John Breunig (opinion): The threat to CT teachers. ‘These kinds of things hurt our profession more than parents realize’

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Members of Greenwich Patriots attend a BOE meeting at Central Middle School in Greenwich in 2021.

Members of Greenwich Patriots attend a BOE meeting at Central Middle School in Greenwich in 2021.

Christian Abraham/Hearst Connecticut Media

There’s something different about being a school teacher in 2022.  

I can’t quite put my finger on the right answer, but leaders of the state teachers union are offering multiple choices. Hopefully, there won’t be a test.

The fresh challenge is about something more than getting back to a closer semblance of what teaching was like before March 2020. Connecticut Education Association President Kate Dias puts a highlight over the word “familiar.” Let’s use it in a sentence: Teachers and students returned to the familiar.

“Normal” has become passe, and unattainable.

Dias shares an example. An elementary teacher recently handed a student in the front row five pieces of paper.

“Why did you give me five?”

“You have to hand them back to the students behind you.”

When you start out with virtual learning, there’s no one behind you.

Some students have developed distracting habits while enhancing their digital skills at home. When handed an assignment, a few have to be reminded that, “You don’t need to be on YouTube when you do it.”

So teachers are learning new tricks as well.

My editorial page colleague Hugh Bailey and I are meeting with Dias along with CEA Vice President Joslyn DeLancey and Executive Director Donald Williams. The meeting is, indeed, familiar, as CEA leaders traditionally diagram goals for editors.

So some of the “asks” are predictable, such as continuing to strive toward ensuring there is healthy air in every classroom. Others have been amplified by the pandemic, including the recognition that teachers need more mental health services just like their charges. DeLancey’s pet cause is to bring more play back into elementary school classrooms. We could all use more play.

But a subtext quickly emerges, one I suspect will lead to the answer I seek.

Recruitment and retention is an evergreen challenge, but the teaching pool seems to have a leak. I write a lot about the wealth gap in Connecticut, but it is also being reinforced by the teacher gap. With modest starting salaries and a shrinking corps, it keeps getting harder to find teachers to boost students in low-income communities.

Even the state’s most successful city is experiencing teacher flight. Stamford welcomed 200 new teachers at the dawn of this school year.

“The monumental task of hiring 200 people annually is overwhelming,” Dias says. “That’s retention, not new positions. Not all retirements.”

She acknowledges that since the need is everywhere, experienced educators might seize the opportunity to take positions in Greenwich or Darien where they can earn $120,000 a year. Poaching could be a new CIAC sport.

This is the teachers union, so it’s no surprise that they make the case for higher starting salaries. DeLancey points out that for teachers in Stamford that amounts to $46,000 — with a master’s degree and the student debt that typically comes with it. For someone in their 20s, that won’t pay the rent in Fairfield County.

“You cannot be an independent, grown human living on your own without the help of a roommate, a spouse or a partner with that income,” she says, accurately.

Like their veteran counterparts, there are carrots out there for the rookies. DeLancey notes that same starting position in Darien with a master’s degree offers $54,000, “which will help a little.”

I correct her that it’s actually a healthy percentage difference, but the point is made. For all young teachers, there is also the lure of swaps into the business sector, where they have the potential to double their income. Thus, a lot of parents don’t want their kids to grow up to be teachers.

“All of this speaks not to a looming crisis,” Williams stresses. “The crisis is here now.”

And salaries aren’t even the hard part. Williams summons a sound bite about the importance of the work: “It’s the profession that leads to every other profession.”

“Teachers want to teach,” Williams says.

But parents want to parent and politicians want to politic. During COVID, a lot of parents started looking over teachers’ shoulders on the computer screen and didn’t always like what they saw. A lot of it was out of context, like gauging a Hulu show by its preview rather than streaming it. And since face time was gone and they were spending too much time on screens themselves, parents picked up bad habits.

DeLancey offers the example of a parent who didn’t like a teacher’s word choice in an email and mocked it on with a screen shot on social media. (Is there any context where the person who does this is not the brat in the room?)

“These kinds of things hurt our profession more than parents realize,” she says.

She recalls a misunderstanding in her own Darien classroom that led a parent to believe she was banning Dr. Seuss. That parent had the grace to call for clarification instead of “going on a Facebook rant.”

That’s pretty much a best-case scenario. The worst-case scenario is unfolding in real time. Teachers aren’t just attacked on social media, but at Board of Education meetings and on tacky signs at rallies. Somehow, parents missed the civics lesson that school boards and administrators set curriculums, not teachers.

“The last thing most teachers want to be is a political pawn,” Williams says.

Like any good teacher, our hosts made this hour-long conversation increasingly more interesting as it unfolded. I’ve finally figured out that answer, that subtext, that they never quite put into words. Williams’ “pawn” remark leads me to voice what I finally recognize as the unique challenge in the teaching profession in 2022.

“To me the difference is that the teachers themselves are the subject of the political debate. They are the accused,” I offer. “I don’t think I’ve seen that before.”

DeLancey gives me a grade.  

“You are 100 percent correct.” 

It should feel good to get the answer right. I wish I were wrong.  

John Breunig is editorial page editor of the Stamford Advocate and Greenwich Time.;