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Teachers to Legislators: ‘Our Students Are Screaming Out for Help’

More than 50 Connecticut teachers, together with CEA leaders and staff, provided compelling testimony Monday in support of strengthening a bill that would integrate social-emotional learning (SEL) into teachers’ professional development.

In a public hearing that stretched into the evening, dozens of teachers submitted written and oral testimony before the legislature’s Education Committee concerning House Bill 5378, An Act Concerning the Integration of Social-Emotional Learning in Programs of Professional Development for Educators in Connecticut.

Many teachers turned out to testify on the importance of strengthening a bill about social-emotional learning, including Stacey Paley, Windsor; Carrie Cassady, Torrington; Kristen Record, Stratford; Lisa Thomas, Windsor; Kristen Lecco, Granby; Natalie Ferreri, Granby; and Lynne DeVito, Windsor.

While educators support a bill that provides for SEL PD, they believe HB 5378 does not go far enough to address the severity of the social-emotional crisis in their classrooms. They asked legislators to include additional provisions that would lead to meaningful change.

“The limited provisions of HB 5378 may be well intentioned, but they are woefully inadequate,” said CEA Executive Director Donald Williams, noting that most teachers and administrators are aware of SEL needs and priorities, and that simply requiring that SEL be incorporated in a school’s goals and professional development has already been achieved at many schools.

“The real challenge is to provide real resources to address the needs of students,” said Williams. “New, empty mandates are no substitute for the staff and dollars that many schools lack to appropriately address social-emotional learning and trauma-informed instruction. There is a deficit of school social workers, counselors, and psychologists. There are few dollars to provide the sustained, quality services that are necessary for student mental health and well-being. There is not enough infrastructure for the necessary outreach to families and inclusion of families in solutions for students.”

“While I recognize that HB 5378 is an acknowledgement that districts need to integrate social emotional learning into their curriculum, that is all it is—an acknowledgement,” said Manchester school social worker and CEA Vice President Tom Nicholas. “There are no teeth, no mandates, no funding, no proven path forward for successfully implementing strategies in this bill to address the needs of dysregulated students in our schools. The old adage ‘You get what you pay for’ comes to mind.”

“What is truly necessary is a comprehensive approach to addressing student trauma and promoting social-emotional learning,” said CEA Government Relations Director Ray Rossomando, pointing to landmark legislation recently passed in Oregon that addresses not only the crisis of student trauma but also the perennial underfunding of schools. “We can do this,” Rossomando said. “We need to do this. Our students can’t wait.”

CEA Vice President Tom Nicholas responds to Education Committee members’ questions about CEA’s Safe and Compassionate Learning Environment Initiatives.

“Doing nothing is unacceptable,” stressed CEA President Jeff Leake. “It is past time to address the violence in our classrooms, the loss of learning, and the trauma affecting our students and teachers. While professional development in social-emotional learning is part of the solution, it is only one piece.”

Leake urged legislators to incorporate CEA’s Safe and Compassionate Learning Environment Initiatives into HB 5378. Those initiatives include

  • increasing the kindergarten start age
  • establishing universal preschool
  • ensuring that staff-to-student ratios for counselors, social workers, and school psychologists meet national standards
  • reducing class sizes and testing
  • limiting special education caseloads
  • revising the Common Core State Standards for grades K-2
  • requiring districts to have plans in place to ensure an appropriate, timely, and student-centered response to disruptive students and a process for teachers to advocate for resources for students impacted by trauma

Making the case for strengthening the bill were teachers from every corner of the state who shared their personal stories of dysregulated students in their classrooms, the underlying causes of student dysregulation—ranging from trauma at home to intense academic pressure on our youngest learners—and the effect that the unaddressed problem is having on students in crisis, their classmates, and their teachers.

Too much, too soon

Common Core Standards have made kindergarten the new first grade, according to retired teacher Ann Grosjean, who testified that most younger children with birthdays after September 1 are not developmentally mature enough to successfully do the work. “This leads to social and emotional misbehavior in the classroom,” she noted.

“The increase in rigor has stretched our littlest learners so thin that they are now anxious, stressed-out students who struggle to work through problems themselves,” Marlborough kindergarten teacher Amy Farrior said in written testimony submitted to legislators. “It breaks my heart to watch my students struggle, cry, throw their pencils, and crumple their papers because what I am teaching them is not developmentally appropriate. I had a student in tears as he was working through a math problem. He looked up at me and said, ‘I am not smart enough for kindergarten.’ It absolutely crushed me.”

“We need to let children be children and enjoy their childhood,” said Kate Field, CEA’s Teacher Development Specialist and a former public school teacher and school administrator testifying before legislators.

Elka Spencer shared with legislators what she has experience as a Bloomfield teacher.

Trauma on the rise

Field added, “One quarter of our nation’s adolescents have been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. Thirty percent of children experience problems so severe that they require regular counseling, and that number doubles in urban areas. Incidents of bullying and aggressive student behavior are far more prevalent—particularly in the early grades, where such behavior has historically been rare. Many of the factors contributing to these problems are beyond the control of educators, and solving this crisis will take more than an hour of professional development squeezed in among all the other professional development requirements teachers must meet in a year.”

Torrington science teacher Carrie Cassidy explained, “I am in my 20th year of teaching middle school, and in this time, I have seen a dramatic change in student behavior. When I began teaching, disruptive students were a rarity. Today, disruptive, aggressive, and sometimes violent behavior is common. It is a daily occurrence, multiple times a day. I teach five classes a day, and every single one of my classes is interrupted by disruptive behavior—either in my room or in the hallway. My students don’t even react to the disruptions because they are so pervasive that they have become normal. This is not normal. It should never be normal.”

“Our students are screaming out for help,” said Windsor teacher Lynne DeVito. “They are suffering.”

Teachers are feeling the pain as well, she said. “My day begins by clipping a walkie-talkie to my pants. Every single time it goes off, every member of the pupil services team at my school jumps. Every day at my school, students and staff are hurt because of aggressive behavior. The situation is so extreme that of the four special education teachers in my building, three of us have been physically hurt this year.”

Fellow Windsor teacher Lisa Thomas, now in her 35th year as a Connecticut public school teacher, told legislators she has never seen the level of trauma and anger in so many students as she has experienced in the past three years.

“Our kids are hurting,” she said. “None of us goes into teaching for any kind of glory. We are in it because we believe in nurturing the future. But we can’t do that when we fear for our safety or when we have to evacuate classrooms to keep students safe from one another. Please try to imagine the impact that such environments have on learning. What child wants to come to school when they fear for their safety? When they wonder if their classroom will have to evacuate because a classmate is violent?  When they freeze each time a ‘privacy team’ call comes across the loudspeaker? This is not what Connecticut should settle for. Our values call for so much more.”

Windsor teacher Lisa Thomas, a 35-year veteran teacher, told legislators she had never seen the level of trauma and anger in so many students as she has experienced in the past three years.

Disrupted learning

Representative Susan Johnson, a member of the Education Committee, asked several of the teachers testifying about the impacts that behavioral disruptions have on other learners in a classroom.

As she sat down to testify, 22-year veteran Windsor teacher Stacey Paley painted a picture for the committee. She tapped her pencil as she spoke.

“Imagine you are trying to learn, for the first time, how to add and subtract fractions with unlike denominators and put the answers in lowest terms,” she implored legislators. “As you are trying not to confuse all the steps, another student is loudly tapping his pencil on the table. Your teacher has asked him to stop multiple times. You and other students have asked him to stop multiple times, but he doesn’t. He says, ‘Make me.’ Your teacher has called for assistance, but since he is not harming himself or another student, she is told to ignore it.

“After about 10 minutes, you have forgotten what to do with your math, and your notes look like they have been written in another language. You ask your teacher if you can go to another room to try and work. Imagine later that day, the same student is now opening and slamming the door to the classroom. Again, he is not hurting himself or another student, so everyone must ignore it. Later still, he slams lockers.

“This is how my students have spent many days this school year. They have also had to endure a student calling me names on a daily basis and swearing at me. I have witnessed colleagues getting hit, yelled at, kicked, and bitten by students. My building has had several teachers out for multiple days due to injuries by students, and we have had several teachers leave in the middle of this year due to student behaviors. I have witnessed teachers crying and trying to figure out how to make it through the day. I have witnessed teachers being blamed for these behaviors, because they must have done something to cause a child to act that way.

”We have participated in informational sessions on adverse childhood experiences and trauma. I don’t think there is anyone who would argue that these experiences don’t have an impact on children. What I have not heard is a plan to help. Simply telling teachers that these experiences exist is not enough. We are at a point where the other students in the class, as well as the teachers, are being traumatized. We must find a way to help all of the students, the ones who are acting out and the ones who have to witness it. We owe them better than what they are currently getting.”

Elementary school teacher Kristen Lecco, who has taught in Granby for six years, recalled waking up every day excited to go to work when she first embarked on her career. Over a short period of time, everything has changed.

“I’ve watched students destroy their classrooms,” she said. “Parents are saying their students are crying and afraid to go to school. I have felt the same way.”

Lecco urged the committee to expand the scope of the SEL bill to provide more school psychologists and other critical supports.

“I sit here as the voice of my fellow educators who are hopeful that we can restore public education.”

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