Some Houston ISD teachers with small children of their own say they feel forced to pit the wellbeing of their families against their jobs, as the school district places increased scrutiny on the number of days employees call in sick.

Maggie Gordon, columnist for the Houston Landing

Most classroom teachers at HISD are given 10 personal days each year, said Jessica Neyman, the district’s chief of human resources. Those can be used for a variety of reasons — a teacher’s own illness, to care for a sick kid or, Neyman notes, if you need to travel for a friend’s wedding that wasn’t scheduled with the school calendar in mind.

It’s a generous policy, Neyman says. And she’s right. Ten days in a 180-day school year feels flexible and appropriate. 

But while these days are promised to teachers, new practices implemented under Superintendent Mike Miles have placed teachers in fear of losing their jobs if they have recorded more than four absences by this point in the school year. District leaders have enacted a policy that triggers a memo in a teacher’s file after four absences, piling stress upon teachers across the district. 

That level of enforcement is not only new for Houston, it’s an unusual action for the state of Texas, said Corina Ortiz, chief of staff for the Houston Federation of Teachers. 

You won’t find the policy in writing. But several teachers, as well as the union, have confirmed the policy was communicated to teachers from campus-level administrators as a new edict from their bosses at the district level. The new practice was noted in at least one memo I’ve seen that was sent to a teacher about the accruing absences.

Over the past couple weeks, I have spoken with more than a half-dozen teachers — all of whom have asked to remain anonymous, due to fears that being caught speaking out in public will jeopardize their jobs. And those fears, sadly, feel warranted: In September, a teacher who spoke out at a school meeting was swiftly terminated for “insubordination,” according to Houston Public Media. What has resulted, teachers tell me, is a pervasive fear among staff. 

“The time-off thing was the final, deciding blow,” one teacher told me last Friday, after she resigned from the high-performing school where she taught kindergarten. The teacher, who is in her third trimester of her pregnancy, has had to juggle taking time off for prenatal appointments with added scrutiny over her whereabouts. 

“It was already stressful, but the stress of the time off and the threats that if you use 10 days by January you’re going to be fired” was too much, said the now-former teacher.  

So she said goodbye to her kindergartners last week, and found work outside the classroom. “Since I’ve resigned, it’s like a weight has been lifted,” she said.

This teacher, who worked at a school that has not been designated a New Education System campus, is certainly not the first HISD teacher to leave the district this year. A Landing analysis published earlier this month found that 559 HISD employees resigned in the first six weeks of this school year, compared to an average of 346 during that same time frame in the previous four years.

That’s a big number, but it only accounts for about 1 percent of the district’s teachers. But the stress goes further than the number of teachers who have left the district — it’s also affecting teachers who remain. 

I’ve spoken with teachers who say they feel forced to choose between what’s best for their job and what’s best for their family when it comes to everything from sick children at home to coordinating college visits for their teenagers. 

The memos, teachers tell me, have stricken fear throughout the workforce. As one teacher put it: “Teachers are rule followers. We were not the kind of kids who got detention ourselves, so any sort of formal action like (the memo) is a really emotional event.”

I obtained a copy of one of these memos for a teacher who logged four absences by early November. 

“Currently, you have four or more absences. Another letter will be issued at six absences,” the memo states. It continues that the teacher should “be careful not to exceed the 10-day cutoff” identified in district policy, which will make the employee “subject to disciplinary action up to and including dismissal.” 

The memo also states that “a copy of this letter will be placed in your personnel file and will be considered for evaluation purposes.”

At four absences. 

“Last week, we got a call letting us know our son had diarrhea at his school, and if he had one more diaper like that, I was going to have to go get him,” a high school teacher with two young children told me. 

It’s a phone call many parents are familiar with. I know I’ve received it about my daughter on several occasions, flagged my bosses and continued waiting for that other diaper to drop. It adds a layer of stress to any day, as parents wonder: Is my kid OK? But that should be where that stress ends. 

“All day, my heart would skip a beat every time my phone would ding,” the teacher continued. “I was thinking, ‘This is it, I have to go get him, and I’m going to be that much closer to getting a memo.’”

And make no mistake: Moms are feeling this pain in especially acute ways, as one might expect. That’s because more than three out of four public school teachers are women, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.  And women are more than 10 times as likely as men to take time off to stay home with a sick child.

And, as the high school teacher pointed out, “Where do you think HISD teachers’ kids go? They’re in the school system.”

Shortchanging parents’ abilities to care for their children — especially when their children are HISD students — is a completely hypocritical practice that flies in the face of what HISD leaders say they’re trying to do: Set students up for success. Educators know that a parent’s involvement and engagement with their child is directly linked to that child’s academic success. 

If children matter, then children matter. That should be the end of the sentence. 

Neyman, the district’s HR chief, is quick to point out that when a teacher is absent, the school needs to cover their classroom, pulling resources that may already be strained. That’s a very real concern. And it’s one that all of the teachers I’ve spoken with have taken seriously: They see how stressed their co-workers are, and they don’t want to add to the burden. 

“We have some absenteeism that has been really extreme,” Neyman said. “I do not want to mince words here: I literally had some teachers that I discovered had not even shown up since the first day of work.”

I believe her. It’s true that there will always be an exception to every rule, and in any society, we’ll see situations in which someone takes advantage of a system. You’d be hard pressed to find anyone who’d say those outliers should not be managed accordingly. 

The educators I’ve spoken with recognize this too. They don’t want to work in a district where there is no accountability for, as one teacher put it, “someone who takes four days off the week before the STAAR test to go on a cruise.” 

But in a good-faith system, that example should be seen as the exception, not the rule. 

“As this accountability initiative, which I wholeheartedly believe is appropriate for a public school that uses taxpayers dollars, is being implemented, it is so critical that all of our staff is treated the same,” Neyman told me. 

If that equal application means that a teacher whose child is suffering yet another ear infection is being treated the same as someone who hasn’t shown up since the first day of school, that equality no longer amounts to fairness. 

If teachers are so afraid they might lose their job due to prenatal appointments that they quit ahead of their due dates, they are no longer being empowered to do the best for the children in their classroom. 

And if teachers are so stressed about taking a day off they become so physically ill that they need to take more days, then the district’s punitive culture has officially reached a tipping point into the realm of failure. 

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Maggie Gordon is a columnist who has worked at newspapers across the country, including the Stamford Advocate and the Houston Chronicle. She has covered everything from the hedge fund industry and education...