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04 May 2014


My elementary school friend Ann could not play with me when her father was home because he was a merchant seaman and gone for months at a time. On the day he came home, the family stayed together. I don't recall Ann skipping school to extend this togetherness. I just recall that she wouldn't come to my house and I couldn't come play at her house when he first got home.

While my peers learned the alphabet song in First Grade I was sick at home. Was it in Fourth Grade that I had the flu for a week and missed learning how to count in Spanish? I eventually learned my ABCs, but I'm embarrassed to admit that of all the children at Echo Lake Elementary, I might be the only one who finally learned uno dos tres…  in college. 

I remember how hard it was to catch back up with I was absent. In retrospect, I realize I was lucky. My mother made me go to school. I was bullied and teased and sometimes lazy and prone to tonsillitis and chest colds and procrastination, but my mother never allowed me to make a habit of being absent. Too many missed days meant I would have no idea what was going on when I got back to school. A day here or there, a week when I was really sick were allowed, but she ignored my fake illnesses. My mother would look at me as I whined about not feeling well. "Do you have a temperature?" Usually I was shoved off to school.

As a teacher I get a different sort of question, and often from students who should know better. 

It's one of any teacher's least favorite questions: "Are we doing anything important in class today?" 

Usually this is a precursor to the student announcing they are leaving early because they are ill, or they have a doctor/dental/chiropractic appointment, or they must to drive to Portland, or can't they please go to another class to finish an assignment? 

I know what's coming when the question begins, and they should know what I'm going to tell them: We are always doing something important in class. Every day. Sometimes I can trust them to soldier on alone, but often I can't do a thing when they make a habit of missing school. They are just avoiding the work. They haven't been doing it and they aren't going to do it on their own. They have the habit of missing school and have developed the habit of not knowing what's going on. Missing too much class is a disaster.

A troubling trend we're seeing is students who have been allowed or encouraged to miss school from the age of five. For an increasing number of students, missing school becomes normal, habitual. A teacher in my building looked at attendance records and discovered a shocking fact: By the time they are Juniors in high school, some students have missed enough days of school to amount to 2-3 years of absences. In ten years of school, in other words, they have missed about 25%. No wonder they aren't doing well in class! There is really nothing wrong with them only they missed too much to keep up. 

This isn't just a local trend. Statewide, educators are alarmed at what happens to students who frequently miss class. Attendance problems have drawn attention on a national level, too. Beginning as early as Kindergarten, missing school predicts a poor future in education and in life.

"The impact of chronic absence is significant. Research has shown, for example, that chronic absence in kindergarten is associated with lower academic performance in first grade; students who were chronically absent in Pre-K and kindergarten in Baltimore were more often absent in later grades and more likely to repeat a grade; and in Georgia, a 3 percent improvement in attendance, or five more days, would have led more than 55,000 students to pass standardized tests."USA Today

By the time they arrive in my classroom in their late teens they have decided they have learning disabilities or emotional problems, diagnosed or undiagnosed issues of all sorts. And sometimes they do. But other times what's gone wrong is simple: They missed key instruction and can't keep up; they have never learned how to work at classwork because someone always helped them avoid it; or they think they are stupid because their skills are so low—and the main reason for all of this is that they just have not been in school enough to keep up with their peers. 

The Oregonian reports: "In Oregon, a shocking 24 percent of kindergartners missed 17 or more days of school during 2009-10, the study found. Among first-graders, 18 percent were chronically absent." That's nearly 10% absence. Some of my students are absent for a day or two every week, or they vanish for several days and come back wanting to know "what I missed" while ignoring the work they already know we are doing. 

I have students with a dozen "excused" absences in a single term. The parent wants my help because their student is so "confused" by what we're doing. 

At this point, I have to wonder if we are all playing on the same team?

It starts in Kindergarten. Students miss a lot of school and this becomes a pattern. They find the work, when they return to it, too hard. They don't understand. They are confused. They look for an answer, an excuse. Mom or Dad write them an excuse when they don't want to go to school, they fall further behind, and pretty soon they are seniors and not on track for graduation. 

They don't want to work hard, they want me to magically fix it. Someone taught them that magically making work go away was possible. It wasn't me. 

Maybe we need some help from the courts on this one. Someone needs to explain to parents that allowing a five year old to miss too much school may literally mean she won't graduate a dozen years later. Everything points to this becoming a habitual problem early in a child's life. Parents need to ensure they set boundaries for absences early in life. Waiting to try to set these boundaries later on can be painful for all. There's not much a permissive parent can impose on a seventeen year old. 

There are plenty of reasonable and practical reasons for missing school, but students sometimes miss school because they take vacation in the middle of the school year, or to care for younger siblings or an ill parent. Some stay home because the family is moving or has some other emergency. Absences don't have to ruin their education. For example, I've have had students who miss a week in the fall to hunt, but who made sure they were caught up before they left on the trip. 

It's a problem when missing school becomes a habit of missing out on education. Sometimes students stay home only because, for whatever reason, their parents don't insist they go

These students don't learn to become capable readers because it's "hard," and perhaps their parents do not insist they read because the parents never read when they can help it. Their children don't do well in math because their parents didn't like math either, or because it's "hard," or because they are required to take years of math beyond what their parents needed to graduate from high school and so there is no one at home to help them with assignments. They don't pay attention in class because they would rather have one-on-one attention. But teachers are not parents, and every teacher has dozens or perhaps a hundred students to look after. The student has to make an effort. It is not the job of the teacher to cater in every case to every reluctant learner. 

If you want to become a better reader (mathematician, runner, football player…) you have to practice. You have to direct your entire attention, even if for short periods of time, to doing it better. Listening to books on tape will provide some understanding of a story, but it won't make anyone a better reader. Only struggling to read better will accomplish that. It's not easy. A severely dyslexic student of mine was pushed and pushed and pushed to read. It was so very hard, but the student was not allowed to stop trying and that student eventually, painfully, found a way. And that was a student with an actual disability diagnosed in childhood who is succeeding in college. 

Always using a prop to get through the need to read—listening to a tape or someone read the text aloud, skimming a summary, or faking the act of reading in some other manner is like training for a 5K by having someone drive you through the route. 

An inability to read is a handicap, and like most skills, reading is gained through struggle and persistence. 

Some students fail to develop skill because it's "too hard." There is nothing wrong with struggle. We all struggle.

Some parents fail to teach their children and some students fail to accept a necessary truth: Education can be fun and exciting, but it's not easy. Lying on the couch is easy. Not paying attention and then complaining that school is boring is code for: "I don't know how to try."

Even students who understand how to work hard at meaningless jobs for pay may have completely missed the boat when it comes to showing up every day at school prepared to learn. 

Failing to show up is absolute failure.

This is another example of why does this surprise anyone?

I try to repeat directions orally several times. I diagram on the board. I explain why we do things and why we do them the way we do. I provide models and I model assignments by doing them myself. I hand my students a schedule for the entire term—twelve weeks at a glance—with the major deadlines. I have every project broken down into steps, a little bit at a time. I have handouts explaining most everything I teach in class—created mostly for the sake of students who have been absent or who fail to listen in class. 

These are all best practices and provided to ensure that my students will get the message in multiple ways. 

And then a student does not listen in class, finds the written directions "confusing," argues with details of the assignment because someone else said it was something else, has not completed the work due that day, but can't hand it in Monday because he will be gone all the next week. He's not stupid, disabled, or mean. There's not a thing wrong with him, except he's frequently absent. And someone has allowed him to have all these "excused" absences and then also allowed him to believe that his absences are not his problem but mine. 

School is work. Work is good; it makes us stronger. It doesn't just happen, we have to do it. 

I will be hearing from the parent, no doubt, wanting me to help that student. The student blames me for his trouble and so will the parent. I will do my best, but the reality is: If the student came to class every day, ready to work, we wouldn't be having these conversations.  


  1. You reminded me of a time with my daughter....Gosh she was probably 16 going on 17 . She hadn't been driving her own car to school for very long when i got a call from the school nurse that she was sick and was going home for the day. I was at work and so was hubby so she drover herself home. She called me later and said 'MOM that just felt so WRONG...leaving school in the middle of the day, driving myself home with out you. It just felt like i was doing something wrong. ' She felt guilty leaving school early even if she was sick, especially without me there to pick her up. LOL! I felt that was a sure sign of a pretty good kid. :) Anyway you reminded me of that and it made me smile. Hugs!deb

    1. Thank you for telling your story, Deb. Yes, and I think this is another reality of modern life: Both parents (or the single one) must work and that makes it exponentially more difficult to ensure our children are learning this lesson that attendance matters. Clearly your daughter got the message!

  2. As you can imagine, college students skip class often. Then, on their papers I write, "as was explained in class last week, XYZ - perhaps that was the day you were absent.... " with a silent "duh" - I like to channel Tom Wayman's wonderful poem "Did I Miss Anything?"
    Yes, if they don't come, they can't win.
    Thanks, Jan,
    Sara J.

    1. LOVE that poem. It's what happens when I have a "bad" sub sometimes. Some groups take more leadership and designate a classmate to call when they have a question. Other classes simply sit on their hands, glad not to have to do anything for a day and blame it on the sub.

      Most students figure out how to work hard in high school—education isn't free because someone is paying, and it requires work on the part of the student.

      Those who don't accept this sometimes experience a rude awakening when they flunk out of college or are unable to find a department will to offer them a major because their grades are too low. Some smart students are scared when they arrive in my class and they can't fake As anymore—they have never learned to work hard because they have never had to work hard to get by… but that's a post for another day.

      In public high schools we can't allow students to "flunk out" anymore. It isn't legal. Whatever their behavior short of actually being in jail (at which point the State takes over expenses), we must provide education.

  3. My biggest struggle as a full-day title kinder teacher isn't the fact that the kids are ELLs or that they're unprepared to be in school all day without any basic school skills. I feel confident in my ability to teach them all of that. My biggest battle is with truancy and parents' willingness to keep their kids at home "to hang out." Every year, I post a fill-in poster with the words "perfect attendance" on it. Every day that all kids are there on time, we fill in a letter. 17 full attendance days later, we get a popcorn party. Last year, I didn't fill it once. Not even 17 days out of 180 of all kids attending. We're doing better this year - we MIGHT fill our second poster. When I talk to parents about being absent and the importance of attendance as you stated above, they tell me, "It's only kindergarten." It's only setting the precedent both of perseverance and a love for learning for the next 12 years. It's only building the foundational structures needed to be successful for the rest of their life. It's only teaching pre-school, kinder, and now (thanks to common core) a bunch of 1st grade skills to kids that were specifically placed in my classroom due to already being behind their peers at 5yrs old. But it's only kindergarten.

    1. Oh, Kate. You'll have to excuse me while I leave the room and go cry for a little bit. It's only kindergarten. It's only their whole life.

  4. I expected to get a lot of push back on this post—it might still come. But so far I've heard from parents, students, and teachers and they all see the need for attendance.

  5. Posted this on Facebook, but thought I would post it here as well...

    I remember... I think it was either Junior or Senior year... a friend of mine who was in your class with me, missed 18 days each semester. I couldn't believe it. I think I only missed one day a month at most (and that's spread out over four years of high school). I was a student who wouldn't stay home unless they were really sick. I only got one day to "skip" and my sister (who was my guardian at the time) set ground rules for it. That I had to still do all my homework, but because it was a special occasion, I was allowed one day. Obviously you're not saying all students who miss school are faking it or having parents allow them to stay home when they're not really needing to. If I didn't have a fever, strep throat, or if I wasn't dizzy, I went to school. I was sick a lot as a kid. Strep throat four times a year, ear infections just as often. When you get things like strep throat, you're usually required to stay home. However, my mom and my dad didn't let me fall behind if I was sick. I had to learn to adjust. Luckily, due to this, if I said I found something confusing it was usually true, not just because I wasn't trying. Honestly, I think the problem is both parents and to a certain extent schools because there are some schools that require kids to stay home if they have certain illnesses or a fever, etc. While I think it's important not to spread disease, schools need to also make sure the parents are informed that if the kids miss more than two days at a time, or even one day, they could severely fall behind so that parents know they need extra support. But then you have the parents who don't care. It's a tough situation with no clear answer except to hope the kids try.

    1. Oh, yes, I do know what it's like. There was a period in Junior High where I had strep throat over and over, every few weeks. I recall nothing specific about what I had to do to keep up, but I do know I read at home and worked on papers; completed math assignments and History. Over the summer I had my tonsil removed—my doctor kept apologizing to me for that.

      I am fairly certain all schools require students to stay home when they are contagious. That is simple common sense and a public health issue.

      But the class goes on. Both parents and students must understand that school does not stop during absences.

      I am regularly asked for homework assignments for students who are absent, and I welcome calls and emails from students when they are confused about assignments. I would hope that most teachers bend over backwards to provide information and support that students need in order the catch up from a lengthy and debilitating illness that does not allow continued effort from home.

      My own frustration is students who know, for example that we have a micro fiction due every Wednesday, and that we are reading a novel, but haven't bothered to read a page or write out a longhand draft of the micro; or the student who is gone for three quizzes, always only on the day a quiz is scheduled, but then never shows up for a make-up; or the student who has instructions and due dates he or she does not read, but asks me questions about what we have covered in class and then argues with me about the requirement, when they have those requirements right there in their hands.

      The worst is when I gather materials and complete specific instructions and the materials are never picked up or addressed and the student comes back to school a few days or a week behind.

      The best is the student brave enough to call me at home and ask a specific question because of something confusing about the assignment. I don't encourage parents to call me, but students are always welcome. I stay late on Wednesdays and many students ask for individual help at that time.

    2. I got that question sometimes, too. I never knew what to say. Important to whom? Usually, I said, if you want to learn enough to do well on your next essay, then yes. But that sent some people right out the door, guilt-free.


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