Friday, February 5, 2010

A Sick Policy For ESL Teachers?

By Dorothy Zemach
ESL Materials Writer, Editor, Teacher Trainer
Eugene, Oregon
Email: zemach at comcast dot net

I recently subbed three ESL classes for a friend at a large US university. She’d known of her upcoming absence for at least a week, and left lesson plans and notes for me, and all necessary photocopies and papers. All I had to do was appear and conduct her lessons. I was paid for my time by the university.

Sick leave policies for ESL teachers lead to teaching while sick

However, the experience reminded me of just how unusual it was, at least at university programs in the US. Normally, at this university (as has been my experience at all of the other American universities where I have taught), an absent teacher is expected to arrange for a colleague to sub the class, free of charge—or to pay the sub out of his/her own pocket. Additionally, one is expected to prepare a lesson plan and materials—which of course is harder to do if one is sick. For this reason, many teachers—even those who have sick leave, which not all of them do—actually find it less stressful to teach while sick. I’ve known teachers with complete laryngitis who taught their lessons entirely through mime and writing, rather than miss one lesson.

Why are onerous sick leave policies unique to ESL department?

Interestingly, this system of having every class subbed by someone seems to be somewhat unique to ESL. In other departments, if a professor is sick, the department secretary hangs a note to that effect on the classroom door, and class is canceled. Students don’t seem to mind all that much, either—it’s like a personal snow day. Work is made up in the next class session or electronically through email or programs such as Blackboard.

I remember once teaching French classes at a university, and I had to miss the Wednesday before Thanksgiving for a professional conference. I asked every French teacher I could find to substitute for me, but they were all teaching at the same time. When I met with the Department Chair to explain my problem, he was nonplussed. First he asked me why I thought any students were going to show up in the afternoon before a holiday weekend (something I hadn’t even considered), and then asked me why I didn’t just cancel the classes. “But I won’t be able to make them up later,” I explained. His response was, “So?” And so I canceled the classes, and no, it didn’t seem to throw my semester into turmoil.

I’ve never known an ESL class to be canceled like that, however. Somehow, a sub is always found. I’ve worked at American universities where teachers were explicitly told when hired that they should find a “friend” on the faculty with whom they would agree to sub for. The problem is, of course, that not everyone is absent the same number of days each term. Some people get sick more often than others, or need time off every now and then to care for sick family members—which meant that some people wound up subbing a lot more often than their colleagues, which led to hard feelings. Additionally, as was the case in the French department, many classes are held at the same times, so that one can’t necessarily sub for a friend even if one wants to. And finally, the stress of preparing a lesson plan that someone else can pick up and follow is sometimes too much to cope with when one is already feeling sick enough to be considering missing a class. The solution that has been sometimes presented to me is to always have an “emergency lesson plan” at the ready, that someone could come in and teach at any point in the term—but I probably don’t need to explain here that such a thing is not always possible for every class.

Now, I do see the other side of the issue too. Students have paid money to attend a class, and have the right to expect that class will be held. It’s hard enough to cover all of one’s material in a term when everything runs smoothly; missing hours of instruction time just makes it harder. If I really thought that one of my lessons wasn’t necessary or important, then I wouldn’t have done my job as a teacher in preparing it. Still, though, I can’t subscribe to the notion that the whole system will come crashing down upon us if a class is canceled every now and then—and I do think there’s a real harm being done to teachers who feel pressured into teaching while sick (not to mention a harm to those around them).

A model sick leave policy in Rabat?

I can’t, from here, recommend a system that will work for every institution. I know that the best system I ever encountered was at the American Language Center in Rabat, Morocco: If a teacher was sick, he/she called in and said so. A lesson plan for the sub was appreciated, but not required (a detailed curriculum existed for each class, so a sub could walk in and know reasonably well what should be covered that day). Teachers were not allowed to arrange for their own substitutes (to avoid pressure on one’s friends). Instead, the Center arranged for a sub—and, the Center paid subs at 1.5 their regular rate, so subbing was actually something that a lot of people were happy to take on. So that is my model for an ideal situation, in case any program administrators are reading this blog. Let’s remember that in many universities, there is no requirement that ESL teachers alone among the faculty find subs and remunerate them out of their own pocket; it’s a custom that somehow we have all chosen, and therefore, we have the power to alter it.

Plan ahead

What I can recommend, strongly, is that every teacher interviewing for a job ask about the institution’s policy on absences, and for all currently employed teachers to think about what they would do if they had to miss a class. Is it possible to have an “anyone can do it at any time” lesson plan in reserve? Is it time to create a more detailed syllabus, just in case some day someone needed to walk into your class cold? Do you have a friend who could sub for you? Are you willing and able to sub for others? What are your personal thoughts on teaching while sick, and do your students and colleagues share those convictions? What are your legal rights?

And finally… a reminder to others as well as myself that good diet, frequent exercise, and adequate sleep reduce our chances of becoming ill in the first place.


Comment from Tom
February 5, 2010 at 3:53 pm

Because of budget cuts, our districts no longer pay for subs. (We are a non-credit continuing ed division of a community college.) Before cuts one of two things happened: They found a sub, or they combined classes with another section of the same class or another class one level up or down. This could make a class double in size or better in a blink.

This issue of teachers showing up for class when sick takes on a new urgency with the H1N1 virus. Thank you for raising it, Dorothy.

Comment from Dorothy Zemach
February 6, 2010 at 11:45 am

There's no easy answer, is there? I guess my gut feeling is still that if an institution can't pay to have a class covered, then the class should be canceled. That's easy to say of course if we're talking about one class out of a semester. But in the case of a class that meets daily, if the teacher is sick for 10 days?

I remember my first non-teaching job (in publishing), when I was speaking with a coworker on the phone (I was telecommuting) and mentioned feeling really awful, and she asked me why on earth I didn't take a sick day. "That's what they're for, you know." I had quite forgotten I had any, having never had any before at a teaching job.

What do teachers of other subjects at your college do? Do they also combine classes or find their own subs?

Comment from Anonymous
February 20, 2010 at 1:10 pm

A couple of questions: First, Tom at your community college, are the ESL teachers treated the same as the non-ESL teachers? If they are not, why not? Do you have a union?

Second, why do many institutions feel that it is OK to treat ESL faculty differently from other faculty?

I've been in this field full-time since 1990 and have always had health insurance and sick days. My history is a university in Japan, a university in the U.S., a community college in the U.S. I am very appreciattive of my current institution where I am treated with the same respect given to all full-time faculty. I can see that the university jobs in the U.S. do not offer that same respect and have not been able to sort out the root causes of the problem.

Leave a comment on this post