Why Schools Shouldn’t Reward Attendance

I saw something on Twitter the other day. Somebody had created a nifty bulletin board. It listed the names of all the kids with outstanding attendance for each grade level in the school. The board’s creator had obviously spent a lot of time on it. On its face, it seemed like an awesome idea. Lots of Twitter people hit the heart. I commented, but sort of lied because I don’t like criticizing teachers on social media. Teaching is hard, and most of the things I now disagree with I used to do. I said I struggled with the idea of publicly acknowledging kids for attendance. In reality, there’s no struggle.

I’ve evolved from a teacher who used to create fancy certificates to present to those with two or fewer absences during an award ceremony on the last day of school to one who hardly mentions attendance to his students at all. Here’s why my thinking changed, and why I think bulletin boards like the one I saw on Twitter are well-intentioned but ultimately misguided.

It’s Not The Kids

If you want to get on your high school students about dragging themselves into your class ten minutes late on a regular basis, then go for it (although you may want to consider that your school’s start time and adolescents’ circadian rhythms are unaligned). But I teach third graders and the bulletin board referenced above was for a K-5 elementary school. Third graders don’t decide to stay home from school. They don’t drive to McDonald’s five minutes before the day starts. They don’t roll in late because they hit the snooze bar too many times.

I have a student this year who is almost always late. I know why. It’s not her fault. It does no good for me to get on her case about it. There’s nothing she can do.

There are lots of reasons a student might be absent or late. Some of those reasons are good ones, like they’re sick or had a dental appointment. Some are bad, like they pretended to be sick or they stayed up too late playing Minecraft. No matter the reason, it’s almost always on the parents.

I was a kid. I pretended to be sick because I didn’t want to go to school. My mom wouldn’t let me get away with it. If I wanted to sleep in– and believe me, I did–my mom got me out of bed. That’s what parents do.  That’s their job, and when they don’t do it, it isn’t their kid’s fault.

When elementary students are absent or late, it’s almost always either for a good reason or a parent fail. And for that reason, students shouldn’t be awarded or criticized. They’ve done nothing to deserve either.

Sometimes, Kids Should Stay Home

I used to offer a class party when we hit attendance milestones. For every 20 days of perfect class attendance, I’d throw a party. I hoped it would encourage kids to show up. If they weren’t feeling 100% before school, I thought the incentive would make them think twice before asking to stay home. If they got a stomachache after lunch, I wanted them to gut it out for the team.

That was dumb. Sometimes, kids should stay home or leave school early.

I don’t want them in class if they’re sick. Not only will they not learn much if they’re genuinely ill, but they’ll tell me about it all day, which is really annoying. There’s also a decent chance they’ll make other kids (or worse, me) sick. With the flu being what it is this winter, I pray every day when I send my child out the door that her classmates’ parents are keeping their sick kids home.

One year, I had a student who lost his father in a terrible accident. In May of that year, I was scrolling through the attendance numbers of my class. I congratulated a couple of kids on how few days they had missed. A lot of them wanted to know their number of absences. So I told them. When this boy asked me and I told him ten, he was shocked. I gave him a few seconds to figure it out. When he didn’t, I said, “You missed a week in March.” Thankfully, he remembered and I didn’t have to say anymore.

But I felt like a jerk for even talking about attendance. What you reward, you get. And if you reward attendance, you’ll get it. That might not be a good thing. If they’re sick, I want students at home. If there is a tragedy in their family, I want them with their family. They shouldn’t be made to feel like they’re letting people down about either.

There’s More to Life

School is often referred to as kids’ jobs. It’s a crappy comparison, but even if we go along with it, do we really want to be responsible for perpetuating Americans’ obsession with work? I’ve never understood people’s pride in never missing a day on the job. It’s like bragging that you prioritized working for others over your family and yourself. There’s so much more to life.

I never have a problem with students missing a week to go on a family vacation. I’m cool with Take Your Child To Work day. If a parent wants to pull their kid out of school for the first day of deer season, or to celebrate the child’s birthday, or to sign them out early for gymnastics class, or to get down to the stadium early so they can watch batting practice with dad, I’m fine with it. Learning happens outside of school, too. And we should send the message that school, like work, shouldn’t take priority over our families or our passions.

Kids who are in school every day haven’t done anything to deserve our praise. And they certainly haven’t done anything to earn a reward. They’re lucky. They’ve won lotteries. They have responsible parents who value education (maybe too much?), and they were fortunate to not get sick or have life happen to them for ten months out of the year.

Those kids have already won.

One Reply to “Why Schools Shouldn’t Reward Attendance”

  1. I am with you on this, and I teach high school. I especially disagree with failing a student because of excessive absences, which is policy in my district. Holding the students responsible for learning the content to earn credit and not solely for seat time might reinforce the importance of learning over just going to school.

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