School districts pay price for substitute hires More teachers taking time off
The Arizona Republic
Jan. 27, 2006

Pat Kossan

Under the gun to improve student performance, school districts are putting pressure on teachers to cut back on time off, saying absences are excessive and kids are paying the price.

Some Valley districts have overshot their budgets for substitute teachers, with schools scrambling to fill spots and even turning to companies who specialize in providing substitutes. The companies charge up to 40 percent more per day than when the schools call in their own substitutes.

Teachers say there are good reasons why many of them take the 10 to 13 paid sick and personal days they receive every year in addition to regular school-year breaks. The reasons include workplace stress, maternity leave and illness caught from students.

A widely cited national study shows that teachers are absent more often than other professionals, given their shorter work year. And school board members and administrators say the time off needs to be reduced. They want regular teachers in the classroom to ensure children are learning and will pass critical state and national tests.

Last year, for example, Glendale Elementary District reported that teachers averaged 10 days off for illness and personal time, not counting days for jury duty, bereavement or teacher training. Alhambra Elementary District in Phoenix reported 11 days. Cartwright Elementary in Phoenix spent 57 percent more than budgeted on substitutes last year, or $784,000; and Chandler Unified spent $1.4 million.

The growing campaign over teacher absences reflects the squeeze districts find themselves in when it comes to their front-line personnel. They face teacher shortages and hope to lure new teachers with higher first-year pay.
But they also are moving to hold teachers more accountable for quality and seek to train and require them to teach to higher standards.

How teacher absences is viewed depends on where someone sits in the system.

The board member

Glendale Elementary District's new School Board president threw a packet of charts onto a conference table and sat down. Steve Johnston flipped through the pages that showed that, at the beginning of last school year, the district budgeted $471,047 to cover the cost of substitute teachers.

It ended up spending $779,980.

That is unacceptable to the financial planner and father of five.

"It disturbs me," Johnston said. "When I visit schools, I see a huge difference in the quality of energy and instruction in classes from the regular teacher and the substitute teacher. We know, particularly in this district, because of support the students may or may not get at home, that engagement in the classroom is critical."

This year, board members made a point to find out why teachers have such a high absence rate. Johnston wasn't happy with the answers.

"There's a lot of finger-pointing," Johnston said. "It came down to stress, for the most part. We're really not being told anything specific, but there's a lack of interest in taking responsibility."

Johnston can't understand it. There are teacher mentors and coaches, the schools are nice, salaries are on par with neighboring schools. Yet Glendale Elementary students aren't doing as well academically.

"I work in a different world," Johnston said. "If I don't perform, my clients fire me." Glendale teachers get 11 paid sick and personal days each school year. "The feeling among the administration is that it is abused."

The teachers

Ask teachers why absence rates are so high and they'll have two reactions:
disbelief, or disbelief that someone can't understand the mental and physical toll it takes on a person to educate and safeguard 30 children every day.

"I'm someone who won't take sick leave unless I'm on my death bed," said Susan Thomas, who teaches fourth grade in Chandler's Howard K. Conley Elementary. Including doctor's appointments, Thomas said, she takes off two or three days in a good year. But teachers said there are plenty of reasons why they need more time off than other professionals.

Teachers are exposed to more germs. Teachers call a classroom of children 30 "little incubators" who carry and spread colds and flu and aren't in the habit of washing their hands. Teachers are always washing their hands and wiping down desks and equipment with anti-bacterial cloths.

In the break room, teachers share information on the latest combination of vitamins and herbs used to boost their immune systems. June Winkler has been Chandler District's head nurse for 14 years. New teachers suffer the most, Winkler said, because it takes two years to build resistance to these problems.

"That happens to just about everybody who works in a school," she said.

On top of it, more parents send sick kids to school. Parents know if a child is running a fever, the school will send him or her home. So some dose children with medicine to lower the fever and send them out the door. Others tell their child to visit the nurse for a diagnosis. "They still try to sneak them in, one way or another," Winkler said.

Teachers are under stress from dramatic changes in education. When many teachers began their careers, the principal simply hired them, gave them supplies, and left it up to them to teach how and what they wanted. Now, teachers are expected to be part of a team, teach a common curriculum and read test data to determine what a child knows. They must re-teach some students and enhance the learning of others.

Principals review their lesson plans, observe their teaching styles and monitor the progress of the students on tests. Michael Martinez, who heads Phoenix's Cartwright Elementary District, called it a big shift from chalk-and-talk lesson plans: "It's a chore. There are pockets of resistance. It takes time to change."

Teachers are under stress from students. Teachers face classes of kids where12 are just learning English, nine are native English speakers and four were just reclassified as English-proficient. Students are at different stages, Martinez said, and now, all teachers have to be language and culture specialists.

Teachers also face more students with discipline and emotional problems. They can count on five or so students shaken up over a divorce or pending divorce. Sue Kaminskas of Scottsdale Unified said teachers get little support when trying to help these children learn. The students demand more attention, either with more discipline or more motivation.

Life doesn't fit into a school-year calendar. About three-fourths of teachers are women, many of whom are caretakers. When a kid is sick, mothers are often expected to stay home, too. Many teachers are at an age when they take maternity leave, and older teachers are caring for sick parents. Although they have more time off than most professions, events don't always fall on days off.

Teachers must attend a sister's March wedding in Michigan or a mother's funeral in November in Pennsylvania.


The researcher

Michael Podgursky is an economics professor at the University of Missouri-Columbia. His research suggests that teachers take far more sick and personal leave despite their shorter work year. Local school administrators and national education policy leaders said the well-respected economist verified what they already suspected.

"There is no question in my mind that teachers are absent a lot more than other professionals," Podgursky said. "I would say substantially more. It's at least double."

The researcher is convinced that teachers take off more time because they can. He called it "deeply rooted into the system." Once it's written in the district handbook or into a contract, it's hard to un-write it. It's a perk built into the profession that caters to the needs of women with children.

"The answer is clear, it's a huge benefit," Podgursky said. "It's the perfect mommy-track. The organization of the workday is the story that doesn't get written. It is organized to be convenient."

But when any other professional is absent, the work piles up on the desk. When a teacher is absent, he or she leaves 30 children unattended and the district must find a substitute or split the kids and ask other teachers to work harder.

"Kids don't accomplish anything when a substitute is running a class," he said. "They're just treading water."


The principal

If a substitute has a choice between spending the day with 9-year-olds or 13-year-olds, it's a good bet she'll go for the fourth-graders instead of eighth-graders.

As principal at Glendale's Challenger Middle School, Bob Wallace tries to solve it by luring substitutes to middle and high school classes with more money.

But his biggest problem is simply finding substitutes.

In elementary schools, a teacherless fourth-grade classroom means dividing the students among the other fourth-grade classrooms.

"It's tough, but it happens on a regular basis," Wallace said. "If two teachers are out, that's pretty hard."

Then a teacher would get 10 extra kids, and there aren't enough desks and no space.

"Then, you punt." That means the principal or assistant principal share the class. Or the art and music teacher or librarian abandons lesson plans and takes over the class.

In middle schools, where kids change classes, teachers give up prep time to teach the extra class.

What Wallace doesn't do is complain. He said teaching classrooms of children every day is a job that has to be experienced to understand. Teachers, he said, need all the time off they have. Even if that means juggling substitute teachers, splitting classes, interrupting daily lesson plans and dividing up kids.


The problem-solvers

Administrators across the country are looking for research on teacher absences and proven ways to reduce them.

"It's a balance," said Kate Walsh, president of the Washington-based National Council on Teacher Quality, which is studying the issue. "You have to ask yourself what is good for kids and how you keep adults' morale up."

Here are some ways administrators are trying to solve the problem.

More Valley schools are joining a national trend of rewarding teachers with bonuses if they take fewer than their 10 to 13 paid days off. Last year, Phoenix Union started giving bonuses to teachers who had five or fewer absences, and 70 percent of the district's teachers earned them.

Many districts no longer release teachers from the classroom for training or working with the teachers union.

To minimize disruption in a child's day when the teacher doesn't show up, the same children are always sent to the same classrooms. They will be familiar with the teacher, rules, setting and curriculum, if it is kept consistent in the same grades.

Nora Gutierrez, Phoenix Union assistant superintendent for human resources, said part of the solution is educating teachers about how much they affect student learning. Gutierrez said teachers have historically asked how they can be expected to teach children who are not here.

"We've turned it around and asked, 'How can they learn if you're not here?' "

Reach the reporter at pat.kossan@arizonarepublic.com.