With the holidays fast approaching, teachers are looking forward to some time off. The typical school closes for two weeks during the Christmas and New Year holidays, so teachers will soon be spending some needed time away from the classroom.
Summer vacation isn’t usually much of a vacation for teachers. They spend a good portion of the summer working and taking classes. Photo courtesy of tpsdave.
But there is sometimes criticism about how little time teachers spend working. After all, the average school day is just over 6 ½ hours long and school is only in session 180 days a year. The National Education Association (NEA), however, is quick to dispel myths related to teachers’ workloads, citing the discrepancy between teachers’ contracted hours and how much time they actually spend working every week. While teachers are contracted to work around 35 hours per week, they actually average 50 hours per week. Furthermore, summer vacations are usually spent taking (and paying for) additional coursework, working second jobs, and preparing for the upcoming school year.
Readers who are not buying the NEA’s argument will probably be appalled to also learn that teachers are taking an extra 11 days off on average each school year. Put another way, the average student loses over two weeks of instruction with his or her regular teacher every year. Over the course of a student’s K-12 career, that’s 143 days!
My intention in addressing this issue is not to criticize teachers for taking time off. According to the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ), the majority of teachers actually miss fewer than 10 days a year and only 16% are chronically absent (defined as missing 18 ore more days). As a former teacher myself, I am well aware of the fact that teachers have legitimate reasons to be absent from work. Teachers cannot schedule illnesses, family obligations, and other life events around the academic calendar. Since teacher absences are inevitable, we ought to devote our efforts to finding better ways to teach students and keep schools running smoothly when teachers must be out of the classroom.
Typically, when a teacher is away from his or her classroom, a substitute teacher is brought in. Substitute teacher policies look different in every state. In Michigan, short-term subs must have 90 credit hours from a 4-year institution with a minimum 2.0 GPA. There is no requirement that a substitute teacher’s background be in education or any content area related to the classroom in which he or she is teaching. Furthermore, the mean hourly wage for substitute teachers in Michigan is just $12.32, or a little over $80 per day. A research brief also highlighted the lack of training provided to subs and the fact that teachers typically do not leave substantive lesson plans or assignments behind while they are away. The report also referenced a number of studies finding that more time with substitute teachers is associated with lower student achievement. Moreover, we struggle to find enough substitute teachers in Michigan and across the country. A number of news articles this year have announced shortages in local districts (see here, here, and here). However, given the stingy pay rates and lack of support for subs, it’s not surprising that there are not enough individuals willing to take on the job.
A Better Way to Deal With Teacher Absences
Given the shortcomings of the current substitute teacher system, other approaches could ensure that student learning still takes place when teachers are away. Because schools vary with respect to resources, scheduling, and size, these approaches will not work in every circumstance.
- Employing building substitutes who teach at the same school on a daily basis creates familiarity with students, teachers, and school culture. They offer continuity when teachers are away. By already having an established rapport with students and other teachers, it is more likely that absent teachers will leave meaningful lesson plans and that students will take these lessons more seriously. Of course, these individuals will cost more to employ, relative to per diem substitute teachers.
- In elementary schools with multiple classrooms of the same grade level, school administrators might consider splitting up an absent teacher’s students among other classrooms in the grade level. While this approach does not require any additional funding, it could be problematic in schools that already have large class sizes and it requires the buy-in of colleagues.
- In upper grades, where students rotate between different classrooms, a teacher might be offered extra pay to fill in for a colleague during his or her prep period. Other staff members, such as assistant principals or paraprofessionals, might step in as well. In this way, students might still benefit from instruction by a certified educator they are familiar with. This strategy, of course, relies on a school having sufficient staff members and the resources to offer extra pay.
While some teacher absences cannot be anticipated, teachers do sometimes have the discretion to decide which days they will be away. School leaders should encourage teachers to be transparent about upcoming absences, rather than calling in sick at the last minute. When multiple teachers are out of the building on the same day, their colleagues face an additional burden and a school’s atmosphere can quickly become chaotic. Open communication and coordination, however, can prevent this from happening.
Rather than demonizing teachers who may need to occasionally miss work, let’s focus on strategies that encourage student learning to take place every day of the school year. There’s no reason that students should miss two weeks of regular instructional time every year. Let’s instead be proactive and invest in approaches that will ensure that a teacher’s day off isn’t a day of lost student learning.
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