Retiring Greenwich educator reflects on 30-year career: 'I really found my passion'

Photo of Justin Papp

GREENWICH — History has a funny way of repeating itself.

Greenwich Education Association President Carol Sutton, a former longtime Greenwich High School social studies teacher, still recalls in the early 1990s, when her career was just beginning, the kinds of conversations that were increasingly taking place in the classroom.

The Rodney King riots had just rocked the country, bringing national attention to the problem of police brutality and reigniting racial tensions that had been dormant.

It was around that time that Sutton and other teachers founded the school’s Diversity Awareness Club and began partnering with the Anti-Defamation League, an attempt to bring more multicultural understanding to Greenwich High. Sutton was teaching books like “Savage Inequalities: Children in America’s Schools,” about wealth and racial inequalities in public schools across the country.

At the time, administrators didn’t think twice about such initiatives or such readings, Sutton said, and complaints from parents were non-existent.

But now, as the conversation around diversity and racism in schools has reignited in the last year, following the death of George Floyd and the rise of Black Lives Matter, the same — or similar — ideas are being cast by some as new, dangerous threats not just to education, but to America.

“It’s really interesting because so many of the claims being made, that this is all new — all these like big initiatives about diversity, all the teaching about race as the recontextualization of history,” Sutton said. “But some version of this has been going on since the ’90s.”

The recent outrage over the supposed teaching of Critical Race Theory (CRT) — a controversial academic framework with which to view race and power structures in American history — in schools is one example of the ways in which teaching has changed in Sutton’s 30-plus year career, which is now coming to an end.

Sutton recently retired as head of the union representing Greenwich teachers, a position she held for eight years. And she’s doing so at a contentious time within the district.

Sutton, who speaks at nearly every Board of Education meeting, was booed during her last public comment by parents protesting CRT and a host of other issues. And teachers already bearing the burden of teaching during the COVID-19 pandemic, find themselves increasingly under scrutiny from parents as they attempt to address past and present American racism in the classroom.

“It adds an unwelcome struggle onto a year of struggle,” Sutton said. “Nobody in the public schools needs this right now. And they (the protesters) don’t care.”

A lifetime in the classroom

Sutton was born and raised in Norwalk, where she still lives with her husband, Chris, though they are planning a move to Maine to be closer to family. She graduated from Brien McMahon High School and got her bachelor’s degree from Williams College, in Massachusetts.

Her first foray into teaching came in the early 1980s. Sutton’s father was an educator and she followed in his footsteps, beginning as a substitute in Darien Public Schools. Substituting soon turned into full-time work.

“I really found my passion,” Sutton said.

After Darien came the former Stamford Catholic High School. Then, she saw an opening in the Greenwich Public School district.

Since 1987, Sutton has taught in Greenwich. All of those years — except for one teaching at what was then called Western Junior High School — she’s spent teaching social studies at Greenwich High.

And for the last eight years, she’s been head of the GEA, a full-time, non-classroom position, with a salary paid by teachers’ dues. Lillian Perone, a former GEA president, has been elected to fill the vacancy left by Sutton.

One constant, in a sea of change

In her more than 30 years as an educator, Sutton has witnessed a profession constantly in flux.

The job of teaching has become more demanding, Sutton said. Technology has both aided educational opportunities and made teaching a round-the-clock endeavor. And parents have been increasingly involved in what their children are learning in the classroom.

“I would say that my eight years in office has been a time when teachers feel like they’re working as hard as they can, and running as fast as they can, and are still not able to keep up,” Sutton said. “And that wasn’t always the case.”

This is true of administrators and superintendents, Sutton said,

“There’s a laser focus on every dollar,” Sutton said. “Superintendents are increasingly responsible for managing the dollars, rather than managing the system of education.”

In her eights years heading the GEA, there have been five superintendents.

“When there’s a lot of turnover at the top, it’s hard on teachers, because ideas and programs don’t get a chance to stick when there’s an interim superintendent or an interim principal,” Sutton said. “There’s a little bit of feeling like you have whiplash.”

Sutton does feel there’s some stability in the superintendent role currently. The Board of Education voted in May to extend Toni Jones’ contract through the 2023-24 school year, which gives the district a real shot at accomplishing longer-term goals, Sutton said.

Special education, for example, is an area that has plagued the district for much of Sutton’s tenure. The district recently received a report based on a comprehensive audit of the department, which offered a litany of recommendations for improvement.

“I am optimistic that stable leadership in the superintendent’s office will give this special education report the chance it needs to bear fruit,” Sutton said. “And with a new superintendent who wants to be here for a while, this may be the best chance the district has for for addressing what has been has been a problem for years.”

Over the span of her career, right up to her retirement, one thing has remained constant: the sense of unity among Greenwich teachers.

“Teachers got a job in Greenwich and stayed in Greenwich because of the collegiality among the teachers, the support that teachers have for each other, professionally, personally,” Sutton said. “It’s remarkable. I’m not sure that exists everywhere. If you ask teachers why they stay in Greenwich, they’ll first say it’s because of the students. That’s what all teachers say. But I believe strongly what they would say next is it’s because of my colleagues.”

justin.papp@scni.com; @justinjpapp1; 203-842-2586