Sunday, January 22, 2017

Managing Those School Absences

Welcome to the first Bizzy Mama blog post under for which I have a new perspective: the AGENCY!  I have to say, though, I think I could have given the agency perspective on this one already.  Remember how I always say to remember that this is a BUSINESS?

So, thinking about BUSINESS, it only makes total sense to write about school and absences and your child’s job as a model/performer.  Right?  The thing is: somehow it does need to all come together.  Because that is the reality.  Your kid is a kid, who probably goes to school (of which some form is required by our society), AND your kid works in a legitimate, fast-paced and high-expectations business.  Making it all work can be a challenge, but it can be done.  It depends on a few things.

First, I’ll get this out of the way.  By having a school-age child and signing on to be a model/actor, you are accepting the fact that school absences will occur.  Unless you are in this ONLY for the summer, school absences are inevitable.  You really cannot have it both ways.  So accept that fact outright, and decide your game plan.  I’ve heard parents say things like, “Well, if they want to work with kids, they need to understand that school comes first!”  Unfortunately, modeling and performing fit into a mostly Monday-Friday, workday schedule.  For all of the adults in the business (production teams, photographers, stylists, etc.), it’s their job – and they operate according to a typical work schedule.  (I say “typical”, but there are shoots that occur on weekends and holidays, so I don’t want to make blanket statements.)  If your kid can’t work because of school – another kid can.  And I don’t mean to be mean by this – it’s just the way of the business.  If school absences are not acceptable for you, consider summer work or whether or not this is the right business for you.

I would say the most significant factor in pulling it off – achieving that balance for a kid who manages both work and school – is:  <dramatic pause> YOU.  The parent.  How you deal with everyone in the equation will make all the difference in the world when it comes to the great balancing act.  First, consider yourself a role model.  How do you present yourself in situations at school with teachers and administrators?  I will tell you 100% what NEVER EVER EVER to say.  Do not say this.  I taught high school for twenty years and I can tell you this is SUPER irritating.  Never say: “Will my child be missing anything next week?” or “Did my child miss anything important yesterday?”  YES, your child missed/will miss important things.  School is important; there may be some days more exciting than others; it’s all valuable.  Think about how to rephrase that.  “My son will need to miss some class time next week; what can I do with him to help him stay on track with his classmates?”  maybe add something like, “I know you may not have time to put together work in advance, but I’d love to know what you’re working on in math/science/social studies so I can help keep him on track as much as possible.  I’ll check in again at the end of the week for any suggestions you may have.”  So what you’ve done there is show the appropriate respect for school and the teacher, you’ve shown initiative to make up some of the gap between makeup work and class time, and you’ve committed yourself to communicating and keeping that communication open.  Human perspective: you are totally respectful and realize you’re in a collaborative situation.  You’ve agreed to take on some of this yourself and not burden others with your child’s extraordinary needs.  Very importantly, you’re not treating the teacher like some sort of learning servant.  (That was the worst.  I’m all for professionalism and expectations that your child has a great teacher, but when I would get these demanding letters about a kid needing a week’s worth of work because he’s going to Aruba right before mid-term exams, I would basically hate you.  No, I was not going to take significant time away from my other 124 students to make sure your pampered prince had a packet of work HE WOULD NEVER DO ANYWAY.)

I can say without fail that in any walk of life, you get more flies with honey.  The sweeter and more gracious you are, people will be much more willing to work with you.  Thus, the reverse is true: if you are a total pain in the ass, you will get nowhere.

Now here’s where I’m going to come in with the agency perspective.  If you need to focus on school BOOK OUT.  If you know your child has a pressing engagement – of any sort – bust especially in school, please book out in advance.  And you know what the school calendar is – if there is a week of state testing that your child cannot miss, book out.  Mom perspective now:  “We haven’t been busy with work much lately, so we don’t book out and just chance it.”  We’ve allllll done this.  And most of the time it works out just fine – we get where we need to be.  But it will never fail that the ONE TIME YOU DIDN’T BOOK OUT, a casting or job will come and…what are you going to do?  Your agent needs to know if you are available or NOT.  You can’t get a casting today for tomorrow at 3:00 and say you can’t pull your kid from school.  Remember, you’ve accepted your child will be missing school and you should be ready to go at a moment’s notice.  Once an agent has to go back and tell casting your kid cannot make it, it’s a real drag.  Sure, we know things are going to come up.  Especially in the winter, kids get sick left and right or weather takes a sudden turn for the worse, but these occurrences must be the exception and not the rule.

The school district itself is an important piece in this puzzle.  Some districts are very content to allow the absences, especially when the parent makes every effort to keep the transitions in and out of the classroom as smooth as possible.  The less you show up on the radar, the better.  This goes back to the whole how-you-handle-it thing.  I would say that districts closer to the hub of NYC are probably more understanding.  (Disclaimer: I can only offer advice for the NY market.  I have no idea how things work in other markets!)  The farther you get from the city, the harder it is, both because the districts may never have had industry kids or just the sheer challenge of distance.  More on that in a bit.  But you need to know that there are state laws about absences and how they are excused and how many are allowed.  For example, Connecticut (where I live) allows ten unexcused absences.  Modeling and a lot of one-day acting projects – in general – are going to fall into that category.  An absence can be excused by the district for some sort of amazing cultural learning opportunity, and I pulled that card when my daughter missed a day to shoot a pilot with a director who had just won an Oscar the year before.  (Side note: the pilot was not picked up, so…yeah.  But cool experience!)  But literally, that’s the kind of “reach” it has to be – and it’s up to the Superintendent’s discretion, so you can’t really play that extreme cultural opportunity card to go shoot for a toy catalog.  Illness, however, can be excused, so every time your child is legitimately ill, be sure to document that specifically in your own records or get a doctor’s note – that way, none of those illnesses will cut into those magic ten absences.

Now here’s some inside scoop (teacher perspective).  I learned that it’s very difficult for a district to deny a child credit or advancement if they don’t have a regular practice of doing it.  So, let’s say your child had 18 unexcused absences from working.  The school threatens to deny your child credit for the year.  If your district has a no history of doing this for children (here’s the catch: educational records are PRIVATE and you would have almost no way of knowing how it handles other kids’ absences), it would be very difficult to suddenly “make an example” of a child.  If your district is always a fascist about this, you have very little recourse.  But it’s a Catch-22: you don’t know what they usually do, so you need to play your cards right.  However, if you missed more than the limit last year and they suddenly change their tune, you kind of know how they handled it last year and maybe you don’t have to worry as much.  Here again is why it’s important to keep on top of the work and keep the communication open: if your child is doing well, it’s harder to initiate these types of clamp-downs on kids.  Beware, though, that with all of the electronic record-keeping that schools do, there may be an automatic letter or phone call from the social worker when absences get near the limit.  And yes, we have received both.  How did I handle it?  First, I knew the letter was automatic and required by law that they notify me…so I didn’t specifically respond.  Absences noted.  Thank you.  When I got the phone call, I thanked the social worker for the update and assured her I was aware of the situation, promised to provide documentation for the excused absences, and make sure my daughter was doing well.  And that’s all I had to say – there was no grand inquisition.  In fact, in a later and unrelated conversation with the social worker, I joked that the whole conversation sounded like she was reading from a script.  She admitted that, essentially, she was running down a list of things she was required to say.  So don’t take it personally – let the school do what they need to do, and graciously thank them for their concern and remind them that you always want a good partnership between home and school.

Am I saying to suck up?  Yes, I am telling you to suck up.  You’re causing them more work (for both the classroom teacher and the administration) and you need to think of it from their perspective: this is a pain in the neck for them.  They probably have some really annoying and ugly conversations with parents, and I’m willing to bet that person who called you dreaded getting on the phone with parents.  Not everyone is as nice as you are!

Why do schools care so much – don’t parents always know better when it comes to these decisions?  Well, first, their job is to educate your child to the best of their ability, and they want to do it well.  Next, schools are actually rated and judged – by the state and federal government – on attendance rates.  I’m not entirely sure about the funding being based on attendance rates; I think it’s true but I’m not entirely sure how that works on a day-by-day basis.  Usually the attendance rate on one specific day is requested by the government, and the school must report the attendance percentage.  If that number is low in relation to similar schools or the state/national average, it can mean penalties for the school in terms of reporting requirements or future funding.  Remember No Child Left Behind?  I honestly have no clue how much of that law is still intact, but that single attendance statistic was something upon which a school could be deemed “failing.”

The next question I often get is, “Should I lie and say my kid is sick?”  No.  Don’t lie.  I say my child has an appointment.  If they ask, I say it’s a casting or a shoot.  Lying will only bite you in the butt in the long run.  You don’t need to divulge all the gory details, but they will ultimately end up knowing why your kid was absent.  And as a matter of moral and ethical principle, I don’t think you should put your child in a position of having to lie.  If someone asks your kid where he/she was yesterday and you tell your kid to lie…?  No.  Just don’t.

And another “what if”:  What if your child suddenly isn’t doing well and the school is saying the absences are having an effect or your kiddo’s performance?  For heaven’s sake, pull your kid from modeling and performing.  Contact the agency.  Book out until further notice.  Reconsider when the performance has improved.  Period.  This is not debatable in my mind.  There is no argument that modeling/performing can be a better experience than performing well in school.  Can it be an excellent experience for a child in addition to strong school performance?  Yes.  But in place of?  NO WAY.

I’ll come in now from the agent perspective.  Is it realistic to tell the agency you can only make castings and bookings after school?  Not really.  Castings for school-age children DO tend to start at 3:00, and I think that is pretty standard.  Here’s where distance comes in: if you live far from the city, like we do, most castings require an early dismissal.  I’ve taken that on and accept it as part of the business, just like the absences.  Do I think it’s fair to refuse a random casting that does pop up smack in the middle of a school day?  Yes, I think that’s reasonable because it’s rare enough that it won’t make a huge dent in the big picture of casting.  I would not bite your head off.  As an agent, I would ask casting that my school-age kids be scheduled after 3:00 pm, and hope for the best.  But can you request that bookings only be after school?  No.  Bookings occur during regular business hours, and that’s why you are in the business – to work according the standard operating procedures of the industry.  There’s no way of knowing the exact time your child will shoot when he or she is submitted (sometimes months) in advance of a shoot.  If I know that you are unavailable until 3:00, I probably cannot chance getting you booked for a 10:00 am shoot in four weeks – and knowing I would have to decline the booking with the client.  Bookings are the grand prize in this business, and we have to do everything possible to secure them – not risk losing them.  There are some clients out there who are somewhat mindful of school and may schedule older kids later in the day so they can get in some school, BUT – big picture – they schedule the kids according to what makes the most sense to production’s schedule.

I’m going to circle back to my big advice here.  Be gracious, be sweet, and work your tail off to keep your kid on track for doing well.  Obviously if you get a long booking or are going to be working on a major on-camera project, the whole game changes.  There will be set teachers and state and union requirements for daily school work, and that’s a different story.  I hope I addressed the overall concern about occasional work-related school absences from my multiple perspectives...let me know if you need any more info!

As always, follow my Bizzy Mama facebook page where I announce new posts, feel free to respond on Backstage, shoot me an email at, or check out my silly pet and family pics on IG @thebizzymama.  I work for Take 3 Talent now, so you can check out their website at for more agency info.

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