Since the start of the pandemic, addressing student absenteeism has become harder as attendance issues have grown astronomically with the increasing prevalence of factors including mental or physical health concerns, family responsibilities, transportation challenges, and students’ feeling of being disconnected from teachers and peers. District and school leaders across the country are brainstorming ways to mitigate this issue on a larger scale.
Classroom teachers are understandably frustrated with the empty seats in their classrooms and a sense that students are constantly playing catch-up. The causes of absenteeism are beyond any one person’s capacity to fix. However, there are actions teachers can take within the scope of their practice that can address the problem on a small scale—by making students feel welcome and valued in every class.
The Circle of Control
Every teacher struggles to help students who rarely come to class. That is where Covey’s circles of concern, influence, and control come into play. The weight of the world might threaten to overwhelm anyone, but we can focus on what is in our power to influence and control. A targeted, focused effort to make connections to students who are in the classroom will yield noticeable results.
Consider a fairly common scenario: A student racks up frequent absences, coming to class just enough to remain partially involved. Although we might be angry about their inconsistent attendance record (which is beyond our control), focusing on what can perhaps be influenced and certainly controlled is a more strategic approach.
Influencing A Student’s Decision to Attend Class
Be a welcome place to land: When students arrive in class, regardless of their lateness or absentee record, they must feel welcome. Absences can feel to a teacher like a personal slight, but putting those feelings aside is necessary to make progress with kids.
I recently spoke with social studies teacher Kevin Shindel, who has built strong connections with students with highly varied needs for nearly 30 years, about the challenge of student absenteeism. He brought up the importance of resisting sarcasm: “If I see a student every two weeks, I could roll my eyes or make a snide comment, or I could recognize that people have a lot going on. I think about how I can serve them in that moment with a welcome, tell them I missed them, ask what I can do to support them.”
A teacher who connects to students is more likely to learn more about their lives and will therefore be in a better position to help them. One year, I worked with a 12th-grade student who was engaged when he came to class but then disappeared for days at a time. After he came to me for help with an assignment, I asked him about his spotty attendance record. “My sister is sick,” he told me, “and my parents have to spend a lot of money on her doctor bills, so I work two jobs, one in the afternoon and another one at night and on weekends. Sometimes I oversleep and can’t make it to school, or I need to take care of her if my parents are working.” Once the student shared his story with me, we developed a plan that would allow him to work with me remotely from any location so that he wouldn’t fall behind.
Creating opportunities for student-centered learning: Teacher-directed instruction, on its own, wears students down and spaces them out. The human body needs movement for mental engagement to remain on point, and the human brain needs processing time (as in this “chunk and chew” method), which can’t occur if teachers are constantly talking.
Additionally, students need to feel like they have ownership over their own learning. In student-centered spaces, kids see themselves as valued classroom contributors who share responsibility for their learning. In my student-centered guide to teaching, Teach More, Hover Less: How to Stop Micromanaging Your Secondary Classroom, I write, “Until we have taught students that they can trust us to support their learning and that we are their advocates, they will not be able to own any part of our classes, and we will not be able to stop micromanaging them.”
For students to take a more active role in our classrooms and be present in every way possible, they must have daily evidence that teachers believe in their validity as learners and thinkers to the point that learning becomes a place of shared responsibility.
Increasing student choice: Allowing kids to complete assignments in different ways on occasion (with mixed media, visuals, or a performance instead of a written product, for example) gives them a chance to showcase skills that might not emerge in class otherwise, and it also increases both their engagement and their trust in a teacher who clearly wants them to do their very best work. It might not be possible to always provide alternative options, but trying to work in one or two opportunities for choice per week gives students a higher degree of interest in the class.
Giving students autonomy: Creating meaningful learning experiences for students remains the best possible pathway forward in helping kids make progress at a time when it is becoming increasingly difficult for kids to get to school. When I spoke to flipped learning pioneer Jon Bergmann, he shared that he regularly implements strategies that help make learning meaningful for students, even if they have some reservations about the class: “When a class is more active and students have some autonomy, and when students feel a connection to not just me but also with some of their peers, then they want to come to class.”
Many of the causes of chronic absenteeism are beyond a teacher’s circle of control, but there are ways to manage the factors that fall within the scope of classroom practice. Centering learning on students through choice and a welcoming atmosphere helps build the reality of a safe zone for kids, resulting in a classroom space that kids are more likely to attend if they can possibly get there.