We Need to Stop Rewarding Teachers for Not Taking Sick Days

At districts across the country, teachers receive financial or other incentives for not taking their sick leave. Why this practice is harmful.

Not Taking Sick Days

Once I passed out at recess. It was no big deal; I have low blood pressure and occasionally I just fall out for no apparent reason. I would have just continued on with my day, but my principal happened to see me. She insisted that I take the rest of the day. In fact, she walked me to my house across the street, holding onto my arm like I was a kindergartener. 

This was a revelation for me. My principal made me go home, knowing that she’d have to find a sub at the last minute and it would be inconvenient for everyone. At my current school, teachers get ten sick/personal days per year, and can roll over a max of thirty accumulated days. That cap means that, beyond a certain point, there’s no sense in not taking sick days—there’s no bonus, no early retirement, nothing to be gained from hoarding your days beyond that thirty baseline.

That’s not the case at schools everywhere. At my previous school, sick days could be cashed out for a bonus at the end of the year or, if you saved enough, used to retire up to two years early. And schools across the country have similar policies, offering educators financial or other incentives for not taking sick days.

It sounds like a great way to reduce teacher absenteeism, right? Think again. 

Teachers don’t like taking days off, anyway.

For the majority of us, sub plans are WAY more work than just coming to school and teaching. They have to be completed in exhausting detail, we have to impose on colleagues to run our copies first thing in the morning, and something always goes wrong. For the vast majority of teachers I know, chronic absenteeism would be a nightmare, not a vacation.

Sick teachers don’t do a great job.

I have a good friend who is an amazing teacher. She’s dedicated to her students and hates taking days off…so much so that she went on a field trip with a fever of 102. She stumbled through the day barely able to stay upright and THEY LEFT A KID AT THE WATER TREATMENT PLANT. Again, this is one of the best teachers I know. It turns out, the flu is not exactly a performance enhancer.

Sick teachers get other people sick.

I teach at a school where a bunch of kids don’t have health insurance. If they get sick, it’s a big deal. Many of my students and my colleagues have tiny babies at home and it’s RSV season. Personally, I’ve taught school hugely pregnant, and I came back to work before my babies were old enough to be vaccinated. Getting a virus may not be a huge deal to the teacher who has it, but it can be life-threatening to the people they expose to it when they come to work sick.

It sends the wrong message.

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.

It makes it hard to model work-life balance.

We want our students to have great jobs and healthy relationships in the future. When they see us coming to work sick, terrified to take a day off, it models a future we hope they can avoid. Letting your students see you make healthy choices and take care of yourself sets a good example and reminds them that you’re a real person, too.

It’s one more way to play into the teacher-martyr narrative.

Good teachers buy supplies for their students. Good teachers prioritize school over their families. The best teachers show up to work no matter how they’re feeling. Nope. Good teachers need days off to preserve their physical and mental well-being, and schools need to encourage teachers to take care of themselves and avoid burnout.

I’m all about rewarding teachers for their dedication and hard work. But not at the expense of our health, our families’ health, and our students’ health. 

We’d love to hear—does your district reward teachers for not taking sick days? Come and share in our WeAreTeachers HELPLINE group on Facebook.

Plus, how teachers can stay healthy and save their voice during flu and cold season.

We Need to Stop Rewarding Teachers for Not Taking Sick Days

Posted by Captain Awesome

Captain Awesome teaches seventh grade English at an urban charter school for refugee and immigrant kids. She is a big fan of books, social justice, holiday-flavored coffee creamers, righteous indignation, and Friday Night Lights.

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