While I have many memories from my first year of teaching, one of the most visceral comes from my early morning commute. I had to take several buses across the Bronx to reach my school, always aiming to arrive well before my students. In the dead of winter, after too few hours of sleep, I'd wait for one bus while watching the one I'd just exited turn around – heading back toward my apartment. Some mornings, I needed all my willpower not to chase it down and go back to bed. But instead, I always continued my journey to school, and to the piles of work and (mostly) eager 7th graders awaiting me.
A new study shows that like me, other first-year teachers are quite good at consistently showing up to school rather than staying home. Ben Ost (University of Illinois at Chicago) and Jeffrey Schiman (Georgia Southern University) look at how the number of teachers' absences (counting only sick and personal days, not professional development) change as their workload (e.g., class size, years of experience) changes.
While first-year teachers take few days off, teachers' absences edge up for the next few years of teaching (at least based on the data from North Carolina). This trend toward more absences among more experienced teachers is notable because past research has found that teacher absences hurt student outcomes. In fact, this paper estimates that the gains in student learning attributed to having a more experienced teacher would be about 10 percent higher if those veteran teachers took fewer days off. This finding reaffirms that every day a teacher spends in the classroom is a critically important one.
While improving teacher attendance is no simple task, the North Carolina study sheds light on one potentially influential factor: school culture. Researchers found that when a teacher transferred from one school to another, her rate of absence crept toward the average for that school – for better or worse. (And yes, the authors took several steps to ensure that they weren't simply capturing a "school-level shock" like a flu that hits everyone at the school.) Given that NCTQ's past work on this issue, the 2014 Roll Call study, didn't find any district policies that were silver bullets for improving teacher attendance, it seems that school-level factors may be a promising place on which to focus.