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Living in Dialogue: Fordham Institute to Teachers: Don’t Get Sick!

Should teachers be allowed to bargain for 12 days of medical and personal leave per year?

The teaching profession is 77% female, meaning that they are disproportionately required to find ways to take time off to care for their children or parents. Moreover, many teachers aren’t provided maternity leave, so many also have to save up leave time and use it when they give birth.

Would our schools be better off if we forced teachers to choose between their own children and/or parents, or their own medical treatments, and their students? Would teaching quality improve if they were required to renege on one or the other sets of obligations?

Or, would America be better off if we respected the human rights of all workers and stop rolling back the common decency that was once negotiated into labor contracts?

Corporate school reformers want it both ways – they want lower wages and reduced benefits. In yet another high-profile campaign, this time started by the Fordham Institute, teachers are labeled as “chronically absent,” and portrayed as the latest example of the “bad teacher,” when they have to take full advantage of their leave days.

Fordham conducted an “apples to oranges” comparison of the chronically absent rates of charter and traditional public school teachers, and in doing so it didn’t even bother to ask how many actual days per teacher it was talking about! Although it is based on no evidence, their web site graphics imply that collective bargaining frees large numbers of union members to take an extra ten days off, per year!

In fact, most years, few teachers take the full number of sick days that they are allowed, and save them up for a possible major illness.  If a teacher has to take three days more than the average teacher, then that year he or she is defined by Fordham as “chronically absent.”

Even more significantly, Fordham doesn’t attempt what any intellectually honest study would do – it doesn’t control for the ages of the younger charter school and the older traditional public school teachers!

In the 1990s, my high school had the district’s best attendance rate for teachers, as we should have. We were Baby Boomers at the peak of our effectiveness, usually without small children at home or elderly parents.  At the end of my career, these same teachers were loudly berated for having the district’s lowest attendance rate because, “Obviously you do not want to come to school!”

Actually, in addition to caring for elderly parents, our teachers were hospitalized for heart disease, cancer, blindness, and an array of surgeries.  And we had buried colleagues who wouldn’t take a day off from our stressful job to go to the doctor, and died prematurely. One year, I was the only person in my department who was not a survivor of a life-threatening medical crisis.

And rarely did we have a year when one of our principals wasn’t felled for more than ten days by a serious illness, which usually was stress-related.

After flu vaccines became available, I went years at a time without calling in sick. During a two-decade career, I missed more than ten days during the years when I had a back injury, when I was a Fulbright Exchange Scholar, and when my parents and mother in-law were hospitalized and died. I loved going to school.  Nobody ever thought of me as chronically absent, but looking back, I fit that definition around a quarter of the time.

The single best way to reduce chronic absenteeism would be to stop dumping more stress on teachers. During my last two years in the classroom, I started to get sick at my stomach when I was covered with a student’s blood. I started counting the number of former students and basketball buddies who had died prematurely or who had killed someone.  Each time as I passed the number forty, I would lose count.  (The toll later surpassed fifty.)

Corporate reformers love to slander teachers by implying that we abuse our due process rights by taking “mental health days,” or calling in sick when exhausted as opposed to being ill. I took four of those days during my eighteen years. I would have more respect for Fordham if they pushed for student supports that would reduce the stress that students and teachers wrestle with, and that make mental health days an inevitable aspect of the job.

Getting back to the false and slanderous implication that collective bargaining allows many teachers to miss an additional ten days a year, corporate reformers say that that outcome is as the big as the difference in effectiveness of a third year and a rookie teacher. But even if that weren’t completely made up, it’s an ironic argument for reformers who have consciously sought to drive veteran teachers, and their salaries and professional judgments, out of the profession, replacing them with TFA and other 23-year-olds.

Even more hypocritical is an attack on the right to take a dozen days of leave when needed being launched by true believers in bubble-in testing who have robbed students of weeks and months of instruction. Even if teachers had to give up all of their sick leave and personal time, that number of days would be dwarfed by the days that students lose to test prep, benchmark, and end-of-the-year testing. (And without unions, we’d have little chance of resisting those test and punish regimes.)

Let’s be clear. The Fordham paper is an attack on the salaries, benefits, and rights of teachers – and all workers – as well as desperate attempt to get their privatization efforts back on track. If they really wanted to help students, they’d listen to John Merrow’s wisdom and make teaching a team effort, so that the normal aging process didn’t produce teacherless classrooms.  They might even think about the wisdom of the time when I came of age, and consider the idea that all workers should be treated like human beings.

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John Thompson

John Thompson was an award-winning historian, lobbyist, and guerilla-gardener who became an award-winning inner city teacher after crack and gangs hit his n...