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Teachers Talk. Education Commissioner Listens.

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Haddam-Killingworth Middle School teacher and building rep Ruth Masci shares with Education Commissioner Miguel Cardona strategies that have had a positive effect on school climate in her district, a challenge still facing many districts.

“It’s unconscionable what we’re doing to these kids,” said a kindergarten teacher who described long days of math, reading, and writing instruction, with no opportunities for play.

“I am voiceless,” confided a special educator whose 14 students include children with autism, learning disabilities, Down syndrome, and emotional and behavioral issues. “I had five PPTs this week, and when I am in PPTs, I am not providing specialized instruction. I am drowning.”

When new and experienced educators stepped up to the microphone last night to talk about underresourced schools, overtested students, and dysregulated behavior in classrooms, Connecticut Education Commissioner Miguel Cardona stood with them—and listened.

Teachers throughout the state are increasingly reporting that student trauma, disruptive behaviors, staff ratios, and caseload limits are not getting the attention and resources they deserve. Classrooms are often evacuated, and children in crisis are failing to receive the supports they need. Everything from trauma in the home to excessive testing, class size, and kindergarten start age has been examined for its potential impact on students’ well-being and their classroom environment.

“For far too long, we’ve been dealing with the symptoms and not the underlying problems,” said Cardona, addressing more than 150 teachers gathered at a CEA forum—Teachers Talk—Thursday night in Rocky Hill, where he pledged to provide Connecticut’s teachers and students with the supports they need and to involve them in identifying what those supports should be.

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Dr. Cardona listened to teachers’ concerns and pledged to work on providing the necessary supports. “I’m not going to wait for legislation to do this,” he said.

“You need to be at the table,” he said. “Together, we are the cheerleaders for public education.”

Learning, interrupted

One after another, teachers from every corner of the state serving every student demographic shared deeply personal stories of how they and their students have been failed. They recounted violent outbursts that translate to whole-class evacuations or school lockdowns, life-altering injuries for teachers, disrupted learning, and an epidemic of unaddressed trauma in children.

“How do we evolve?” asked Cardona, whose own children attend Meriden public schools, where Cardona himself grew up and later taught. “It’s not going to happen without your input. I need your voices. We need to do this in a collective way, and we need to support teachers as they lead the way.”

Whether they’ve experienced dysregulated student behavior firsthand—as most teachers in attendance have—or are simply aware of a problem that is touching more and more classrooms—CEA members are keenly interested in learning about the education commissioner’s view of the situation and plans to address it.

East Granby Education Association President Kevin Iapichino-Dorr said, “I came here to gain more knowledge about what do about student behavior. I field calls from teachers about this issue all the time, and I want to hear the commissioner’s perspective, learn what other towns around our state are seeing and doing, and come back and be able to support our teachers and students.”

Tolland middle school teacher Celeste Estevez said she is interested in promoting social-emotional learning, noting that younger students are frequently tasked with work that is not developmentally appropriate, creating frustration and anxiety that lead to behavioral issues.

One early elementary teacher, who asked not to be identified, looked back on a decades-long year career she says has changed drastically and is coming to an end. Behind her decision to retire are escalating incidents of student behavior that have devastated her health and have pointed to deep, unaddressed problems among many students. She described, for example, an incident in which a frustrated five-year-old smashed her in the jaw with her head.

Questioning Connecticut’s earliest-in-the-nation school start age, coupled with full-day kindergarten and increasingly rigorous early elementary curriculum that leaves little opportunity for student play, socialization, and quiet choice time, the veteran teacher said the young children in her classroom today are chewing through pencils.

“They are anxious. They are chewing their shirts. And parents are distraught that their little ones are ‘failing’ kindergarten.

“There is no fun in our classrooms anymore,” Waterbury second-grade teacher Helen Kaminsky agreed.

“Behaviors are amplified,” said teacher from another district, “and this is the new normal. But it’s not normal. It’s not OK.”

Answering the call

Student aggression, Cardona acknowledged, is a major concern. To resounding applause, he told teachers, “You’re the frontliners when leadership is not working, and you feel the effects of that. We need to do a better job with early childhood education. We are not listening to what the research says about four-, five- or six-year-olds’ learning styles. We should not be shocked when we see kicking and screaming if we’re not programming for what kids need. We need instructional redesign.”

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New Canaan Education Association President Vivian Birdsall describes her district’s protocol for addressing student aggression, the first-ever in the state, with language written into teachers’ contracts.

He also said he is interested in protocol that CEA has helped establish to address student aggression. Such protocol, which has made a dramatic difference in school climate where it’s been implemented, was described by forum participant Vivian Birdsall, president of the New Canaan Education Association. New Canaan was the first district in the state to develop such protocol and incorporate related language into teachers’ contracts.

So many teachers lined up to share their stories with Dr. Cardona that time did not permit all of them to be heard before the forum ended. Recognizing teachers’ need to be heard and his own need to understand what is happening in classrooms, Cardona agreed to personally reach out to those whose remarks he was unable to respond to at the forum. Teachers’ stories were also videotaped—as was the entire Teachers Talk forum—and the video will be available next week to members only at cea.org.

Meanwhile, if you have experiences and ideas related to social-emotional learning, protocols for disruptive students, kindergarten start age, staff ratios for school counselors, school psychologists, and social workers, or other related issues, share your perspectives at cea.org/SELtestimony. CEA will pass your comments along to legislators at a hearing this Monday, March 9.

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At the packed forum, teachers lined up to share their stories, concerns, and ideas for policy change with Commissioner Cardona. Suggestions including everything from reduced testing, increased kindergarten start age, more effective training for school administrators, reasonable ratios of students to school counselors, psychologists, and social workers, and an emphasis on social-emotional learning and trauma-informed instruction—with adequate training.

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