10 November 2008

A/K/A Mental Health Day

Education Week recently reported on how teachers use discretionary time, which is a fancy way of saying mental health days. The cited study noted that "Like professionals in other fields, teachers appear to be dipping into their sick time in order to take care of errands, do the holiday shopping, or extend a weekend." Okay, Readers, put your hands in the air if you've ever used a discretionary absence. (Yes, my hand is raised, too.)
Teacher absence is correlated with a small but significant decrease in student achievement, and it tends to occur disproportionately in low-income schools. It is also costly: Data from the National Center for Education Statistics put expenditures on substitute teachers at about $4 billion annually—costs typically borne by individual schools’ discretionary budgets.

The pattern detailed in the analysis suggests that teachers exercise “some amount of volition or control ... in the placement of those absences,” said Raegen T. Miller, a senior policy analyst with the center and the analysis’ author.

Armed with better information on those patterns, policymakers at the federal, state, and local levels can craft incentive programs to keep teachers in school, it concludes.

The discretionary absences made up 56 percent of all teacher absences. And while percentages of nondiscretionary absences, including long-term illnesses, jury duty, and bereavement, stayed relatively stable over the course of the school year, the percentage of discretionary absences changed seasonally. Absences rose throughout the fall and peaked in December. They fell in January and February, only to rise again by the end of the school year. Discretionary absences were also more likely than other types to fall on Mondays and Fridays.

Although the article goes on to suggest ways that districts address this issue, none of them get to what I think is the heart of things: teachers see these days as time they are entitled to have. As long as teachers work outside of contracted time (evenings, weekends, holidays, summers) to prepare lessons, grade papers, engage in professional development, or anything else which forces them to trade personal time for the rigors of the job, then they will take mental health days. It is a trade. "I have to spend my Saturday giving feedback on these essays...but I can take off next Friday to catch up on the chores." I'm not saying that this is the right thing to do, only that this is how these things are often reasoned.

I do think that teachers who use discretionary leave and then head out on the golf course or generally make the fact that they're playing hooky known around town are making a poor choice. If you're going to be "sick," then at least have the good sense to stay home during working hours. Or, if you have to be out, be sure to be traveling far far away where no parents or administrators will see you.

So, what is the answer then? Kids are in class from Monday to Friday. Teachers need to be present when the kids are (and oh, how we complain about chronically absent students)...and yet, it is ignorant to assume that excellence in the classroom (including grading, planning, and collaborating) can fit within the 7.5 hour contract day. Do districts need to create a new form of leave---one that is for planning time? Perhaps instead of offering 10 sick days per year, teachers could have choices within that. For example, 5 assigned for sick leave and 5 for planning, depending upon your needs. There needs to be some way to recognize the outside work that is to be done and provide an honest avenue for teachers to complete it.


Clix said...

As an English teacher, let me tell you that planning days sound HEAVENLY, even if we were required to be on school grounds during those times.

Also - in most districts I've seen, teachers are also allotted a few "personal days" during the school year. That's included in their analysis. I'd love to see how much of the figure is from personal days and how much is from "sick" time.

Hugh O'Donnell said...

The current system sucks canal water. That teachers feel justified in trading time that costs the district big money (sick time) and cost students even more in instructional time is proof positive.

Somehow we need to get to the point where only half of a teacher's day is spent in the classroom in front of students. Teachers need that other half day, every day of the week, for the gazillion responsibilities we've heaped on them.

Speaking of the golf course, I can safely say, as a board member, that our HR people would kick some serious booty if they found a teacher playing hooky. They'd look at it as theft, regardless of the rationalizations about payback with compensatory time.

Be careful and seek the right path. Advocate for less classroom hours and more housekeeping hours.

The Science Goddess said...

I've known people in every district I've been in who have been stupid enough to take a sick day and then be seen playing golf or engaged in another "leisure" activity. I don't blame HR for getting upset for that. They should.

There does need to be a better balance between instructional time with kids...and all of the other duties for a teacher. This brings up another question, though: How much instructional time is necessary?

Anonymous said...

Sometimes mental health days really are for a teacher's mental health. Teaching can be quite stressful, and both emotionally and physically exhausting. I'm sympathetic if a teacher wants to take a day off to rest and rejuvenate.

Hugh O'Donnell said...

Never said I wasn't sympathetic, kiri8. We need to revamp the system so teachers, et al, are not forced to make those choices.

SG, my opinion of how much instructional time is needed might be inflammatory. I think it's a heck of a lot less than commonly reckoned, because so much "instructional time" is so poorly utilized that it really shouldn't count, yet students survive and thrive in spite of what we put them through.

Ball park guess: half of what we currently think. :D