Why I’d rather give my kids pneumonia than take a sick day

My best friend had pneumonia last year. It did not warrant the kind of sick days where you can secretly enjoy binge-watching TV and eating ice cream; it was actually debilitating, and it did not sound like a pleasant experience by any stretch of the imagination. I know deep down that, if I were to come down with a similar illness, I would need to take time off work, and the title of this post is a (hopefully) obvious hyperbole. But I also know that many teachers who shouldn’t be at work go anyway, and here’s why.

“Taking a day,” in short, is so much more of a hassle than just sticking it out and hoping you feel better in the afternoon. The unplanned days are the worst. I don’t know many teachers at all who are out of personal or sick days (some districts differentiate, and some don’t); rather, I know a far larger number of educators who have such a buildup of PTO in their bank that they couldn’t use it all if they tried. This just goes to show that I am not alone in my timidity to take needed time.

I know that study after study has proven that adults need playtime, too and that Americans should take more vacation. However, with the breakneck pace of our curriculum, let alone personal relationships, paperwork, and individual student issues, it just doesn’t seem worth it – or even possible.

If I do make the decision that I need to miss a day, because I’m too sick or the event or trip is too important to miss, one of two things will happen. Firstly, a sub might show up. Hopefully, I know in advance who has booked themselves in the district-wide system, and that person does not cancel late the night before. But quite possibly, this sub is a last-minute addition or even a TA pulled from other duties at our school. Either way, there’s not a good way of knowing how much or what kind of, if any, experience this substitute teacher has in a classroom. Thus, there’s no way of knowing whether or not the lesson plan you tirelessly constructed and probably even over-prepared for will be followed at all. It will almost certainly not be taught with fidelity. In short, I can’t hold my kids accountable for anything unless I’ve taught it to them, anyway, so I end up having to plan and prepare more than I would for a day that I’d be there (just in case they finish early – think about it: when you had a sub, didn’t you rush through your work because you knew you could be extra squirrelly when your teacher wasn’t around? Well, I’ve found that the best way to prevent this is to provide students with enough work to keep them engaged but ultimately keep them busy for the entire class period) only to return to piles of papers that aren’t even worth grading because how will I ever know what the sub REALLY explained to them or monitored or…? I digress.

What ends up happening is that I plan a lot of work for students to do – lots more than I would ever expect to get done in a class period, and all things that can be done completely independently. (On the off chance that no sub is available, students in each class period will be split among remaining teachers, and I know, having been on the receiving end of such extra students, the wrath that could come from students being sent with no work.) This usually ends up looking like a packet of problems or questions. As I mentioned, I have no intention of grading this when I return, but I need to convince the students otherwise. And in all honesty, I will probably spend a good amount of time looking over it, just to see how my kids are progressing without me.

Of course, there’s a lot that has to go into the process of even getting a sub. It varies by school, but the requirements are usually some combination of a phone call, email, and log in an online system. Those are bare minimum, according to policy, but every good teacher is also going to let their colleagues and students know of their absence in advance, taking a few extra moments the day or two before to go over intended lesson plans and assignments.

Oh, yeah. Before I even leave school the day before my planned absence, I know that I need to “sub-proof” my classroom. In years past, I have had things go missing when I’m gone – maybe not during class, but when I’m not there for the entire day and no one else has keys, my door has to stay unlocked from 8-4. Beyond that, my mother taught me to clean up before people come over. Thus, I feel the need to straighten up and organize my desk before anyone else plans to spend any time at it.

Taking this into account, just imagine coming back the day after the absence: furniture is askew; papers are piled up and maybe sorted into stacks by class period; sticky notes that I painstakingly used to label each individual assignment are somehow, inexplicably, still intact on full stacks of papers. What did they do while I was gone? I vaguely wonder as I begin to pull out from their secret hiding spots all of my favorite magnets and the best colors of dry erase markers and return them to their rightful locations…

I wrote the above post assuming advance knowledge of the absence. If a teacher comes on with an unexpected illness mere hours before their report-to-work time, just imagine everything above needing to happen with no one in charge of making sure it gets done.

As a student, did you have any idea what was going on behind the scenes of the days with substitutes? Teachers, does anyone have vastly different experiences than I? Please weigh in.


B T Bubble Sheet


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