THE ART AND HEART OF TAKING ATTENDANCE….

When you witness a former student’s success, it is not their name so much that will bring tears to your eyes; it is the “story” that is associated with that name. Resiliency is such an underappreciated virtue….

A high school English Teacher once announced on the first day of classes: “Now, when I call your name, and you are not in your seat and ready to work, you are absent (1) .” One student (me) thought (2) : “But how could that be? If someone was “physically present” in the room, how could they also be absent?” “This”, I thought; “must violate some law of physics”: (The law: “A body inside the room is incapable of not being in the room, and therefore is present, and not absent from the room.”) The teacher then read my mind, so I thought back then; but learned later it was just a standard teaching Jedi trick-technique of reading faces. “Now, I know what some of you are thinking”, she said, “well you can get rid of that idea; ‘absent’ and ‘present’ is what I say it is!” And so it was…….

We call names in anticipation of a response: “Present”, “here” or silence (absence). Not just another bureaucratic excuse to do something “official”; there is much, much more here. Taking attendance is giving attention to recognition. This is a moment rich with symbolic meaning. When we take attendance we are taking into account (and counting) individual names attached to individually unique stories. And as we record the moment, we are at the same time, recording and taking a count of human possibility. What is it that we want each person to “present” to the world; and what are they “here” (called) to do in this life. And yet these eager minds, not often revealed by their faces, and slouching body language, are counting on us to give them a chance at doing something called “themselves” at some point in the future. They are, at the same time, also taking our attendance: “Is the teacher here, and present today for me?” And the silence of “absent”? I almost forgot that teacher also said: “And don’t call out: he/she is not here, or absent; I will know that they are absent by their empty seat, and the silence!” And so it was…….

The vacant and absent mind (the real “absent-mindedness”?) like the vacant and empty seat, lacks substance, weight; is missing a sense of personal presence and purpose. The unoccupied (and yet occupied) seat, the accompanying silence of engagement, is a sign of an unoccupied mind; physically present but not really there. The problem in our nation is that we have quite a number of behinds in class (or at least in the school building); but they are disconnected from minds, minds that are absent. School should be a place where students are not only marked “present”; but are also forced to present their best possible selves. And when they push back; as normal developmental psychology inclines them to do; persistently meet them with an equal force of high standards and expectations. And when they bring a great social need to school; we should meet them with an equal amount of scaffolding and support. (That really is a law in Physics :-). “Seat-time” can’t be confused with “learning-time”; and 12 years is a lot of time in a person life; and it should really count for something. A former colleague (Brenda Caldwell) spoke recently about a student who just earned her Master’s degree; she said that: “She knew her story”. In other words she knew the difficult journey that preceded the victory, and the positive role of “teacher-push” in a student’s life. This I submit is the difference between the engaged efficacy (3) of taking note, heart and mind of a student, and the everyday efficient exercise of just taking their attendance.

(1) I did not know it then; but she was bluffing; attendance taking is a serious official procedure that had to be recorded accurately (Serving as a principal I received several court subpoenas for students’ attendance records). But a great deal of what makes high school education work is the “bluffing” part; how else do you get (know everything in life there is to know) teenagers to graduation, before they willfully self-destruct.

(2) Thought and not said, because back then if you were disrespectful, and your parent grabbed you, the only one you could call on for help was the Lord.

(3) Efficacy: The extent to which a teacher believes that through their thoughtful, strategic and purposeful efforts; they can positively influence student learning, and increase the possibility for academic success