Teaching Oddness #3: What Happens When We’re Absent

A couple weeks ago, I left halfway through the day after having felt awful for 3 days. I thought perhaps I needed another inhaler. The doctor yelled at me for ignoring a strep infection. I protested, went home, watched TV. Still contagious, I woke up super early, snuck into school, got the quiz ready, left notes for my student teacher, and then tried to request a sub before leaving but it was past the deadline. I didn’t follow the correct procedure, having never once called in sick before at this school. I did know to call the principal’s secretary, She Who Runs Everything, I mean ABSOLUTELY EVERYTHING, and grovel for screwing up her day, since she’d have to hunt down the sub. She yelled at me, too. I went home again, watched TV. It’s amazing how relaxing it is to Not Teach when you hurt. Apologies, by the way, to any one who caught strep from me. I wasn’t being noble; most of the time I go to the doctor they tell me I’m not sick.

I have now taken 1.5 sick days in four years; 4 days total in 7 years. I have something like 60 accrued days. As I’ve said, handling the teacher perks took some adjustment.

And so, we come to Teaching Oddness #3.

In order to understand teaching and absences, consider the many ways in which teaching absences are profoundly different from any other profession’s:

  1. The teacher can’t make up the time.
  2. The teacher can’t swap an absence with a colleague.
  3. A school can’t “work short”. Each class has to have a legally authorized adult present. Therefore every teacher absence incurs a direct expense to cover that absence.
  4. The substitute is in almost every case not as good as the teacher.

Remember, teacher days are already extremely restricted.In most traditional schedule schools, teachers get no more than an hour off during the day, and even in block schedules the max time off is 90 minutes. We can’t take a long lunch to run a few errands. We can’t even reliably take a bathroom break without legally putting ourselves at risk for leaving students unattended. We have zero flexibility on the “warm body in the classroom” requirement.

Does any other profession operate with these constraints? I don’t think so. Yes, employee absence often creates expense, but not in such a brutally one-for-one fashion.

Nearly three years ago, I wrote a piece on teacher sick leave that still gets a lot of views. There was a glitch in it that a commenter pointed out. I fixed it a while back, but have always wanted to revisit.

So let’s take the Teacher A and Teacher B case and make it a bit clearer. Note: I’m adding in PD for days worked, and just using $100 for costs when it’s probably higher, but this is just for illustration. And knowing me, I screwed this up, so put any corrections in the comments.


Teacher A

Teacher B


Sick Days


Days Worked


Actual Daily Pay


Daily Sub/Admin Cost


Yearly Replacement Cost


District Total Cost


Per Day



So on a yearly basis, Teacher A is paid more per day worked, and costs the district more per day worked. Teacher B gets to accrue the sick leave, meaning that he or she will ultimately get paid more for the unused time, and take it as either a cash buyout or a pension increase, depending on the state. I am ridiculously fuzzy on these details for my own state, and I should get on this, because for all I know I’m losing days by hitting an accrual limit.

Some facts generally agreed to: female teachers are absent more than male, high-poverty schools see more absences than low-poverty schools. Elementary school teachers are absent more than high school teachers. The Clotfelter analysis is still the best resource, I think.

Every so often, reformers argue that accrued sick leave is a calamitous pension expense; other times reformers complain about teacher absences. Chris Christie, in his various tangles with government workers, says sick leave should have no cash value”.

I mean, that’s just idiotic. Corporate America has largely ended paid sick leave precisely because employees know better. Of course sick leave has cash value. Look at Teacher A and Teacher B. Teacher B is working more days for the same money, despite costing the district less—and that’s without taking into account the learning loss accrued by the students of absent teachers. Why should Teacher B tolerate this inequity?

I understand the pension problem. I just don’t see how anyone can seriously propose a solution that values teachers who take their sick leave more than teachers who don’t, given the constraints. (Let’s stipulate that teachers with strep should take their sick leave.)

My personal solution, as a teacher who doesn’t get sick, is pay us a good bit more and then actually dock us slightly for absences–say, the cost of a sub and an administrative fee. And I mean, pay us a good deal more because Chris Christie, despite his Trump endorsement, is a moron if he thinks sick leave has no value for any employee, much less employees in a job requiring a legally authorized adult presence in every classroom.

That’ll go over big. I know.

But absent teachers cost more and negatively affect student learning. I’m not blaming sick teachers. It’s a benefit, so use it. And I haven’t even begin to discuss the fact that districts will use school days for professional development, instead of putting it after school or on weekends and pay teachers a bit more.

I get it. But any restriction of pension or sick leave accrual is hurting the teachers who cost less and maximize student learning. Restricting the payment for additional time on the job predictably would lead to all teachers using all their sick leave every year. We could shorten the school year, given the number of teachers who’d just take off for the last two weeks.

Either way, take away the accrual or some form of compensation, and much as I hate it, I’ll just get better at sub plans.

So next time you read a proposal or jeremiad on teacher absenteeism, please remember the constraints above. Ask yourself what you’d do if someone was getting paid for fewer days on the job than you, without penalty—and all you had to do in order to get the same deal was take more days off.

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16 responses to “Teaching Oddness #3: What Happens When We’re Absent

  • Hubbard

    We can’t take a long lunch to run a few errands. We can’t even reliably take a bathroom break without legally putting ourselves at risk for leaving students unattended. We have zero flexibility on the “warm body in the classroom” requirement. Does any other profession operate with these constraints?

    I can think of another profession with similar restrictions: prison guards. And the reasons are similar. Students and prisoners alike need to be monitored or bad things are much more likely to happen.

  • Brett Gilland

    Our state found a novel solution for this: absences are counted against teachers in the state-mandated evaluation process. This includes sick leave, which has been collectively bargained. You can imagine how that affected morale.

    • educationrealist

      Well, what that does is basically push the costs to the pensions, as teachers will just use as little sick leave as possible.

      • Brett Gilland

        Not if you cap the # of sick days that can be cashed out (like we do) or eliminate them completely, as was proposed in the article. The key for those who want everyone to show up but don’t want to pay for it is to find a non-monetary incentive. Nothing like introducing another stick to beat teachers with for improving morale.

  • ciedie aech

    You bring out an interesting concept of what a teacher’s true value might be. Is she (he) more valuable for what her dedicated, every-single-day effect might be on an honest student edification — or is it simply that her dedicated LACK of absences accrue, forcing a final financial compensation? Oh, my, those bad, bad teachers who keep showing up for work! 🙂

  • Devilbunny

    I’m an anesthesiologist, and we are subject to similar requirements. Each MD is allowed to supervise (technically, “medically direct”; “supervise” has a different legal meaning and pays less) up to four nurse anesthetists, or to do cases alone. You have to have a qualified warm body in the room at all times monitoring the patient. Someone needs a bathroom break? Someone else has to go stand in there while that happens. Lunch break? Can’t leave the hospital.

    Sick? Well, someone else is going to have to come in to cover for you. Maybe one of the guys on vacation isn’t out of town. Maybe someone who recently retired (but kept hospital privileges) is around and wants a little extra money.

    We do have substantial vacation in my group, but that’s a conscious tradeoff vs raw pay, and though it’s not on the fixed schedule teachers face, it also means that it’s very hard to change anything at the last minute (i.e., less than three months ahead of time) unless it’s, say, the dead of winter when nobody particularly cares to go anywhere. We pick our vacation a full year in advance.

    We are, however, paid a lot better than teachers or prison guards.

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  • Dianna

    At least two of your sick days don’t roll over into the next year because they are one time personal days. I’m also not sure of the pension cost- lots of teachers exhaust their sick leave on maternity leave- plus teachers also don’t get disability through the state. On a more practical note- given our clientele- teachers can get sick a lot.

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