Monday, December 6, 2010

The Best Attendance Policy Ever Created

Have you ever heard of students getting suspended for non-attendance?  I am ashamed to tell you that when I was a high school Assistant Principal, there were times when I did exactly this.  And I will never forget the conversation that I had with a parent who said  "So you're telling me that your response to a kid missing school is to have the student miss some more school?"  I didn't have a great answer to that one.  And I still don't.  And I would only venture to guess that lots of others like myself wouldn't have a great answer to this, and yet still, we suspend and remove kids from school for non-attendance.  It is because of my inability to come up with a cogent response to parents like this that I have made a very bold and oft-unpopular statement (especially from a high school Principal): I don't believe in attendance policies.

I guess that I should qualify that. I don't believe that attendance policies motivate or intimidate reluctant learners to come to school.  They might prevent reasonably successful students from an occasional skipped class.  But for those students who are chronic non-attenders, I would contend that many attendance policies do the opposite of what they intend.  They are often codified with labels such as "Step One Truancy", or "First Offence", and then ramp up quickly at a DefCon-style rate until they exonerate us from our collective responsibility to provide an education to every student.  And ultimately, they provide us with a means to remove students--the opposite of what I think attendance policies are thought to be able to do.

I would argue that no student ever dreamed of becoming a "skipper", or even worse a "drop out".  In kindergarten, students show up to school with that unabashed joy almost unparalled in education--they're there every day.  And yet somehow, when some students hit Grades 7, 8, and 9, their attendance patterns become a bit checkered.  As they move into their senior years, those same students show up less and less, until they make their way to the administrator's office, and the rest is...well, see the above paragraph.

I like golf. I like to play it, I like to practice putting, chipping, bunker shots, hitting my irons, and my driver.  I enjoy it so much that I live on a golf course, sometimes pay too much money for a round of golf, and have made my wife's eyes roll in to the back of her head because I like to play so often.  Thankfully, she likes golf too, and can understand my addiction to the sport. 

But imagine I didn't like golf.  Imagine that I tried it, and was really bad at it.  Maybe my dad took me for lessons, but each day I went, my instructor pointed out what I was supposed to do, but I still couldn't do it.  Perhaps my instructor then would then send home a report to my parents stating the obvious, that I wasn't getting any better.  At that point, he might tell me that compared to other golfers he was teaching, I was not all that good, and that I needed to practice more (what a revelation!).  But because of my lack of success after practicing in the past, I didn't enjoy practicing at all. Then, when I continued to get worse, he paid less and less attention to me, and paid attention to better golfers.  Everyone around me seemed to be getting better, or so I might have thought.  And since I wasn't really into golf in the first place, golf was not a priority.  Do you think that I would continue to golf?

Why are we surprised when reluctant learners don't attend?  Imagine that each day that you went to work, you were told that you are a failure, or substandard.  Maybe not overtly, but through "2 out of 10", a "C-", or "not meeting expectations".   Like my golf example, I myself would start to lose interest in showing up to school!

Maybe instead of suspending or removing students for non-attendance or spending our efforts trying to quantify or qualify why they are not attending (another meaningless exercise in futility), we need to spend our time on the only attendance policy that works: making schools and learning so engaging to kids that they want to be there EVERY day. 

How do we do it?  I couldn't agree more with an excellent blog post by Donald Grimshaw "Would kids attend your class if attendance was optional?" , in which he describes a classroom with a passionate teacher with high expectations, and a culture of student autonomy and engagement.  I believe we also need to meet kids at the door and find out what interests them, how they learn best, and involving them in their assessment so they can best demonstrate their learning.

But perhaps most importantly, we have to show that we CARE about our learners.  Getting to know  their name (don't laugh--it means a great deal, especially in a very large school), to know something them, what they do outside of school, or anything that gives us that in to say 'hi' and have a conversation so that student knows that you are interested in getting to know them as a young person.  When I get to know students, I don't want to disappoint them as their Principal, and I believe if they get to know me, they don't want to disappoint me either.

So rather than writing bigger, bolder and blacker-inked policies that punish reluctant learners, let's go with this policy:  WE WILL MAKE SCHOOL IRRESISTABLE.

I think that would be the best attendance policy ever created.


  1. Well written! In my short time as a sub, I learn over and over again that sometimes the simplest things matter most--that friendly smile and greeting as they come through the door, making the effort to get their names right, and encouraging them when they think they "can't learn". I also think that irresistibility starts at the front door--- usually my experience in the main office sets the tone for the rest of my teaching day.

  2. I read your post to my 6/7 class today with emphasis on the "would you attend if it was optional" section. I asked if they thought I cared or knew much about them. A few hands went up and it turned into me going kid to kid saying something I knew about them. I think I surprised a few of them and realized I need to get to know a couple of them a little better. Thanks for the great post it turned into a good lesson for us today!

  3. Awesome post Cale! As a teacher (who often taught Science and Technology 11 - the class for those "less motivated" students), I taught many students who did not like school. They had failed a number of times and were only at school because either their parents forced them to be there or because they got to spend more time with their friends. The first time I taught Sci-Tech 11, I approached the teacher of Communications 11 (for students who are struggling with English 11) and asked him if he had any advice. He told me that attendance was the biggest issue. Make it so the kids choose to come to class, don't give homework, listen to the kids, and make it relevant. BOOM! This advice changed the way I taught for the next 4 years of teaching high school. Attendance was rarely an issue and I actually had so much fun teaching! Science and Tech used to be the class that was given to the new teacher but I actually requested it because I could put the curric aside once in a while and spend time learning with the kids.
    Thank you so much for the reminder and thoughtful post!
    PS - I have always wondered about the suspension for skipping classes - yet it is so common!

  4. Over the years we have spent countless hours on processes that systematically justify excluding students ... attendance contracts, three strike policies ... what a shame! Let's have less commitment to policies and more commitment to students. The Best Attendance Policy blog post ever! Thanks, Cale.

  5. Great post Cale. We are doing some work at our school around attendance, not in the form of policy but in layers of support. For our grade nine's this year we have split them into eight groups of 30 and have a staff member monitor their unexcused absences on a daily basis. The goal is to let students know that we care about them enough that we not only notice their absences, but that we take the time to draw them back in. As you state many of these are our at-risk learners and need the right environment in the class room. More than that though, many of these students come from challenging environments outside the school. They have faced loss, have addiction issues at home, live in poverty, and struggle with mental heath issues among other things. These students, more than anything, need a culture of caring, people who take the time to cultivate meaningful realtionships with them. Thanks for putting your thoughts into writing and reminding us all that we don't need tougher policy, but rather more inclusive learning environments.

  6. Hey. I'm reading this for a project I'm doing in my language arts class, about attendance policies. I'm researching whether or not we need one or require one in any way. I think you're right. Coming from an 8th grader, sometimes school sucks. Really sucks. But if all teachers everywhere made their jobs to be not just teach the children, but get to know them and make school fun and exciting, I don't think an attendance policy would be needed! This is a great idea! I'm sure the teachers wouldn't always be all for it, because it's like doubling their job for no pay. But to do this, I think they'll have to love what they do. Those are the best kind of teachers. The real teachers.
    Thanks for writing this. It makes so much sense. I would know! I'm a student! Thanks again.

  7. Wise words, thanks for sharing your insights. I've recently withdrawn two students for chronic non-attendance, and while it is a requirement that I see them into another educational program of some sort, it still feels a little like off-loading. Your comments gave me pause for thought. I guess the question now is how to inspire teachers in the building to create the kind of classrooms you describe. Perhaps leading from the front would be a good start...

  8. Just like the anonymous comment above I can attest that this is true. I had a social studies teacher who I couldn't stand. We didn't get along well at all and I never wanted to attend her class. I had never been a "skipper" before, in fact I was a keener in most of my classes. I skipped her class so much and had such a poor relationship with this teacher that at the end of the term I failed the class.

    That fail was by no means an indication of my skill or talent as a socials student because the next year I took socials again as well as a specialty history class, both of which I passed. Now I'm a history major in my last year of studies at the University of Lethbridge. I've done multpile independent studies and coops in history. I was and am really interested in the subject we were studying, but that teacher made their class so "resistable" that a keener failed. My goal in teaching has always been to reach out to all of my students and help them all, in large part because I did not receive that treatment as a student.

    Thank you so much for this sensible post, it has inspired me to make my classes irresistible.

    - @GrahamRuttan

  9. I think your article on attendance policies represents the best and the worst in education. The best in that your intentions, purpose, and realization that we, at teachers, must do our very best to engage students and to improve our practice is laudable. The worst in like so many articles about time worn issues in schooling --attendance, lates, smoking, homework completion, standardized testing, teacher supervision -- it takes an all or nothing approach. As in most cases the Aristotelian "golden mean" or middle path you seem to be the most logical position. A position based on the same virtues and lofty goals as the “no policy-engagement approach” but tempered by the realities of the world in which teachers practice and students learn.
    Your position here is that attendance policies are inherently evil (don’t work for many students) and that teachers need to make their courses more engaging as a method of drawing in students. The reality of life is that we all have different areas of interest and some areas will engage us with little effort and some only with Herculean effort. I’ve heard it said that the “Best World Series” ever was in 1991 between the Braves and the Twins. It also had the highest number of viewers in history. Clearly it was engaging. I didn’t watch a single second of it. What could have been done differently to have engage me? Probably nothing. For me baseball is a synonym for “boring”.
    At the end of the day I believe that teachers should work their tails off make their classes engaging. I also believe the students need to come ready to learn….to be open to being in engaged. For students this is difficult given the myriad of aspects (smart phones, xbox, tv, part-time jobs, social lives, personal interests etc) that pull on their limited time and their attention spectrums. I also believe that it is time for educators to stop beating themselves up and to accept the reality that we cannot be everything to everyone all of the time. Self-deprecation is not the road to healthy teacher mindsets. Should we make our classes engaging? We should do our best. Should students attend school? They should do their best to attend and be open to engaging when they are in attendance. Is every lesson going to be a blockbuster in terms of engagement? No. Learning and teaching are work and occasionally a little external push…for example from an attendance policy…reminds us of our obligations to ourselves to be the best we can be and that too is work. To rely sole on the “make it more engaging” argument is to relegate teaching and learning to the status of a video game or movie trailer….all we have to do is catch your interest and you’ll buy….all we have to do is make it more engaging and they’ll attend. This argument is reductionist at best, debasing to students and teachers at its worst. Motivation is inherently intrinsic and we are blessed that it is so or we would all be at complete whim of the next latest and greatest fad.

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