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K12 educator attendance incentives

Leaders have developed a range of strategies to reduce teacher absences
  • POSITIVE CULTURE SHIFT—A renewed focus on recognizing teachers’ achievements led to improvements in student behavior at Muhlenberg South Middle School in Kentucky.
  • REFRESHING REWARD—Teaching teams with the best attendance win lunch at James Madison Middle School in Kentucky.

For the past two years, leaders at Muhlenberg South Middle School in Greenville, Kentucky, have been working to decrease the number of teacher absences as part of a wider effort to improve school culture.

Although this has occurred during a financial crisis in which all Muhlenberg County School District staff took a 10 percent pay cut, teacher attendance at the middle school has increased 57 percent over the two years, says Principal Brian Lile.

Muhlenberg South’s efforts have fostered an environment of teamwork, appreciation and stronger relationships among staff members, says Lile, who launched an employee book club that meets every Friday morning and who covers one class for teachers on their birthdays.

Administrators also stage Survivor-like team-building games on professional development days and host staff meals, including a recent chili cook-off. A prominently placed “Shout Out” board invites students, parents and other staff members to leave positive notes for teachers.

By focusing on building a positive culture, Muhlenberg South has created a workplace where employees want to be—and student outcomes have improved because teachers are present and focused, Lile says.

Student disciplinary actions, for instance, have declined by 769 events, from 1,119 during the 2014-15 school year to 350 during 2016-17.

While teacher absenteeism is sometimes unavoidable, Muhlenberg South’s efforts represent just a few of the varied strategies schools across the country have followed toward higher attendance.

“One of the many important jobs that educators have is modeling appropriate behaviors for our students,” says Lile. “Regular attendance allows students to see adults who take pride in reporting to their job every day.”

Build awareness of absences

In 2013, when Lisa Rex arrived as principal of Central Elementary School in Mississippi’s Pascagoula-Gautier School District, teachers were missing an average of 15.3 days annually, which represented 8.5 percent of the school year. Rex, who is now principal of another school in the same district, set out to lower absences to 14 days during her first year.

With an actual target on paper, she and her team could focus on the goal and work to get teachers on board. For instance, the district starts every year with an employee pep rally that includes prizes.

“Most importantly, the vision is laid out and a road map to success is presented,” Rex says. “If you do not buy in, I believe it is uncomfortable to remain. That may sound harsh, but we are attempting to shape and save lives. Attendance is necessary.”

Rex also focused on setting an example of showing up every day, coming early and staying late. By 2016, Central’s average number of teacher absences had dropped to 8.2.

In some cases, teachers may not even realize how many days of school they’re missing—and neither do their principals. When Michael Stewart became director of human resources at Tolleson Union High School District in the Phoenix suburbs, he got to work on teacher retention, which included minimizing absences.

Stewart, now the director of Educator Workforce Initiatives at Arizona State University’s Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College, helped principals identify “abusers” of paid time off by pulling attendance trends and determining how much money was being spent on substitute teachers.

“Previously, principals had not regularly reviewed absence data and their budgets,” Stewart says. “The data was quite surprising and very revealing for many of them.”

Teachers also needed to see their absences on paper. Stewart’s HR team provided everyone’s attendance records to them in a sealed envelope. The team also created a laminated poster with all employees listed by code numbers, instead of names.

Each person’s absences and tardies were updated weekly. While teachers with excessive tardies and absences didn’t like it at first, the poster became standard practice and changed behavior. “People actually became excited to see it updated and checked it for errors,” Stewart says. “Sometimes awareness is the only tool needed to change behavior.”  

Procedures ... and prizes

In some schools or districts, normal operating procedures may cause absenteeism inadvertently. For instance, at Central in Pascagoula, teachers used to contact the school secretary if they were going to be absent or late. Rex changed the policy so teachers were required to report directly to her—which deterred some teachers from taking days off.

In Tolleson, the school calendar had traditionally included “blackout dates,” such as the day before or after a holiday, when staffers were not allowed to take personal days. “This caused a hardship for those whose families were not local and needed travel leeway,” Stewart says. “Additionally, these dates often caused staff to be dishonest about their reasons for needing to miss work.”

Stewart removed blackout dates and transitioned to paid time off rather than a specific number of sick days and personal days. The new policy helped teachers feel respected and in charge of managing their own time, which contributed to a culture of goodwill and ultimately helped improve attendance, Stewart says.

Just as teachers reward students with “treasure box” prizes for good behavior, some schools have found that rewards are effective in getting teachers to school. At James Madison Middle School in Kentucky, Principal Tim Roy offers prizes for individual and team attendance competitions. His teachers often lead Hopkins County School District in attendance.

Each month, Roy rewards teachers who have perfect attendance. Winners can choose two rewards, such as a pass to wear jeans, having an administrator cover before- or after-school duty, an extra planning period, or getting their favorite snack and drink delivered to their classroom. Twice each trimester, the grade-level team with the best attendance gets lunch from the restaurant of its choice.

These initiatives often cost little or nothing, but research (DAmag.me/absence) shows they can improve attendance for teachers and students—as well as boost education outcomes.

Plan for inevitable absences

When teachers do miss school, districts can minimize the detrimental effects to students by being prepared. Muhlenberg South has recruited several retired teachers, who already understand the school’s culture, to substitute regularly. “These retired teachers allow our teachers to leave lesson plans where instruction can continue and student learning never stops,” says Lile, the principal.

In Arizona, Tolleson Union High School District installed a new full-time employee at each school to be an “in-house guest teacher.” Classroom teachers had become resentful because they were often asked to skip prep periods to cover for absent or tardy co-workers, says Stewart, the former director of human resources.

“Teachers liked the idea of having someone they knew, someone who was familiar with the students and culture of the school, and especially someone whom they could meet with in advance about the class coverage to ensure the least disruptive absence,” Stewart says.

Traditionally, Tolleson had managed substitute budgets at the district level, and as a small system, leaders could keep up with each building’s basic needs.

“As the district grew, it was no longer possible to retain the personal connection to staff that was needed to manage and operate the sites,” Stewart says.

So, Tolleson turned over responsibilities for substitutes to a staffer at each site. These staffers report back to the substitute coordinator in the district office to manage HR paperwork.

When teachers are out, it’s also important to remain in contact with them to provide support, says Rex, at Pascagoula. “Have an open line of communication,” she says, “so that when there are circumstances that might cause absences, you know about them and might be able to offer helpful solutions.” 


Nancy Mann Jackson is an Alabama-based writer.