I made sure to have perfect attendance at work, and it backfired. Here’s why I’ll prioritize self-care going forward.

“School leaders encourage teachers and other school employees to engage in self-care, but at the same time, there’s immense pressure to show up every day,” writes Ryan Fan.

Ryan Fan had nearly 2.5 years of perfect attendance at his job until he took a day off to get a COVID test.
He mental health has suffered and he’s established himself as “as a person more work can be asked of.”
This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.

Before yesterday, I had almost perfect attendance at work in my two and a half years of teaching. But I finally called out to get a COVID test after my fiancée tested positive for COVID.

Throughout the pandemic, I have been fortunate not to get sick. I show up for work every day and have been praised for it. I don’t make problems for people who have to cover my class. I’m recognized as a team player who is willing to make sacrifices for the team.

When I interviewed at new schools after my first school closed down, the biggest selling point was “I show up for work every day and I get all my deliverables in on time.” Someone on the interviewing team, who I now work very closely with, said, “What’s your address so we can hire you and get you to sign right now?”

Having perfect work attendance might seem like a baseline expectation

But you’re not in my line of work as an educator. Educators, particularly in my school district, are extremely run down and overworked. Every year, it’s sad to see several people I work closely with quit. According to one story I heard, one person just said “I can’t take this anymore!” and walked out, never to be seen again.

At my old school, I have horror stories that would have made most people quit. There were times we were on lockdown because of rumors someone brought a gun to school. There were times a student got his hands on scissors and went into other classrooms to threaten another student. There were times that same student threatened kids with a razor.

You can see how it’s difficult to show up for work every day when reality can be that grim. Reality might not be like that for everyone, but the fact remains teaching is a taxing and stressful profession. Behind closed doors, teachers talk about taking mental health days and simply attending to things you have to deal with in life, like doctor’s appointments, kids, and more.

Ryan Fan.

All of this can leave schools incredibly short staffed on any given day. There’s been a growing movement that each person needs to be their best self and attend to their selves before sacrificing for children. School leaders encourage teachers and other school employees to engage in self-care, but at the same time, there’s immense pressure to show up every day, even if you’re not at your best, because of circumstances around the school.

There’s a very valid reason for that pressure

When teachers don’t show up and there’s no substitute to cover, school leaders have a big conundrum: Who’s going to cover that class? Anyone who is asked, whether it is another administrator, another school staff member, or another teacher (which many contracts don’t allow), is going to gradually get more resentful.

The encouragement of self-care is sometimes just lip service, without structural changes to recruit more substitutes so there isn’t as much of a pressure to come in on days you don’t feel at your best physically or mentally. In describing this year as “the worst school year ever,” Jennifer Gonzalez at popular education blog Cult of Pedagogy says one thing that isn’t helping teachers is “surface talk about self-care without any structural changes.”

“More than one teacher has pointed out how insulting it is to have leaders give lip service to self-care while upholding conditions that chip away at mental health.”

These problems are not particular to just teaching

I don’t know a single workplace that doesn’t encourage you to do a baseline responsibility of just showing up. And I’m not encouraging people to do a wholesale boycott of work at all — that’s bad advice that would jeopardize people’s careers.

Instead, look at your contract, look at the amount of personal days you have, and plan them out throughout the year when you really need them.

In pursuing perfect attendance and being the person that was always at work, I did establish my reputation as a “team player” at the two schools I’ve worked with. I’ve taken on significant amounts of work to make my colleagues’ lives easier and “take one for the team.”

But besides that, I haven’t gained anything from coming to work on days it really would have been better for me not to. My mental health has suffered. I got more burnt out faster.

I became a worse teacher because of exhaustion and stress from September to December

I haven’t had a better annual performance evaluation because of my attendance. I haven’t been more appreciated because of my attendance, but rather just established myself as a person more work can be asked of.

I, like any other human being, do not feel like going to work on some days. I don’t always feel like taking on extra work. I work for great bosses, a great administration, and am beyond proud of my school, and I can personally just do a better job of saying no.

I’m talking rather of a systemic workplace culture in America, where short-staffed environments are asking individual workers to do more with less in addressing demand. And when individual workers can’t do more with less, they burn out and break down. Instead of addressing root problems in shortages of resources, we have a “gotcha” culture that benefits from pushing workers into the ground.

I regret to say the only times I’ve been praised for my perfect attendance is in implicitly or explicitly shaming another teacher who’s been having a hard time.

I’ll keep doing what I’m doing, for the most part. I love my students and want to be there every day for them when I can. Otherwise, there’s nothing to gain from perfect attendance.

Now, on the worst of days, I realize there’s no point in letting the few personal days in my contract go to waste.

Ryan Fan is a teacher and writer. 

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