It’s no secret that Americans are absolutely awful about using vacation time. We’re afraid of being passed over for an assignment, perceived as being lazy, or addicted to the title of busy. There are, in fact, myriad reasons why we don’t use our vacation time.
While I most certainly will be taking full advantage of my summer vacation this year–you know, as I
kick up my heels eat bonbons finish growing a human–I can say that I’m guilty of something even more problematic than not using vacation time. I am a sick day hoarder. I always have been, and I’m finally confronting the consequences.
I have been sick since the middle of April. For those of you keeping track, that’s approximately six weeks. I stubbornly refused to take time off work until two weeks ago to see a doctor. That little bit of medical treatment was too little and too late, so I spent half the day in urgent care over the holiday, and I’m now on steroids, doing breathing treatments, and wrestling with mom-to-be guilt like you would not even believe. Even though an entire team of doctors assured me that this was the medical treatment that I needed and that Half Penny would only be helped by my improving health and regulated oxygen levels, I cannot shake the feeling that had I not looked at sick days as something to be collected rather than spent, I could have dodged the bulk of this mess. But in teaching, sick days are nothing short of sacred.
Sick Days in Education
First, let me acknowledge something right away. I am incredibly fortunate to work in a field where I am allotted sick leave. I know that many people find themselves in situations where a day off work, no matter the illness or injury, is a day without pay. That is not the case in teaching, at least in my experience.
Given that children are spewers of pestilence, most districts are quite liberal with sick time. Even when I worked in a district that was sailing SS Sinking Ship for its budget and limited the number of photocopies each teacher could make to fifteen sheets a day, they still gave teachers fifteen sick days a year. Why? Because kids get sick, and they get sick a lot. Sometimes, it happens spontaneously, and it sometimes they’re sent to school when they shouldn’t be due to athletics, pressure, or because their family doesn’t have anywhere else to send them.
In the last week of school alone, I had to escort a puker to the nurse–He was crying in the hallway! I had to help!–and shooed a student who boasted about 102-degree fever from my classroom. That’s in addition to the multiple cases of bronchitis, pneumonia, and pink eye that turned up only after these students sat in class, high fived me, borrowed pencils from my desk, and found all sorts of other clever ways to share their germs with everyone. So yes, we get ample sick time because we are around sickness a lot.
If I am given so much sick leave every year, why am I so hesitant to use it? Because a day can become so much more than a day in education. Currently, in the state of Illinois, I can apply my sick days to years of service credit. That means that I can bank my leave from year to year and apply it to my retirement. It’s like magic beans or something. This rule is also likely to go presto chango–much like my pension–by the time our governor has his say. Even if this sick bank is here to stay, it’s no small feat to actually amass enough time off to turn it into service credit. If we are allowed two years of service, it would take twenty-four (point six repeating) years of teaching without spending a single day to hit that 370-day mark. Maybe the magic beans aren’t so magical.
Sick days are also absolutely vital as a working mother in my district. We don’t have maternity leave. Instead, the birth of a child is considered a disability under my contract, so an expectant mother is allowed to apply six weeks of sick time starting from the date of the birth. Any additional time off is unpaid. And if you’re having a summer baby like me? Unpaid leave it is.
Though Half Penny isn’t here yet, I’m given to understand that I will also be spending my fair share of time home with a sick infant. So if new moms burn through thirty days, or two years of banked sick time, just to have a baby, imagine how hard it is to ever accumulate more days to take time off when Mom is sick, Baby is sick, or they decide to have another baby.
The Nature of the Beast
Even if you discount retirement and family planning, education simply isn’t geared for sick time. Writing substitute teacher plans is no easy task. In fact, it’s downright terrifying to have to anticipate all the variables. But the sacredness of sick days extends beyond that. Starting as children, we are groomed to not be sick. Phone calls and letters chastise families for excessive absences. Even doctors’ notes aren’t sufficient after enough time has passed. Then, there’s the ubiquitous attendance report on report cards. And we can’t forget the attendance awards that are passed out at the end of the school year all across the country. I was prepped to never be absent long before I ever turned in an application for my job.
It’s true that attendance is a factor in student success and educator success. Simply put, I can’t do my job if I’m not there. But it’s also true that the cost of not using sick days adds up.
So Tell Me…Do you hoard sick days or vacation time?