem of dealing with space issues.

  7. It would be easy. First, fire half the teachers. Next, hire a bunch of interpersonally skilled adults who can work at low wages to handle the behavior/babysitting aspect of schooling. Increase the class sizes so that you can afford two of these people per classroom, in addition to the teacher. That way any one of these people can be absent. Also provide every desk with a computer loaded with the best educational games and computerized lessons available.

    Now the teacher’s responsibilities are more flexible and manegerial. You set the lesson plans, answer questions and problems that come up, and you only run lessons in person on specific topics that require it. This is how I would redesign the role of teachers, right now they are more than 50% babysitters.

  8. The teacher’s work week is from Sunday to Sunday, and working hours can begin as early as three in the morning and extend to as late as three in the morning. As a result, absenteeism is a necessary evil. Bodies break down. Still, let it be recognized that even when many teachers are absent from the school building, they are still completing school work. Many teachers mark student assignments while waiting in the doctor’s office, on the bus, or at the dinner table.

    With class sizes being what they are and the constant demands of the learning process, does true absenteeism really exist for the teacher?

  9. What school has a concierge? That’s a great idea. I’m researching ways to benefit staffers now for my charter school.

  10. Wow! A teacher’s aide to help with teachers’ personal tasks? Is that what we’re suggesting here? Does someone out there (besides us) really feel that our time is that valuable? I’m hearing the angels sing. I really like what you had to say about management of time for teachers. “Concierge” has a ring of royalty to it. I’d like to hear mmore about how this is working for that school.

  11. A teacher’s work is never done. A teacher does need rest to allow the body and mind to regroup, so that they can be fully effective for their students. I agree with GenevieveB about absenteeism being necessary. I believe if the district or county would work out the school calendar to where the teachers and students get the well needed breaks, teaching and learning will be more efficient. My concern is that the teachers who really love what they do will soon get burned out if the school calendar doesn’t get altered effectively to accommodate the teachers. I believe if teachers had better breaks, then they wouldn’t have to take the entire workday for situations such as a doctor’s appointment.

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