Thursday, May 18, 2017

On Petty, Self-Serving Teachers Taking Sick Days

A timely local article (timely for what I'm going through) in the Record, discusses the horrors of teachers who are allowed to have paid sick days - or that's how it's being read by a vocal group of commenters. The facebook rants following it are so routine that the insults are having less effect, which is dangerous. Sure it sounds good on the surface - just let the dirt roll off your back. Yup, we're all lazy sods who barely work six hours a day with tons of breaks and holidays - because prepping and marking and helping kids outside the classroom don't count as work. Sure. Whatever. But without any retaliation, the loudest haters in the public will allow the sick pay created by unions to erode completely.

We've all seen the shift away from the glory days of unions; the singsong "look for the union label" days are far behind us due to the neo-liberal double-barrel of deregulation and privatization. But, in the U.S. at least, there's a clear correlation between union membership and a strong economy. When the economy was at its best, a third of the country belonged to a union. When strong, supported unions dissolve, the economy tanks. Taking care of people actually has a positive effect on businesses. Isn't that just obvious?

I will never understand this race to the bottom born from people who insist nobody should have paid sick days or benefits or regulations around breaks or a limit to hours worked or job protection after a maternity leave or safety regulations or just generally reasonable standards. Decades ago, groups of people gathered together to fight for better working conditions. Their resolute unity worked brilliantly to pressure employers to ensure people have the basics covered. People solidified to demand a healthier, safer, more secure life for all citizens. And people are upset about that now because...???

The Record article is actually about the fact that, since reducing sick days to 11 days per year, teachers are calling in sick more often. Some people think teachers are following the use 'em or lose 'em mentality. The Record takes a surprising pro-teacher stance with the words of WRDSB trustee, John Hendry, who thinks that it's possible teachers are taking more sick days due to increased stress.

In contrast, back in March, CBC reported the same data with a different slant: Sandals says "teachers are taking more sick days because they lost the right to bank them" and the article later refers to sick days as "an expensive luxury." Similarly, in an article about this also last March in the Globe & Mail (apparently the Record was really behind on this one), "Labour lawyer Howard Levitt said...'this plan obviously dramatically exceeds what employees in any private sector employer that I have ever heard of receives, I never cease to be amazed at the exorbitant giveaways at all levels of the public service.'"

I don't know Levitt's scope, but when I worked in insurance, my benefits were at least as good. But that was long ago. They might have eroded significantly by now.

Then Luisa D'Amato weighed in on this to counter Hendry's position. According to D'Amato, it's unlikely teacher stress has changed: "there aren't signs it has become more challenging lately." She jumped on the "use it or lose it" bandwagon and shamed the "petty, self-serving" teachers for doing something so harmful to their dear students as to take time away from the classroom.


First of all, let's look at the numbers. Well, let's try at least. It's really hard to find any. The data were compiled "by the School Boards' Co-operative, a nonprofit agency created by school boards for actuarial analysis." I couldn't get access to any useful information on their site, but I did find an interesting comment on the company from a disgruntled employee:
"Elitist organization, ultra conservative, introverted work force who were very self-serving, immature and impersonal. Surface deep organization composed of purists aimed at hiring for Caucasians only. Pompous top management who run this not for profit organization as an unspoken dictatorship but who were none-the-less easily manipulated by underlings who knowingly steered the CEO & COO. Some staff members betrayed confidences by passing on confidential materials and reports to management - totally unethical behaviour encouraged, condoned and accepted by upper management."
I found that as I was scouring for stats showing absenteeism rates prior to 2011, in order to see a longer view of the changes in absenteeism, but none were to be found. Apparently Ontario doesn't keep those kinds of records. So we don't really see how the rates have fluctuated within a longer context. Be aware we're drawing a lot of conclusions on a very short timeframe.


If it is the case that absenteeism has dramatically increased, and D'Amato's pretty sure nothing's changed that could account for increased stress, then apparently she hasn't heard of AER. After the new rules were implemented, so many colleagues had problems that I made a FAQs page that I wasn't allowed to distribute at school, so I put it here. It's the most positive view of AER I could possibly take. These policies have changed the classroom dramatically. There is no question in my mind that they have added to teacher stress levels. No. Question.

Five years ago, if students didn't have work in on time, we'd take off 10% a day for a week, then give the assignment a zero. No questions asked, no badgering, and no phone calls home for senior grades. The only time I ever called home for a grade 12 student was the very rare occasion when someone failed one of my courses. Students handed things in or accepted the consequences.

Now zeros and late marks are verboten. And students are pushing the boundaries like crazy. Just this semester I've had to deal with students who refused to write a test after reading the questions because they hadn't yet gotten notes for a day they missed two weeks ago - because they know I can't give them a zero for refusing to write it. And I've had several cases of people going out of town for the weekend, not having wifi, so not finishing work assigned a week earlier - and knowing I can't give them a zero if they don't hand in anything. These are grade 12 students about to go to university. It's considered my responsibility to call home every time a student doesn't hand something in, which could be 20 kids in a class for a minor assignment. And it's my responsibility to beg them to please, please get the work in - please, maybe tomorrow?!?

I have my own system that's pretty firm, and it has saved my sanity, but I've found myself slipping this year from sheer exhaustion. Others are scrambling after the kids in a downward spiral. The new policy places unreasonable pressure on teachers, and the lack of pressure on students to get work in on time isn't doing them any favours.

We're told to work smarter, not harder, and it makes me want to impale someone with my metre stick every time I hear that. Marking isn't an issue; it's the same as ever. Chasing is the new issue. It takes up far too much of my time that could be spent marking in a timely fashion or creating innovative lesson plans or helping the students who actually want to do the work. So, yes, there ARE signs it has become more challenging lately, thank-you very much!


When I worked in insurance, we got two sick days a month, and many of us used them liberally. We called them "mental health days" and spent time relaxing and rewinding whenever we felt like we needed it. We definitely subscribed to the use it or lose it mentality. At the time, I was young and healthy, and we worked in little teams so everyone's workload was covered by everyone else.

But I find it hard to believe so many teachers are doing that because it's a whole other ball game calling in sick as a teacher. It involves writing a script of your entire day, word for word lessons, explanations of all the students' quirks, clarification of how to use the equipment in the room, etc. It's far more work than just going in. The day I smashed my head on the sidewalk and was taken to the hospital where a doctor told me I had a concussion and should sit in a dark room for the next week, I went to work rather than prep classes for a supply teacher. It's that much effort. Admin told me to go home, and they called in a supply, but I went to class and taught the lesson with a supply teacher reading a paper in the back of the room.

Furthermore, I wonder how many times teachers are calling in sick but actually going to work. The policy is that we can take off a minimum of half a day at a time. That means if I book a ten minute appointment in my lunch, and it's possible it'll run into my prep period, then I have to take off half a day. But then I don't want to spend the effort getting a supply, so I tell admin I plan to show up for the class, and the supply is used elsewhere, or banked, or something. I'm not even sure. And, from one cancer surgery to the next, I've had a ton of brief appointments just a few minutes' walk from work, that I've always scheduled so as not to miss any classes, but I've had to take half a day off work every time even though I didn't miss teaching any classes. I wonder how much money it would save to allow teachers to book appointments during their lunch hour and cover them for a few minutes if it runs into their prep period. Or maybe, God forbid, let teachers use their prep period as they deem most useful to them, like professionals, rather than mandate they sit in their rooms just in case there's an on-call for them.

Finally, it should be made clear that supply teachers aren't mandated to prep lessons or evaluate anything. They're the puppets of the absent teachers. If I'm away, I'm still in charge, creating word-for-word lesson plans and marking everything from home when doctors have told me I need complete bedrest. Taking a day off work never means a day of rest and relaxation. It means being up late at night prepping, then putting out fires on e-mail all day, then cleaning it all up the next day back. This perception that teachers are petty and self-serving, and taking sick days just because they'll lose them otherwise, is just lunacy.


  1. Excellent. One typo: Louisa not whatever you spelled Loise perhaps.

    1. I wrote "Louis" but it's "Luisa" - I knew she spelled it differently than I was used to, but I changed the wrong end of it.


Thoughts? It's easiest to comment with the Name/URL option - then you can pick any name and leave the URL blank if you prefer.