When sickness sets in, teachers can be reluctant to take sick days
Monday, February 10, 2020
My wife Erica recently returned to the elementary classroom after a decade-long hiatus to raise our young family. In late January, she succumbed to her first multiday battle with the flu. She knew she was going to be in trouble when the aches and pains started to set in, then the cough followed almost immediately after.
Twenty-four hours later, she was laid up on the couch and miserable. Ironically, for as bad as she felt physically, the guilt she felt from missing her students and her team was significantly more impactful than anything else.
“I don’t need this right now,” she told me. “I’ve got several IEP meetings this week that I need to be at, and I have testing that needs to get done for two of my students.” There simply aren’t enough hours in the day to get it all done, and being down for the count with the flu certainly didn’t help her cause.
My wife’s guilt is a common feeling that millions of teachers from coast to coast feel. For teachers, the decision to stay home sick or not has little to do with their own health and more to do with the responsibility of the job and to the students.
This topic was explored in more detail last month in an article by Education Week’s Catherine Gewertz and Sarah Schwartz, entitled “When Teachers Get Sick, Taking Leave Can Be Tough.” The article was written in response to an essay written by Atlanta seventh grade ELA teacher Eli Peyton that went viral on WeAreTeachers. Peyton’s take was that schools that incentivize teachers for not using sick days are engaging in a harmful practice that does not actually reduce teacher absenteeism.
Peyton wrote, “Nobody wants a boss who doesn’t care about their health. When schools encourage teachers to show up to work sick, it sends the message that mental and physical health are not a priority, nor is student learning. If a school would rather have a puking teacher put on Netflix for the day than pay for a sub, that’s pretty clear evidence of confused priorities.”
When sickness hits, it can hit hard for a teacher. We shouldn’t be surprised. According to this ABC News story, teaching is one of the germiest professions. The article reported, “Teachers had six times more germs in their workspace than accountants, the second-place finisher, with slightly cleaner desks but five-and-a-half times more germs on their phones, nearly twice as many germs on their computer mice and nearly 27 times more germs on their computer keyboards than the other professions studied.”
According to Gewertz and Schwartz, teachers are encouraged to take preventative steps to eliminate sickness in the first place in the classroom. Teachers should “encourage children to wash their hands frequently and cover their mouths when they sneeze or cough — and doing the same themselves — can help. Teachers should also consider getting flu vaccines and keeping a bottle of cleanser in their classrooms so they can periodically spritz much-touched surfaces such as doorknobs, desks, and computers.”
Perhaps the most frustrating part for any teacher when weighing whether to call in sick is trying to develop meaningful substitute plans that can keep students engaged and productive in their learning, even with their teacher out. Gewertz and Schwartz reported that a 2007 Harvard study found that student achievement can slip when teachers miss more than 10 days of school a year.
One of my high school ELA teachers admitted to me that she continued to run online Google classrooms with kids during their class from her bed during her recent four-day flu sickness. You could sense her guilt in the email she sent to me that morning: “You know I take everything so hard. I’ll probably email my parents through Classroom and let them know, and if they need to get a hold of me, I’d be more than happy to email them tomorrow.”
For the record, as her supervisor, I did try to tell her not to worry about it and that she could get to it when she was feeling better and back at work!
In this TeachHub article, Chicago English teacher Jordan Catapano offers suggestions for teachers on how to make the most of their substitute teacher plans. Jordan’s tips are as follows:
Plan ahead, train and warn your students, request your faves, spell everything out, remember that subs don’t mind teaching, keep emergency lessons lying around, don’t leave them hanging, provide extras, mind your manners, leave your contact information, leave a clean workspace, be open-minded to their judgment call, and recognize them (the sub) in the future.
Finally, not to sound an alarm, but according to this Education Week article, this flu season may be among the worst of the past decade and it's not peaked yet. As a school administrator, encourage your students and your staff to take any and all necessary precautions for the better of all in the school.
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