Friday, February 5, 2010
A Sick Policy For ESL Teachers?
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.
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.
Tags: Dorothy Zemach