by Dr. Jenny L. Santilli, NBCT
Statistics, damn statistics and lies.
This was my initial reaction as a public school employee to the latest smear campaign against teachers. Once again, those who wish to profit from and dismantle public schools are misleading the good people of West Virginia. Please read “Getting the Facts on School Staff Attendance” by Jenny Craig and Jacquelin Shriner in The Intelligencer. Wheeling News-Register and Tega Toney’s explanations in “Teachers missing 10 or more days throughout school year; student performance continues to drop” in The Register-Herald for a realistic and balanced view of school employee absences which rebut the gross misrepresentation of the facts. Now, let’s take a deeper look into the human stories behind the statistics.
First, it should be clarified that the annual 15 leave days (11 sick days and four leave without cause days) are contractual; they are part of our benefits package. These are days we earn. But, not all employees are treated equally concerning accrued days at time of retirement. We now have three systems for unused leave days. The luckiest group can convert unused days into extra years of service or can buy health insurance. Less lucky are those who can only use them to buy health insurance. The least lucky can use them for nothing; they are in the “use it or lose it” group.
Can you see the gross inequity in this patchwork system? The legislators created this mess and now want to fault employees who are playing according to the rules they set up to game them. They forget they are playing with the lives of educated, problem solving and critical thinking trained professionals. The legislators and their lackeys demonizing teachers are like the school yard bullies who cry foul the loudest when their victims fight back and get the better of them.
Second, teachers are not robots. We are human beings with families and other responsibilities beyond the classroom. We are mothers and fathers who take children to the doctor, dentist, ophthalmologist, or emergency room. We are daughters and sons who take elderly parents to these appointments. We are foster parents or legal guardians with mandated court and counseling appointments. We attend funerals of family members and close friends. We attend out of state weddings and baptisms.
We are human beings susceptible to illnesses and conditions that can weaken us to the point we are not capable of fulfilling our daily classroom duties. We are human beings who, when ill, can spread illness to innocent children and colleagues should we report to work. One year I missed three weeks due to pneumonia; I promise you I was not just using up my days because I could.
We are human beings who become emotionally and spiritually drained as we support children who are hyperactive, attention deficit, homeless, neglected, hungry, physically abused, emotionally abused, sexually abused, addicted to alcohol or drugs, depressed, suicidal or who kick, bite, hit, pinch, punch or spit on us. Our class sizes increase every year, stretching us even thinner. Sometimes we do not just need a day to mentally recuperate but to visit an emergency room from student inflicted wounds. And, as I learned from an aide who was stabbed in the eye with a pencil, make sure you take at least three days off. Otherwise, all your follow up appointments, treatments and medications will not be covered by worker’s compensation.
Third, let’s look at our profession through the lens of other professions. To quote Anmoore Police Chief Don Quinn, the father of some former students, “If a doctor, lawyer, or dentist has 40 people in his office at one time, all of whom had different needs, and some of whom didn’t want to be there and were causing trouble, and the doctor, lawyer or dentist, without assistance, had to treat them all with professional excellence for nine months, then he might have some conception of the classroom teacher’s job” (www.weteachwelearn.org).
If you are not a teacher, think about your job. How many clients or customers do you help at one time?
Is it a crucial part of your daily duties that you be cognizant of the following to help them?
· With whom they live
· Their emotional challenges
· Their physical challenges
· Their learning challenges
· Their plans for their futures
· Their level of safety in their home
· If their basic needs for food, clothing and shelter are being met
· Their mood for the day
· Which customers should not be in close proximity with each other
· Food and chemical allergies
· Physical impairments or conditions
· If they are depressed
· If they cut themselves
· If they are suicidal
Teachers need to be cognizant of all these factors and more every day for every student. In your capacity, do you have an administrative assistant, a book keeper, or an office manager to aid you? Teachers do not.
Is it any wonder that on occasion teachers need to take a day or two to regroup? When an embarrassing story became public about how one West Virginia delegate lost his eyesight, he took a few days off to be with family and regroup. Was he vilified in the press? Was he accused of not caring about his job? Of course, not. We teachers need to be on our game all day, every day. Those who need a “mental health day” or are seeking medical treatment, sometimes due to physical abuse from a student, should receive respect and consideration for their choices. (PS. It is not anyone’s business why a professional is taking a day off unless it is a sick day immediately before or after a school holiday or if the leave is for three consecutive days.)
I am in my 39th year of teaching - 37 proud years in West Virginia’s public schools. I have yet to meet a colleague who took a day off just to burn a day because he or she could. If those outside of the school system knew what a herculin task it is to plan for a substitute teacher, they would understand that taking a day off is no easy task. If I had a dollar for every time a returning teacher said, “It’s more work preparing for a substitute. It’s easier to just come to work sick,” I would be the owner of a beach front house in Costa Rica.
Some of my unfortunate colleagues in the “use it or lose it” system take more days than those of us who will benefit from our accrued leave days when we retire. But, I have no issue with that as I see them attending holiday parties with their grade school children, traveling with their children to out of state swim meets, caring for elderly parents, taking 12 weeks of sick leave to nurse a spouse recovering from surgery, or taking as many days as they can after the birth of a child. Truth be told, I am jealous of their freedom. As my family’s main bread winner, I did not always participate in these events so I could save my days for the future and earn a bonus at the end of the year for being absent no more than five days.
My hope is that legislators create a balanced and equitable leave system for all employees. My hope is that legislators and members of the public realize demonizing teachers for using their leave does not move this great state forward in providing the educational system our children deserve. My hope is that those who wish to destroy public education and their lackeys in the West Virginia legislature recognize that this recent distortion of statistics and continued demonization of teachers are further means to reduce the number of heroes willing to enter the noble profession of teaching. My hope is they will value children and school employees more than they value their short-sighted greediness.