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The Media’s Misrepresentation of RCSD Teacher Absences by Chris Widmaier
* Editors note: Last week WHEC 10 published and article titled Absences High Among RCSD Teachers. The article went viral and received much criticism by the community for its misrepresentation of the facts, implicit bias against teachers, and allusion of chronic absenteeism by RCSD teachers . The article used a photo of former RCSD teacher Chris Widmaier. After the backlash two days later, the title of the article was changed to: RCSD reviewing heavy use of substitute teachers.
Since they used my picture and video from my classroom as an example of the kind of teacher that is exhibiting a high rate of absenteeism (never mind the fact I’ve been absent for the last year and half because I left the Rochester City School District) I feel like I should respond with my own thoughts. I also feel like I should respond because our community needs to just plain stop buying into the lazy RCSD teacher narrative as the reason our school system is the way it is.
- Yes. There is more teachers can do to lead transformation.
- Yes. There are people in the RCSD who aren’t showing up to do the work we expect them to.
- No. Teachers calling in sick to get out of working hard is not what is wrong with our schools.
Here is what I think of their story and what it implies:
- They made a serious logical error when they translated substitute teacher days to BE THE SAME AS teacher absenteeism (“Absences High Among RCSD Teachers”). There are many reasons a school might need a substitute that has nothing to do with a teacher staying home from work. Attending special education meetings, field studies, professional learning opportunities all count as reasons a teacher might need a sub while still working. Attendance at special education meetings is a huge driver of substitute need in the RCSD.
- They point out that unfilled positions are included in this number. There are other reasons schools will bring in substitutes. Proctoring exams is one example. Testing modifications that students have the right to require levels of staffing that schools just don’t have. Substitute teachers are brought in to fill the gaps.
- Comparing absentee rates to other “similar districts” is just too simple without factoring in other variables. % of students in special ed, % of teachers with small children, and age of teaching staff all figure in to the equation. Until these things are factored into the comparison the analysis is weak.
- Teaching in the RCSD is stressful. Stress makes people sick and tired. Improving the work environment would go much farther than trying to shame people into going to work when they are sick and tired. So many teachers should take days off and don’t out of obligation, or duty, or the feeling that it will be looked down upon if they don’t show up. Unfortunately they pass their illness (physical and mental) on to the children and this isn’t good for anyone.
- Finally, I showed up to work. I worked as hard as I could and I did everything I could to serve the children and families of our community. I know most teachers are doing the same.
I wish they hadn’t used my picture for this story and I wish teachers didn’t have to defend how hard they are working over and over again.
**Update Channel 10 took down the video and the screenshot with my image after I shared these thoughts with the station. I received the following response from the station director:
Thank you for bringing this to our attention. I removed the video from the web story. There are a lot of layers when it comes to absenteeism in any school district. Especially in a school district as big as the RCSD. Sick calls is just one layer. You bring up a lot of critical points which needed to be researched for a story like this. I will be following up with team who put the story together.”
I appreciate their actions after the fact but it would be much better if they reported compassionately to begin with
What can you do to hold WHEC accountable?
Email their news director advocating for better quality reporting and less shaming of RCSD teachers
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About Chris Widmaier
An enthusiastic Rochesterian, Chris Widmaier has served as an instructional coach and science educator in the Rochester City School District in Rochester, NY. for 13 years and was a founding member of the Rochester Regional Teacher Empowerment Network. He received the Teaching Tolerance Award for Excellence in Teaching in 2016. His work as an educator focuses on deeper learning, teacher leadership and student empowerment in and out of the classroom. As a community member he focuses on building equity and opportunity. He is currently studying at Rochester Institute of Technology in the Saunders Business School with the goal of creating opportunities for everyone to develop deeper connections with their world and those around them.
Photo credit: Tolerance.org