Written By: Hans Appel
As a kid, I struggled with asthma while growing up in an environment filled with sage brush, dust and pollen. The Tri-cities was indeed a hotbed of allergies for me. Despite being a competitive athlete, I routinely found myself dealing with some yearly sickness during the winter months. And while I eventually outgrow asthma, it created a lot of personal challenges to overcome.
Without question, my 10th grade year proved to be my toughest in terms of health and wellness. In late December of 1991, I came down with a full blown case of Pneumonia; which in turn, landed me in the hospital. During my time away from high school, our head varsity coach had also been fired. This unexpected shakeup to my beloved sports team, was hard to comprehend. Additionally, I had missed numerous assignments, projects, and tests. Furthermore, this health ordeal coinciding with my 16th birthday as I literally was hospitalized 2 days after recieving my driver’s license (FYI: I was born on Christmas Eve...so for those reading closely, you probably guessed that my Christmas looked a little different than most).
As you can imagine, losing 15 lbs, missing multiple basketball games, and over 2 straight weeks of school might prove to be extremely anxiety provoking.
How would I get caught up? Did I lose my spot on the team? Will I be interrogated about my excessive absences? Do I remember how to drive my car? Will my friends care than I'm gone?
Luckily for me, I had numerous teachers, coaches, and educators who prescribed to an Award Winning Culture. These Character Strong educators visited me in the hospital, brought me cards, assignments, and encouragement. Personal connection can be incredibly healing to the mind, body, and soul. Then, as I recovered at home, folks were lined up to wish me well, check-in on me, call me on the phone, and generally facilitate my transition back to LIFE at school. They even continued this wellness watch as I returned in mid-January by greeting me with smiles, “Welcome Back Hans,” and helping me prioritize and strategize how to tackle the MOUND of school work.
Nearly 27 years removed from this health tribulation, I occasionally find myself wondering what might have happened if I wasn’t intentionally treated with such positivity, dignity, and respect.
During my time as an educator, I’ve witnessed and taken part in all forms of response to student absence. Some comments seem to do real damage:
**“Check the box for missing work.”
**“It’s not my job to keep track of your assignments.”
**“Looks like you finally decided to show up.”
**”I don’t have time to help you get caught up right now, I’ve got to teach.”
**”Nice of you to show up!” [With sarcastic undertone]
**”Where the heck have you been?”
**”It’s hard to learn, if you’re never here!”
**”You gotta start coming to school.”
**"It’s STUDENTS’ responsibility to seek me out for missing assignments, when their absent...it’s not my job”
**"Two days for every day you missed, NO EXCEPTIONS!”
**"If you were here more often, you’d know what to do.”
**”Why haven’t you completed all the work I sent home?”
**”It’s about time you’re here!”
Award Winning Culture establishes conditions of positivity and warmth, to support students through absence. Educators recognize that excessive absence comes with elevated anxiety and decreased educational self-efficacy. By intentionally reaching out during and after attendance struggles, educators provide students with HOPE.
I recognize that educators have numerous students in their classrooms, caseloads, teams, and schools to keep track of. But as a kid who struggled through an extended health related absence, I want to assure you that your time, energy, and compassion matter.
It mattered to the kid who had to stay home with a younger sibling. It mattered to the kid who came down with mono. It mattered to the kid who had school based anxiety. It mattered to the kid who struggled with a learning disability. It mattered to the kid who returned home from Disneyland. It mattered to the kid who returned to school with a broken hand. It mattered to the kid who failed to set his alarm because his parents leave for work at 5am. It mattered to the kid who was kept home, as a discipline punishment. It mattered to the kid who wouldn’t show up because he had no clean clothes. And…..
IT MATTERED TO ME.
Now, don’t get me wrong. We all know that consistent attendance matters to student learning. The research is clear, student attendance and student success are directly linked. Creating systems that inspire and encourage exceptional attendance is crucial to building educational momentum that exudes student empowerment. However, we run the risk of damaging student and/or parent relationships with obtuse responses. Furthermore, our unenlightened or nonexistent feedback might have the unintended consequence of perpetuating student absence.
My challenge to educators is to examine your own behaviors, words, and feelings toward students who miss school. What messages are you sending them, as they return to school?
How might you “WELCOME BACK” your students TODAY?
About the Author
Hans Appel has been a school counselor in the Richland School District for the past 17 years and at Enterprise Middle School since it opened. He's passionate about school culture, servant leadership, and kindness.
Enterprise Middle School received the 2018 ASCD Whole Child Award in Washington, for its award winning culture and the 2018 Global "Class Act Award" for Kindness. By creating a culture of kindness, service, and empathy we've taken student leadership to an epic level.