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“Sick”

In a bold dramatic headline of the type associated with reports of international events that threaten global annihilation, a tabloid announced a few days ago that a handful of teachers were busted for faking illness in order to go on a honeymoon or for some other absurd motive. The story was accompanied by a spread of six pictures and had the flavor of a “perp walk.” The fruit of this investigative report was the revelation that some teachers took days off, with pay, to which they would have been entitled had they actually been a bit under the weather.

If they did in fact do this, they were wrong. Such practice must not be taken lightly and must not be condoned. We believe that the terms of our contract are binding on all parties and even though the DOE has taken liberties by various means of defiance and violations, we feel morally as well as legally bound and act accordingly.

Speaking for myself only, I do not necessarily condemn every single instance of teachers taking “sick days” to attend to special urgent matters in their lives. Often the difference between a “sick day” and “personal business” day is a technicality that does not significantly impact instructional continuity or cost the employer any money. It really does not rise to the level of “theft of service.”

Given that only three days per year can be taken for “personal business,” it is inevitable that many members will simply need some days during regular business hours to attend to any of a million ordinary emergencies that arise in our complex lives. Should someone lose a day’s pay when they have a hundred days in their sick bank to be drawn upon, generally without challenge? Does anyone actually deny that such practice is common among employees in other branches of the civil service as well as the private sector?

And although people who have never taught in a classroom tend to mock “mental health” days as just another scam by shirking teachers, it is recognized by psychiatric research that teaching is among the most intensive and stressful jobs and the finest instructors sometimes “need a break,” though this concept is not codified in law. Admittedly, this is an area that lends itself to abuse, which is intolerable from all standpoints.

In some instances we are forced by callous principals into fibbing about the cause for taking days off. Here is an actual case:

A teacher with no history of attendance abuse informed his principal that he would be “taking” a “personal business day” on a Tuesday eight days later. The teacher needed to accompany his wife to the hospital where her obstetrician, a specialist in high-risk pregnancy, would perform a test he deemed necessary as the patient had suffered a serious complication in a prior pregnancy. The test could only be done in the 16th week of pregnancy and Tuesday was the only day that the doctor was available. The principal was told all of this and was shown documentation. As a courtesy the teacher had given the principal plenty of notice.

The principal said: “You’re TAKING a personal day?? You mean you’re APPLYING for a personal day!” He wasn’t joking. His voice was raised with indignation and he turned down the request. Of course the teacher then took a “sick day” to accompany his wife and for many years thereafter never had cause to either “take” or “apply” for the principal’s consent again. He covered himself suitably and did what he had to.

The same principal, by the way, looked the other way when for several consecutive years an assistant principal took the first few weeks of the school year off for strictly elective cosmetic vanity surgery.

In some cases, teachers may be hesitant to take “personal business days” simply because they would be required to inform the principal of the specific reasons for the application and the teacher may regard it as a private matter. A person who has navigated through many decades of life may not wish to hear the principal’s opinion that the teacher’s colonoscopy can be rescheduled for the late afternoon hours after the completion of the 37.5 minutes.

In a perfect world these matters should be simply settled by means of common sense and a modicum of fairness. Usually they are. But sometimes a picayune fib is provoked by a system that so often seems to “game” its most conscientious employees far more egregiously than the other way around.

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4 Comments:

  • 1 Phyllis C. Murray
    · Aug 26, 2010 at 10:10 am

    Doctors have noted that continued and prolonged periods of stress result in a disabling condition for the person affected. Many diseases are associated with or aggravated by stress: ulcers, migraines, asthma, ulcerative colitis and especially coronary heart disease. Prior to the onset of these conditions, other symptoms occur. There may be indecision, reduced appetite, loss of weight, irregular bowel movements, headache, backache, skin rashes, insomnia, nervousness, tremors, poor memory and irritability.

    Teachers are not exempt from these conditions. Labeled Battered Teacher Syndrome, a psychiatrist found that many teachers were exhibiting the same classic symptoms of combat fatigue that faced front-line soldiers. These symptoms included depression, anxiety, hypertension, nightmares, blurred vision and ulcer.Hence, teachers do get sick.

    The burden or responsibility for staying in control of one’s health must not be totally relegated to others. Although changes in working conditions are not won singularly, each member participates as an integral part of the union body. Members must see that the grievance machinery is operable and use it. Workshops on stress, resource materials and resource persons are made available to members through the union. Members must also follow the contract with all its safeguards. And since the goals of the union are not in conflict with the goals of the students, both students and teacher stand to gain.

    Phyllis C. Murray, UFT Chapter Leader 75X

  • 2 R. Skibins
    · Aug 26, 2010 at 7:24 pm

    If sick days were illegally taken, I see no problem with docking their sick banks one for one. But fining them thousands of dollars? Doesn’t this constitute “cruel and unusal” punishment?

    Did you notice that rags like the Daily News seem to have no problem with principals going on all-expense paid winter “conferences” in places such as sunny Florida and Texas?

  • 3 Celso Garcia
    · Aug 26, 2010 at 9:14 pm

    I rarely have taken sick days but sometimes things happen we are only bones and flesh. Sometimes we forget that teachers get hungry, need sleep, need to use the bathroom, get fatigued however we are thought to be robots.
    I had one principal that would not allow me to leave early for a doctors appointment unless I had my doctor fax over a cofirmation of an appointment eventhough I did not have extended day students. Once he had the proof he allowed me to leave 10 minutes early which I said no thank you because by the time he told me Yes it was too late to get there on time.
    Another principal did not allow me to leave eventhough I had the flu that I got from a student the principal just said hang in there. Even the kids understood and were quiet and cooperative once they saw I was sick. I was sick the whole weekend and including friday. I would have not been able to prove my sickness because I stayed in bed recovering. I hace a excellent attendance record even better then many students that were absent atleast once a week. As teachers do we deserve compassion?Are we super-humans? I think it is good for everyone when a teacher takes a strategic sick day. The kids appreciate you more and you come back rejunevated. We suffer from burnout at a high rate and just like the article I read in A.M.NY vacations and days of are crucial for healthy mental health and overall well being. We only live once and I believe these teacher did what most Americans do because we are not in Europe where they have mandatory vacations and extra days off for wellness however, we have it wrong as far as work environments and vacationing.

  • 4 Paul Rubin
    · Sep 1, 2010 at 11:54 am

    Given that these people could have gotten fired and they only got fined, I’m not sure I have too much sympathy however the reality is, DOE policies and dictatorial principals bring this stuff on themselves.

    The 3 personal day requests should be routinely approved unless there are very special circumstances in the school building that day OR the teacher has a real history of abuse in terms of attendance, lateness, etc. If you have a principal who is a human being, you know you can ask and the principal gets the opportunity to have more time to hire the right sub. It’s win-win because in 95% of the cases, the teacher would have taken off anyway as a last minute self treated sick day.

    All we’ve learned from this situation is to not be stupid and post vacation pictures on facebook that coincide with taking days off and those teachers stupid enough to do so shouldn’t be fined, they should be lobotomized.

    What the DOE should have learned from this is if they truly want to improve teacher attendance, the absurd 2:1 policy on paying teachers for sick days should be rethought along with the 200 day cap. Teachers with relatively good attendance can get up to 200 days in their bank by their late 40’s and now the rules literally encourage them to take 10 days a year for the rest of their careers. Real smart.

    The general public needs to lighten up too. Teachers are put in close contact with 30-150 children a day. Many parents send their kids to school sick. Given that reality, teachers should have unlimited sick days with a doctor’s note which should be followed up with further documentation if the principal suspects abuse.

    All we know now is 10 people in an organization of 100,000 did something wrong. We know the problems. We know the solutions. Deal with it.