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Symptoms of a Guilty Teacher

Outside the Box Teaching Ideas


While chatting in a teacher's group online, someone posed the question; “Do you feel guilty when you are absent?” The responses were surprising -- at least to me. I thought I was the only teacher who suffered from intense guilt when needing to be absent. Apparently, according to the number of teachers who responded “Yes,” I am not.

The condition I have termed ATS (Absent Teacher Syndrome) affects hundreds of teachers across the U.S. every day. ATS does not discriminate between newbies and those who are “Seasoned.” It does not care if you are a preschool teacher, elementary teacher, or secondary teacher. It can affect anyone at anytime. The effects are so bad, teachers are willing to drag themselves into classroom activites pulling behind an IV pole, just to keep from being absent!

What causes such a condition, what are the symptoms, and is there hope for suffering teachers?

ATS is caused by many things. An unexpected absence such as a family emergency, a 24-hour bug, or a sick child can trigger ATS more rapidly than a planned absence. Even with the best-laid plans, there is cause for alarm.

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Another cause: The teacher who believes the school just cannot operate without their presence. I think I may fall into this category just a little. It is not that I think the building would crumble, minds would turn to mush, or anything horrific would happen, I just need to know what is going on in my classroom at all times. Perhaps it is more of a control thing.

In addition to the above, entertaining thoughts such as “What if” can bring on ATS.  From day one, teachers learn a great deal about their students. Teachers know which student will make the best choices and which student has to be kept at arms length. What if something happens and you are not there to diffuse the situation?

The symptoms of ATS include denial of even being sick (even if the thermometer says 102), checking your school email a dozen times (or more) throughout the day, texting or emailing your teaching partner to check on your class, and/or watching the clock for dismissal time so you can call and find out every detail of the day. Teachers who suffer from chronic ATS may even post comments on their Facebook page about missing their students or email the students/parents to see if they “Survived” classroom activities without them.

Although teachers spend countless hours preparing lesson plans, classroom activities, and assessments, the idea of a substitute stepping in and not following these plans to the letter creates a stress that perhaps no other profession can experience. Since every minute of the day is accounted for, it is not easy to just write, “Do this” and “Do that.” The teacher has to assume the substitute has teaching experience but there is the chance that a complete novice will enter your classroom. On the off chance that happens, every detail has to be spelled out, down to who can sit with whom and who has to be timed if they go to the bathroom. Not to mention drawing out a map of the classroom detailing where everything can be found, a map of the school, and a list of students who can and cannot be helpers.  It is more work to be absent than it is to try to muddle through the day. No wonder ATS is so rampant!

Thankfully there is hope for suffering teachers. The treatment includes creating a sub tub (or folder) that has everything already laid out for your replacement for those unexpected days. Another treatment is recognizing that your health is important and to get the rest you need: This will help you to be more productive in the classroom, and establish substitute rules with students including expectations and consequences.

When you’re at home, turn off  the computer and will yourself not to check in on the class. They will survive without you, at least for a day or two!

Will the guilt completely fade away? I don't know. I have been teaching for about 20 years and I still feel guilty when I am out. I think this feeling comes with profession. Teaching is unlike no other: You bond with your students, so I think it comes naturally to miss them and not want to miss the teaching moments you worked so hard to plan.

How about you? Do you suffer from ATS?

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