Are there good reasons to miss class?

No one likes it when students are out of class. Absenteeism is a big reason students fall behind (and fail), and it’s frustrating when students miss instruction, can’t grasp the material independently and then require our help outside of school hours.

But what about when they are absent for a “good reason”?

When I was a new teacher, I didn’t think there were good reasons, besides illness. When students were out for golf or skiing or this club or that club, and they returned asking, “Did I miss anything?” I wanted to scream. (Truancy, of course, was even more frustrating.)

But now, I’m sometimes the culprit. In the past week, I caused students to miss classes twice — once for the State Econ Challenge (last Wednesday) and once for the Harvard Pre-Collegiate Economics competition (last Friday).

Some of the same students also missed class last week for a robotics competition, and some will miss two days this week for a national journalism conference — and even more days for upcoming college admit weekends.

While I was sitting at the Boston airport with eight students waiting to fly home last night, I received emails from several other students, one of whom is missing an entire week for a school activity, and one of whom will be missing several days due to a death in the family.

I can’t really get angry anymore, especially when I’m sitting in another city with students I took out of class. Even so, I can’t help but feel that familiar frustration.

What are we supposed to do? Acquiesce? Give up? Make videos of every lesson? How can we teach them if they are not there?

And where do we draw the line? Sure, it’s OK to be gone when you’re sick or participating in a school activity, but what about when your family takes an extra-long vacation? Or when your parents need your help at home? Or when you just need to get caught up on sleep?

Over time, I’ve come to a few realizations that help guide my response.

1 – Unless it’s truancy, it’s probably not worth my time or energy to worry about it. If kids are truly skipping school, we need to follow up and figure out a solution — that is our responsibility. But in other cases, there’s not much I can do about it, so I need to put my energy elsewhere.

2 – It’s on me to make sure they know they will miss something important if they miss class. I don’t mean that as a threat — more of a promise to myself and them. If all I do in class every day is read off my notes, of course they don’t consider it a problem to miss. They can read. But if class is more thoughtful, more engaging, a can’t-miss experience, then they usually don’t want to miss, and when they have to, I don’t take their absence personally.

3 – It’s up to me to set parameters on what I will and won’t do after an absence. Last week, a student who has missed many days (vacationing) told me she wanted to see me for one-on-one tutoring three days after school. I told her, quite calmly, that that would not be possible. I’m not available every day, and when I am there, other students have equal claim to my time. (I helped arrange a student tutor instead.)

Of course, I’d still prefer that all of my students were in class every day. I know they would perform better without those knowledge gaps, and it would save me a lot of after school re-teaching time.

But I have to concede that school (or my class, specifically) isn’t the only demand on a teenager’s time. Sometimes it’s not even the most important one. We need to face their inevitable absences with more grace than frustration — and just do what seems reasonable to help them stay on track.