I had a class a few years ago that in 180 days of school there seemed to be only a handful of days in which the entire class was in attendance. There were several factors which seemed to contribute to this “problem.” The class met 1st hour, which meant that absences were higher than classes that met later in the day. It was also one of those classes (every teacher knows the kind) that had several students which some principals and teachers referred to as “frequent flyers” because of how often these students were the target of administrative referrals, discipline which often resulted in removal from the classroom. And then there were students who were chronically absent for various reasons.
The presence of much smaller special education and advanced placement classes had combined to make my 1st hour my largest class by far. Schools quite often have a student to teacher ratio as low as 18:1. Specialized classes are typically much smaller than this, sometimes as small as 5 or 6 students. These small class sizes cause the number of students in what are commonly referred to as “reg. ed.” classes to swell to 30 or more.
The few days that I had full attendance in that class were very difficult for me as the teacher. In fact, I did not have enough seating for the entire class. This led me to view absences not as a problem but as a solution. My day seemed to go better when certain students were not in class. My emotional health, my happiness, began to depend upon student absences.
This is not how teaching is supposed to work. Schools are for students, and students should be at school. Teachers should not find pleasure in anything that removes a student from the learning environment. In a way, it does not matter why a student is absent, whether or not they contributed to their own absence, missed instruction is still missed instruction. But the reasons for absences do matter in the sense that schools need to know the factors leading to absences so they can adequately address those issues.
My emotional health, my happiness, began to depend upon student absences.
All educators (teachers, para-professionals, counselors, principals, and district administrators) have unique responsibilities related to student absences. The teacher, of course, is responsible for working with students to somehow compensate for the loss of class time. We call this “make up work,” which rarely even comes close to providing an education comparable to actually attending class and receiving direct instruction. Para-professionals may find the chance to have casual conversations with students about why absences occur. Counselors have the opportunity to investigate home life factors contributing to absences, though perhaps not as much time because of extra duties like coordinating standardized testing procedures. Principals can help keep students in class by reducing the amount of suspensions both in-school and out-of-school. District administrators can partner with local law enforcement and elected officials to make sure district wide absence policies and municipal truancy laws are equitable and in the best interest of students and families. All stake holders should work together to focus on getting and keeping students in the classroom.
Tunnel vision that makes it very difficult for teachers to see anything beyond the four walls of the classroom is very real. Teachers must arrive at school every day with the big picture in mind. There are a multitude of ways to engage in teacher self-care that does not include reveling in the discipline, illness, or difficult home life of students. The things that keep students out of class should not be the things that make teachers happy.