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Absences: Preparing for the Inevitable

Kim Haynes

Student absences drive teachers crazy – not just the loss of instructional time, which many kids can’t afford, but the make-up assignments and the sneaking suspicion that the student is probably doing more copying than learning.


Teacher absences are just as bad – maybe worse. You know you should stay home, but the thought of coming up with sub plans is enough to drag you out of bed.


The solution? Prepare for the inevitable – and keep your sanity.


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For you: Know the policies in advance

Review the school’s policies before you need them. Who do you inform if you’re out sick? How will you get assignments to the sub? Keep any necessary numbers in your cell phone, so you’re prepared, no matter what.


For the Students: Establish clear policies

Establish your absence policies in advance, and make sure students and parents know them. Send a letter home or put it in the syllabus. It will cut down on the arguing when a student comes back to find they still need to take that test.


For you: Keep your classroom in control

Set your sub up for success by creating an Info Sheet with necessary information and policies. How do you handle bathroom breaks? Are there quirks of your classroom – an air conditioner that drips, or a classroom pet that needs feeding? Store this document in an easy-to-spot location to save time “cleaning up” after a sub’s visit.


For the Students: Prepare for the homework problem

Assign a week’s worth of homework at a time. Post your homework online, so students can check even if they’re not in class. Assign “homework buddies” to call each other if one of them misses class– and give extra credit to students who actually do it. Choose the solution that’s best for your classroom.


Solve the “absent student copies homework” problem with absentee assignments. For example, if you give the class math problems 1-20, ask them to do odd numbers only, leaving even numbers for make-up work. If students summarized a chapter in a novel, ask the absent student to script the chapter or write a diary entry from a character describing the chapter’s events. Make it different enough that they can’t copy and, for habitual offenders, make it a little bit harder. After all, they missed the challenge of being in class.


For you: Don’t make it hard to stay home – or to come back to work

You want students to keep learning while you’re gone, but what should they do? And do you really want to return to a mountain of papers to grade? Don’t make it harder on yourself: prepare assignments in advance and pick ones that are easy to correct.


Every teacher has extra activities they struggle to find time for: a story to read, an extra skill to practice. Set those aside for sick days. As much as possible, choose assignments that can be graded credit/no credit only, or tell the kids that if they do a good job, they’ll get extra credit.


Absences (yours or students’) are never fun, but with a little advance preparation, you – and the students – can put your energy into getting well, instead of into managing paperwork. 


What advice do you have for handling absences? Share in the comments section!