By KELLY PEARCE
When Michael was in my media literacy class, he was quick to contribute his perspectives to our discussions, lended a hand when his peers had glitchy computers, and always had a joke at the ready.
But Michael wasn’t in school as often as I would have liked. He was absent an average of twice a week. Sometimes he would be gone days at a time.
I often told him that he was my 7th-grade teaching assistant, and I needed him there for our class to function at its best. He did not like to talk about his mounting absences and correspondence home to share how much I enjoyed having him in class was unreturned.
September is Attendance Awareness Month, arriving on the heels of data that paints a nationwide picture of extreme absenteeism coming out of the Covid-19 pandemic. According to numbers from 40 states and Washington, D.C., about 6.5 million additional students (more than 25 percent) were chronically absent in 2021-2022–missing at least 10 percent of the school year (about three and a half weeks)–with Latino, Black and low-income students gone more frequently. New Mexico is in the top five. For many, Covid has changed the way they perceive school.
The issue is nuanced, with myriad reasons why students are absent. But one thing is clear: we are deep into a moment in which we need collaborative, multi-pronged approaches to get our students back into the habit of learning. Absenteeism will only worsen if we do not take collective action, which not only impacts classroom time but also social opportunities with peers, meals, counseling, and extracurricular activities.
Across the country schools and teachers are finding novel approaches to encourage better attendance. These should be applauded.
Yet, there is so much more that must happen soon.
During my 15 years teaching elementary and then middle school, these were some of the approaches that colleagues and I found effective:
- Be an attendance cheerleader. Sometimes students just need to be nudged to engage in school and noticed for who they are and where they see themselves in the future. Build strong relationships with students and keep lines of communication open. Also, show that school is cool. Promote clubs and other extensions to the school day that help children develop their interests and social groups;
- Be a conduit between school and home. Contact families when a student is out for extended time to create a bridge, letting parents and guardians know that you are a support. Use these conversations to share school-related triumphs, reasons why their child is an asset in your learning community;
- Be imaginative. Hold friendly competitions between classes with incentives that honor good attendance. Celebrate those who attend school regularly; and
- Be a role model. Think about your own attendance. Children hear what we say but they also pay attention to our actions.
The year after I had Michael in middle school class, he signed up as a student aide for the last period of the day. I was delighted to continue our relationship, which unfolded slowly but surely. He eventually told me that his mom underwent chemotherapy and that was why he logged so many absences the year before.
Everyone has a story. We must honor them, but also find ways to ensure all our students have the opportunity to learn. Let’s commemorate Attendance Awareness Month so students like Michael know how much we value them in our classrooms.
Kelly Pearce has taught in the Gallup area and Rio Rancho. After being part of Teach Plus teacher leader fellowships in recent years, today she is media manager for the non-profit organization Teach Plus.