Dealing with Student Attendance

Updated: Jul 14

If you're new to the blog, I wanted to first mention our school population. If you're a loyal reader, standby while I recap. Our school is classified as "drop-out recovery." With the nature of our school, we have attendance around 60-70% throughout the school year. Our school is small, with around 150 students (grades 9-12). We are located in an urban city with high poverty rates.

All of that to say, we have an attendance problem. Although there has been an increase in attendance, compared to last year, we are still averaging in the same range. When your students are coming 3-4 days/week, it makes teaching 10 times more challenging. Plus, it makes learning 20 times more challenging. My students struggle to retain what I have previously taught them.

I often find myself reteaching over and over again. It can be quite draining to explain old content when I already have students in the next phase. I remember being entirely overwhelmed by reteaching last year, but I have found a few tricks to maintain sanity. I would imagine your attendance is not quite as low if you're working in a public school. However, I believe these tips might be helpful for any classroom teacher with absent students.


1. Create make-up bins

I have two bins, one for each prep, and a folder for every single student. If I have papers for them (although I am trying to go nearly paperless this year), I will write their names on the paper and stick it in their folder. I do this for every single period of every day. When students return, they check the bin before they even come to talk to me.

2. Utilize students who come regularly

I often will have a student teach their peer before I step in. Doing this shows me whether a student has learned the material, or understands the assignment, and it also grants me time to do something else. Obviously I am happy to help a student if they are struggling to understand after talking to a peer.

3. Don't be afraid to make units longer

I cannot tell you how many times I have estimated something to take a week, and it ends up taking two. I would rather student work be completed and done well, than rush a unit and have tons of missing assignments.

4. Don't be afraid to make assignments of lesser point value

My students are motivated when they see something is "late." Unless they had a medical emergency, there is nothing wrong with lowering an assignment a full letter grade because of their poor attendance. I have heard almost every "excuse" under the sun. Granted, life happens and I'm not a heartless person, but students need to be held accountable for their school work. I firmly believe school is an excellent practice for the workplace. If you are absent from work a lot, your job will suffer. So why should school work be any different? Working with high schoolers allows me to model that expectation for them. Many of them already have jobs and are trying to support themselves. So they understand the value of their schooling and their job.

5. Spend less time lecturing and focus on student-centered learning

Some examples of this include stations, projects, web quests, online programs (for example, we use Achieve 3,000), gallery walks, question trails, etc. Now that doesn't mean I don't "teach" in the traditional sense, but I do it a lot less with poor attendance. I cannot be teaching as much because I would be creating all sorts of gaps that don't need to exist. Those types of student-centered learning can really allow me to differentiate.

For example, my students who have excellent attendance can benefit from the extra time. Rather than giving them "downtime," I might have them complete an extended question, research a topic, write an essay, job search, or fill out a college application. For my students who have poor attendance, they might be drowning with the workload. Having student-centered learning means I don't have to hold their hand through it. They can work on their own time getting caught up while working on the current assignments.

In an ideal world, all of my students would be working on the same projects at the same time but that just doesn't happen. I often have students weeks, even months, behind others. It can get a bit chaotic at times, but having lessons be student-centered helps immensely.

6. Consider going digital

I was a little hesitant to go digital because I had the misconception that it would create more work for me. Although it does take time at first, I promise it will be worth it and save time. For poor attendance, having nearly all of their work on Google Classroom has been ideal. Students can access their work at any point throughout their school day. For example, if they get done in math early, they can still be working on my work without needing to come to talk to me. It also allows my students to work on materials outside of school.

Google Classroom is my current obsession. I'm working on becoming a Google trainer (for educators) by January--standby for more information on that. I'm currently at level two and in the process of getting all my paperwork submitted.

7. Utilize study halls

We don't give homework, but due to a lot of students often being behind they need time to get caught up. We have a built-in study hall at the end of the day, which often turns into a social hour. However, I try hard to make sure my students are coming to me for help if they need it.

8. Encourage them to be organized

Each of my students has a folder they keep in my classroom and place them on a shelf. Each day, when they come in, they must grab their folder. When they leave, it goes back on the shelf. Having this system in place helps them be less likely to lose materials in the shuffle. We don't have lockers, so our students can't put their items anywhere. Some carry bags around, which often become loaded down with materials from other classes.

Having classroom folders helps them become more organized. We try to do a purge every nine weeks because some of their folders need replaced or are super worn from all the papers. It's important to me for them to take ownership of their work and feel a sense of satisfaction from all the work they have accomplished. Plus, they are always excited to recycle some papers.

9. Don't let students being super behind overwhelmed you I often feel responsible for my students falling behind, but it is not my fault. I cannot force them to come to school and do their work. Even when they're present, it doesn't mean they'll get any work accomplished.

I try to focus on one, maybe two, students a week to help. I might sit by them a lot or be extra intentional with them. I cannot help every single kid every single moment. So focusing on one or two makes me feel like we're making some progress.

10. Ask students who are absent a lot why and what you can do to help

This might seem so simple, but sometimes it helps me better understand their situation. When I know why they are absent, it makes me either sympathetic or it makes me more "hard" on them when they're present. For example, I have a few students who are sneaky (to put it nicely). ;) I'm more likely to be on their case throughout the whole class, than a student who is working two jobs to support their family and is tired when they come in.

I also often ask them, "Do you want me to push you or let you slide today?" This simple question makes them take ownership. I have a lot of students that are 18/19, so I don't feel quite as responsible for them. If you want to be pushed, I'll push you. If you want to sit on your phone/sleep, and not earn your credit, I'm not going to bust my butt trying to make you do otherwise. This all might sound harsh, but again you have to keep in mind the population I work with--this is what our school culture is like. My administrators are 100% supportive and encouraging of them taking ownership of their learning.

I hope these tips will help you in some way. I wish I had a perfect solution for poor attendance, but I don't. If I figure out something that's foolproof, I promise I'll pass it along. :)

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