One of my biggest frustrations as a teacher was contending with anemic attendance policies. Although the rules on paper often looked impressive, in my experience there was rarely the political will to enforce them. The only exception was during the time I spent teaching in Manitoba where we developed a stringent policy which, if ignored, ultimately resulted in the removal of the student from class. But even there, administrative interference occasionally arose. More about that in a moment.
I have always been of the belief that something is valued only if it comes at a certain price. For example, what will you treat with more respect, the computer that you worked hard for in order to buy, or the one that someone gave you? What if you could have a new computer, television or any other consumer product free whenever you wanted it? How would you feel about these products, and how would you treat them?
In my mind, the same principle is at work in education, specifically with regard to school attendance. So many schools exact virtually no price for truancy. Oh, lip service is paid to the importance of regular attendance in the student handbooks, but ultimately truancy, unless it is really egregious, (and then only rarely), is forgiven and all teachers are expected to get the errant individual caught up so that he/she “won’t feel discouraged.”
The problem with this ‘policy of compassion’ is that it does a grave disservice both to education in general and to the truant student in particular. Essentially, the message being sent is that the service we provide is not especially valuable; were it otherwise, some very stringent requirements would be in place for the utilization of that service, not the least of which would be mandatory, regular attendance. This obvious devaluation of what we offer inevitably trickles down to the students. Those who are not keen to attend in the first place quickly learn and exploit the flexibility of the attendance policy, the result increasingly being that it is the teacher, not the student, who is placed on the defensive, inasmuch as it becomes the former’s responsibility to make certain that that the truant is giving multiple opportunities to catch up.
Who is responsible for this sad state of affairs? Clearly, both parents and administrators have to share the responsibility. Parents are frequently all too willing to lie for their children, making up excuses for their multiple absences and then placing blame on teachers for not keeping them informed or sending home work. As well, administrators rarely have the stomach for confronting attendance issues, preferring to see high pass rates that are unaffected by failures due to non-attendance. Thus you will have the situation frequently arise where the student, toward the end of the semester, is given special and intensive attention via makeup assignments and the overlooking of mark gaps due to absences in order to push him/her through. The school can then claim another success story, ‘proof ‘once more that all children can succeed. But at what cost? Apparently sacrificing educational integrity is not too high a price to pay.
Next time I will discuss the very effective attendance policy we had when I taught in Manitoba years ago.