I’ve been sick this week, which reminded me of the diverse administrative reactions I’ve encountered due to illness-related absences. Having taught for so many years, my earliest absences occurred well before automated substitute systems were in place. In fact, I had to call the principal directly to explain my absence. These calls were SO unpleasant; I felt that I needed to prove that I was gravely ill, since finding a substitute was difficult. I had one principal who tried to convince me to come to school, regardless. The truth was that I almost never missed a day, sick or not. Once, while teaching a self-contained class of kids with behavior disorders, I had strep throat and was unable to speak. I remember using an alligator-shaped party clicker to get their attention, communicating my intent with gestures and facial expressions. In retrospect, I wish I had that day on videotape. Or maybe not.
I have found that teachers are likely to work while sick, no matter what substitute system is in place and regardless of their classroom assignments. Sometimes the pressure is administrative. Many principals are compassionate and tell teachers to stay home until they’re well. But others get angry, implying that there’s an unethical or unprofessional component to being absent. I do think that the pressure to teach while sick is often self-imposed; we chide ourselves for not having bodies of steel or for “abandoning” our students. There’s a certain hypocrisy to all this. We give parents a document explaining the conditions under which their kids may not come to school (or for how long they must remain at home), while we come feverish and contagious to the classroom. Don’t tell anyone that I did just that!