When a teacher's absenteeism becomes excessive, a principal must consider its impact on students. When student achievement is affected, challenging the teacher's attendance record for purposes of termination might not be a pleasant task, but it is a necessary one.
One member of our teaching team had been taking an excessive amount of sick time. My biggest concern was the impact of the teacher's absenteeism on his students. I also was concerned that if I did nothing, other teachers might begin to "copy" his pattern of absenteeism. I had to act.
I began to be concerned about the teacher's excessive absences last November. Because the teacher was a new transfer into my school, one of the first steps I took was to look at his prior attendance record. I learned that absenteeism also had been an issue during his previous assignment. That information helped bolster my resolve to address the problem head-on (Needless to say, I was very disappointed that his previous principal had not been up front with me about the issue when the transfer was initiated.)
I set up an appointment with the teacher so I could express my concern about the impact of his absences on his students and on our school. I talked to him at length about the need for everyone on our team to work together to raise student achievement, and explained that a weak link in the chain would not be tolerated. I also talked to him about the impact of frequent absences and numerous substitute teachers on the students in his classroom.
Although the teacher claimed to be legitimately ill, his doctor's notes covered only some of the absences. We discussed the other sick days at great length.
We met several times between November and February. At each meeting, I wrote a summary of his attendance record, noted absences that were excused and those that were unexcused, and detailed what we talked about -- including my warnings that termination action would be set in motion if his attendance did not improve. We both signed the meeting summaries.
When the situation did not improve, I invited the district personnel supervisor to sit in with us to discuss the problem. All three of us signed the notes from that meeting. The teacher promised that he would do all in his power to be in attendance. He missed the next three days without a doctor's excuse. At that point, I requested an administrative hearing.
The district supervisor of personnel, the supervisor of student services, the employee, the employee's father, and I were present at the administrative hearing. (We are not a union district, so no union representative was present.) I presented the documentation I had collected, and the district supplied a complete list of the teacher's absences during the preceding three years. At the hearing, the employee offered no reason to assume that the absenteeism would be less frequent. District personnel in attendance took a look at the facts, considered the employee's statements, and agreed unanimously that termination should proceed.
Anytime a situation such as this one arises -- a situation that might result in the termination of an employee -- two questions always guide my decisions:
In this case, the answers were clear, so my course was clear. Although it was difficult to terminate the employee, it had to be done.
About the How I Handled... Team of Principal Problem Solvers
The How I Handled... series is intended to be practical resource for all principals and principals-to-be. Each week, members of Education World's How I Handled team share how they solved actual problems relating to school leadership, parent involvement, professional development, and a host of other "principal" responsibilities. Six principals comprise our How I Handled team; two of them are elementary school principals, two work at the middle level, and two are high school principals. Team members remain anonymous; in that way, they can share freely the range of issues/problems they are called on to solve each day.