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Op-ed: Confessions of an absentee teacher

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By Sonya Ashby

It’s that time of year again — election season, also known as teacher-bashing season. Have you noticed that in the last few years every time an election is pending teachers are once again painted as villains and leeches of the public coffers? This cycle has happened with such predictability that one wonders what the powers that be are trying to divert the public attention from. (cough PEIA cough)

So, what have teachers done now? We have committed the unpardonable sin of actually using a benefit that is part of our compensation package. Oh, the sacrilege! Teachers in West Virginia have been historically underpaid, but part of our benefit package is 12 sick days and 3 personal days. And now the powers that be don’t want us to use those days.

When the bashing cycle begins, teachers and their supporters flock to social media to once again proclaim how much unpaid work we do after hours to defend our profession against these attacks on its character. Unfortunately, when this happens it creates the impression that teachers are happy to sacrifice their entire lives for their students. Because of this teacher-bashing/defense cycle, the public perception of teachers runs the gamut from sacrificial saints to lazy leeches … lather, rinse, repeat.

Here’s the harsh truth. Teachers are expected to love their students like family. But once those students graduate, the most a teacher will be to these kids is a fond memory. Former students may visit and offer thanks, but fond memories and thanks don’t pay our bills, or maintain our health. This does not mean we don’t care about our students, but simply stating the fact that familial support goes both ways. Students are not family, they are students. Teaching is a calling, but it is also how we put food on the table. Teachers know these students are not going to be a part of our personal support system and they are not going to take care of us when we get old. Our family and friends do that — if we have prioritized and maintained those relationships.

I confess I was an absentee teacher last year. I missed more days last year than I have ever missed in a school year — fifteen. I will probably be an absentee teacher again this year. As the late-in-life child of now elderly parents, I knew when I began my career that my parents would need my assistance as they aged. I planned for this eventuality by banking my sick days — grateful that this was a benefit of my chosen occupation. Was last year an easy one? Absolutely not! In most other professions, the work can be delegated to a colleague or pile up on the absent employee’s desk until they return.

Educators don’t have that luxury. In order to take days off, we must pre-plan the work that is to be done by students in our absence. As any teacher will tell you, it’s often easier to come to work sick than it is to prepare for a sub.

I have not lost one moment of sleep over taking fifteen sick days. If prioritizing the needs of my aging parents makes me look like a bad teacher on paper, I can live with that. Because after my parents die, I will be able to look myself in the mirror and know I provided them the love and care they needed in their waning years. And when I am elderly myself, I will take comfort in the fact that I prioritized my family over my students. It is my hope that my students will see that I modeled this priority and treat their families accordingly.

I will not apologize for being a human being who has a life, friends, family, obligations and personal needs outside the classroom. I will not apologize that my parents are not dying fast enough for me to have perfect attendance. I will not apologize for taking the benefits I have earned.

I have eighteen years’ experience as a public-school educator. If I were to put all the initials from my advanced degrees, certifications and trainings after my name, there would be more letters after my name than in it. There is nothing more I can do to prove my dedication to the teaching profession. I have come to the painful conclusion if I ever could attain the title of Sacrificial Saint, it would not matter to the teacher bashers.

I refuse to give up my personal life in pursuit of the respect that will never be given even though it has been earned. So, while the keyboard warriors waste their time bashing me and those of my profession, I will be teaching my students, caring for my friends and family, and living my life.

I will also be taking my leave benefits as I need them without batting an eye about it.

I encourage my colleagues to do the same.