Absence makes the heart…

Left alone to learn?

Left alone to learn?

I remember in 2007 visiting a primary school with a colleague in Kerala. Many of the familiar characteristics that I would have associated with any school in England, or for that matter in many of the other countries I have visited over the years, were evident as I explored the corridors and classrooms. The smiling inquisitive faces of children eager to scrutinise the stranger entering their classroom, and the whispering behind hands as they discussed who I might be and why I was there, was a scene I had witnessed many times before. The visit, as with most of this kind, afforded opportunities for me to seek out the familiarities of classrooms everywhere, and the unique features associated with culture and tradition that I would not expect to see at home.

A couple of times during the visit I came to classrooms that were either empty or had just a few pupils in attendance, sitting chatting to each other or working quietly on an exercise from a book. Where, I enquired of my colleague, were the teachers from these classes? Today they didn’t come, I was informed. Were they ill? I wondered. Or perhaps they had child care problems? No, I was informed. Today they simply hadn’t come.

For those of us working in education systems in western countries, such an attitude to absenteeism would be unthinkable, but the latest UNESCO Education For All Report highlights teacher absence as a major limiting factor in the education of children in many countries, including India. With specific reference to the country the report’s authors state that:-

“Across India, absenteeism varied from 15% in Maharashtra and 17% in Gujarat – two richer states – to 38% in Bihar and 42% in Jharkhand, two of the poorest states.”

The impact of absence in schools has been a source of concern for some time and has been the focus of a number of research studies in India (*see references below). The frustrations for policy makers who are intent on improving education is self-evident, and as the report highlights, at a time when efforts to encourage children and their parents to improve school attendance seems to be making positive strides, this is one factor that may hinder progress.

“While many more children are getting to school worldwide, teacher absenteeism sometimes significantly reduces the amount of teaching they receive, undermining their learning. Efforts to reduce absenteeism need to target the reasons teachers fail to turn up to school, which can include low pay and poor teaching conditions”.

Whilst we may be quick to condemn teachers for their lack of professionalism and dereliction of duties, we need to examine the reasons why this state of affairs exists. In this respect the UNESCO report takes a reasoned view and recognises that until the conditions for teachers are improved, those who are expected to work in the poorest communities and often with families where there is no history of school completion, are going to have difficulties making a full professional commitment. In my own limited experience of India I have met teachers from some of the poorer government schools who cannot afford to feed and clothe their families on a basic teachers’ salary and therefore take additional employment in order to survive. As the report recognises:-

In some poor countries pay levels do not even cover basic living costs. When salaries are too low, teachers often need to take on additional work – sometimes including private tuition – which can reduce their commitment to their regular teaching jobs and lead to absenteeism”.

The solution to this problem does not lie in the implementation of more punitive measures against teachers, though the report does state that:-

“In India, only one head teacher in 3,000 government schools reported dismissing a teacher for repeated absence. By contrast, 35 private school head teachers, out of 600 surveyed, reported having dismissed teachers for this reason”.

The dismissal of teachers is unlikely to have the desired impact unless others are available to take their place, and it is evident that the supply of teachers to the poorer schools in India is far from guaranteed. The answer must lie in improving the conditions of teachers, raising their status by providing them with recognition for the challenging work they undertake, and giving them the professional development that they need in order to take greater pride in their work. Above all, teachers working in the poorest areas need to be recognised and appreciated for the transformative impact they can have on the lives not only of their pupils, but on whole communities. Whilst every teacher has a personal responsibility to uphold the finest ethics of their profession, politicians and administrators must bear some responsibility for supporting them in their work. As the report recognises:-

“Governments can also do more to address teacher absenteeism by improving teachers’ working conditions, making sure they are not overburdened with non-teaching duties and offering them access to good health care. Strong school leadership is required to ensure that teachers show up on time, work a full week and provide equal support to all. School leaders also need training in offering professional support to teachers”.

I was greatly moved by the empathy for teachers shown by a student who is quoted in the report. She says:-

“I do not get angry with the teachers when they don’t come to school as I understand that they may have some problems themselves”.

B. Shravani, student, Andhra Pradesh, India

This student is pragmatic where we might be condemnatory. We should never condone the unathorised absence of teachers, but neither should we tolerate the low regard in which so many of them are held.

Following my visit to the school in 2007 I strolled along the beach less than half a mile from the classrooms I had visited on an hour earlier. Here I watched a typical gathering of Indian boys playing cricket on their sandy pitch. Being incompetent in the local Malayalam language I asked my colleague to find out from the boys why they weren’t in school. The answer was predictable: “No school today, teacher didn’t come.”

*Duflo, E, & Hanna, R. (2005) Monitoring works: getting teachers to come to school. Working Paper 11880. Cambridge, MA: National Bureau Of Economic Research

*Kremer, M., Chaudhury, N., Rogers, F. H., Muralidharan, K. & Hammer, J. (2005), Teacher absence in India: a snapshot. Journal of the European Economic Association, 3 (2-3) 658–667.

You can download a full copy of the report from: http://www.unesco.org/new/en/education/themes/leading-the-international-agenda/efareport/reports/2013


10 thoughts on “Absence makes the heart…

  1. My school days showed me some of the most committed teachers. I went to a convent where the monthly fees was Rs. 250. We had 50 children in each classroom with one teacher- with no assistant, no helper, in lower grades, there used to be one “aaya” sitting close to the restroom area. We had 9 such sections. We had no environment but a tightly packed classroom with old wooden benches and tables. Four in a bench and so close to each other, we almost sat on each other. The teacher’s only assistant to keep us all quiet and listen to them was a small wooden ruler that was used when we used to get really wild. It was not something uncommon. I used to get hit on my lower knees almost everyday as I used to be very talkative and naughty – always playing pranks on the teacher! I love my teachers despite everything because they really wanted us to learn, they used to go out of the way to explain concepts. My Geography teacher in grade 9 called us home to explain concepts we did not understand, took extra classes that were free of charge. This was done by many teachers. I don’t think they were treated any better than what they are today. I must say that private schools are paying much better now but the fact is that in India in most places people who come for teaching come because they couldn’t find anything else to do. I find many teachers saying that they took up teaching because it is convenient wrt timings, vacation etc.
    So, I do not know what really brings in commitment.

    • Hi Savitha,
      Thank you for these comments. You are quite right, the majority of teachers are committed professionals who go the extra mile for their pupils. I am sure most of us can recall teachers whose influence upon our lives was profound and long lasting.
      As I said in my piece, we need to ensure that the conditions in which teachers work enables them to feel valued and appreciated. Where teachers lack the respect of those who employ or administer them we are going to see low self-esteem and an indifference towards professional responsibilities. Each one of us who works with teachers and in schools needs to consider how we can best assist teachers to see the contribution that they can make to the lives of children and families.

  2. Why blame only teachers.
    Look at the parents,they bring children in this world without any love but,only desire.
    The school is an outsourced agency as is the army.
    Can we have a school as was in ancient India?The children came together to learn.In case there is a difficulty they would go to a teacher.
    Today we have this google god who knows all that is so called knowledge or information.Give every child an iPad and do away with teachers.
    What we need is wisdom and not just knowledge.Knowledge without wisdom is a curse to humanity.

  3. My dear friend Satish,
    As ever your words encourage me to think in different ways. The need for wisdom is certainly true and something for which we must all strive. Unfortunately, in common with many, I suspect that my supply of ignorance far outweighs my wisdom.
    I agree with the sentiments of your posting -a return to the principles of the Gurukul has a certain appeal. Where I am less than comfortable is with the notion of blame. In my experience the apportioning of blame simply leads to an expansion of recrimination. Rather than blame can we not all try and work together to find better solutions to support our teachers, children and families. Let’s keep this debate open and we can bring it to a climax when next we meet in the Valley.

  4. As always, I hear your empathy Richard …but teacher absenteeism is an epidemic that is not unique only to the government schools. This is a topic that is so contextual and really pulls at emotional chords. I am torn between despair and anger and frustration at the void and insecurity a teacher’s absence leaves in a student’s learning. Unavoidable circumstances apart, in absences that can be anticipated , I wish commitment and care was meted out in everyone being equally pre – prepared and planned to empower the student to work by themselves or support the substitute teacher, enroll parent volunteers, … the entire system of parents, management, teachers , policies needs to come together to make that work..whatever it takes… because… learning must go on.

  5. Hi Shweta,
    I think the final part of your posting here is so critical. We must build communities of teachers and learners in which we all work together to improve situations. Parents, managers, siblings, can all be important to the teaching system and teachers must also become effective learners. Each one feels a different kind of pressure within the education system and unless we are all prepared to listen to each other we will never move forward. I know that your work as a teacher, a student and a parent can make a huge contribution to this process.

  6. Just saying hello today as I found this a very interesting article. Having worked for years in a Human resource role and having discussed absenteeism on many levels my favourite replies to the issue of absenteeism were as follows:

    (1) sometimes life gets in the way
    (2) not everything in life needs to be explained
    (3) while empathy and compassion are necessary in many cases, one must not become complacent in the acceptance of regular absences.
    (4) self efficacy and job satisfaction are of most importance.
    (5) motivation – be it intrinsic or extrinsic – thats what brings me to my job each day.
    (6) suggested improvements for conditions (wide variety of jobs – multinational) were professional development, personal development, financial incentives, childcare support, elderly parent care support, transport, access to promotion but most importantly the value of the jobholder as a person themselves.

    I am curious as to the reasons for absenteeism in teachers in India, I will have to read the full report now!!

  7. Thank you for a most interesting post. When you state that self efficacy and job satisfaction are of most important, you make a most critical point. Unfortunately many teachers in poorer countries are taken for granted. They have few opportunities to progress as professionals and are expected to work with few of the necessary resources to support their work. Often they are frustrated because of the lack of support they receive from the authorities who employ them. Professional and personal development is a major issue. In my own work in India I work with teachers who are determined to gain new skills and knowledge in order to become increasingly effective when working with children who have often been marginalised or even excluded from education. These teachers show immense commitment and have developed a supportive network of colleagues. However, many do not have such learning opportunities because costs are prohibitive or their managers are unprepared to invest in their development. We really must celebrate the professionalism of teachers and make their contribution to their communities more widely known if this situation is to change.

  8. Absolutely, My HR experience goes back 20 years when many women were returning to work after a marriage ban. Ireland was emerging as a multicultural, multi-ethnic nation and the workplace changed as a result. Equality issues in terms of pay, job roles, promotions, etc. were topical. Many of those women expressed feelings of guilt, low self esteem, fear of undervalue, fear while others challenged the powers that were. Interestingly, in the sharing of their stories was the impact of a teachers role in earlier life. Many felt that it was as a result of a particular teacher that they had ambition, a longing for life long learning that pulled them through. Thankfully, we have moved a long way in the equality stakes here now. As for myself, I retrained 8 years ago to become teacher and am now currently doing a Masters programme in Education – particularly interested in the area of inclusion. I feel my HR experience together with my studies give me an insight (however small) into the plight of these teachers in India. I agree, we must celebrate their endeavours, but can I ask you how do you plan to measure success/progress? Marie

  9. I must say I’m not always comfortable with the idea of measuring what should be a qualitative change. I believe that possibly the best judges of change in education are those at the receiving end. If children want to go to school because they are enjoying learning it is usually an indicator that they have good teachers.

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