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When I reflect on my teaching career I am saddened by how much I put my attendance above my mental and physical health.

Here are some examples.

 I wrote sub plans on the bathroom floor at three in the morning after bouts of diarrhea and chills.

I screamed at an urgent care doctor, “Are you shitting me? I’m a teacher I have to go to work!”  He told me that I had the flu, and would need a week off. We argued back and forth until he said he would print the note and he left the room. 

Last winter break, I had tonsillitis so bad that I couldn’t speak and felt like I was swallowing broken glass. I knew that if I had rested the week before break instead of virtually teaching, that I would recover. But I didn’t rest. While my family enjoyed Christmas together, I was at home sick in bed watching via Google Duo.

Perhaps the worst thing I did was continue to work late into my pregnancy. The stress of teaching was raising my blood pressure and endangering my son’s life. My husband begged me, urged me to go on leave early. The doctor had already written the note. We already saved the money and had the means. But I stayed two weeks longer than I should. If it weren’t for my husband, the school nurse (who checked my blood pressure every hour on the hour. I am forever grateful for her), and my mentor, I don’t know if I would have left. 

What scares me in all of this is the lack of regard that I had for myself, my husband, and at the time my unborn son. I was ready to destroy myself for my attendance. And this behavior is encouraged. 

Those Perfect Attendance Awards

Some schools do the asinine practice  “perfect attendance awards” for teachers disregarding that we are adults with lives outside of our jobs (side note: I loathe practice for students too). If my child is sick and I need to take a day off to care for them, I should not be shamed in front of my peers for doing so. If I am sick, if I need a mental health day, or if any life situation that you can think is my personal business happens, I should not be shamed in front of my peers for doing so.

“Teachers need to come to work” is a phrase everyone says: the students, the administration, the parents, and even the teachers! But the vicious cycle of teacher attendance is clear: a burnt-out and broken down teacher takes time off to rest then people grumble about “coverage” or having to pick up their slack. Then those teachers become disillusioned, burnt out, and broken down by all the extra work or wearing different hats and doing different jobs. We point fingers at each other and track each other’s attendance rather than point fingers at the larger issues that perpetuate this phenomenon. 

Your Health Matters More

Let’s be honest: how do we spend those sick days when we finally take them? We worry about the sub plans that we left. We worry about our students’ behavior in our absence. We check and might even reply to emails. We grade papers and plan lessons. We think about the mess that we are going to walk into when we return. Physically we’re at home “resting,” but mentally we never left school. 

As teachers, we’re givers. We give more and more of ourselves because we believe that’s what we need to do. But the reality is that if we don’t set boundaries and limit that giving, then we give too much of ourselves. We exhaust ourselves to the point of a mental or physical—or both—breaking point. 

Lanee Higgins taught high school English and middle school ELA and AVID in Washington, D.C. and Baltimore...

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