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West Hartford School District, Legislators Say They're Listening to Teachers Stressed by Changes [Updated]

One West Hartford teacher wrote an op-ed piece that went viral and administrators and legislators have responded.

File photo
File photo

By Kaitlin Glanzer and Ted Glanzer

Updated: Gov. Dannel Malloy has responded to the concerns of teachers and officials by calling for a delay in the implementation of the teacher eval and the creation of a Common Core Task Force.

Original story: An opposite-editorial piece by a West Hartford teacher published in the Hartford Courant has gone viral, raising the issue of whether reforms made in the name of improving education may just rob schools of their most critical asset – great teachers.

The piece, “Why I Want to Give Up Teaching,” written by Sedgwick Middle School teacher Liz Natale, details how a trifecta of changes to the Connecticut educational system – implementation of Common Core State Standards (a stringent new curriculum), Smarter Balanced Assessment (an online test replacing CMT and CAPT) and a new system of teacher evaluations - have demanded teachers focus their attention away from their basic mission of teaching and caring for children.

“Unfortunately, government attempts to improve education are stripping the joy out of teaching and doing nothing to help children,” Natale writes. “…Until this year, I was a highly regarded certified teacher. Now, I must prove myself with data that holds little meaning to me. I no longer have the luxury of teaching literature, with all of its life lessons, or teaching writing to students who long to be creative. … Instead of fostering love of reading and writing, I am killing children's passions — committing "readicide," as Kelly Gallagher called it in his book of that title.”

Natale clearly is not alone. Her piece was shared more than 123,000 times by Jan. 27 and was echoed by hundreds of comments. Follow-up editorials, including one by a speech pathologist from Simsbury said, “I too have experienced Ms. Natale's ambivalence and disillusionment.”

Retired elementary school principal Margaret Rick, of West Hartford, applauded Natale and called for those who teach to be invited into the discussion on how to improve education.

“Let's end the war on teachers,” she wrote. 

In West Hartford, administrators have been talking with teachers and are working to address their concerns, according to Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum Instruction and Assessment Nancy DePalma.

“It has to be addressed. You can’t have teachers going into classes every day with that level of stress. We’re working to put it in perspective. It’s difficult sailing through a perfect storm without taking each component separately and looking at each part’s separate worth,” DePalma said in a recent interview.

Taking on the three mandated changes at once has been stressful for teachers, she said. But the evaluations – which reduce a teacher’s performance to a number tied to student achievement, with a classroom observation component – are particularly worrisome to teachers, DePalma said.

In West Hartford, administrators are trying to meet the demands of state requirements while providing support to teachers and remembering that the focus is on what’s in the best interest of the students, she said.

That means extending deadlines (to the extent possible), talking to administrators and encouraging them to be flexible, to get away from worrying about numbers and fostering conversations with individual teachers.

DePalma noted that Superintendent of Schools Dr. Karen List sought an alternative plan to the teacher evaluation component - but that plan was rejected by the state.

“What’s critical when sitting down with an administrator and a teacher is saying, ‘what can I do to help you?’ … We’re having individual and collective dialogues to create a level of flexibility to meet needs.”

The emphasis is that “You are not alone,” she said. 

State Sen. Beth Bye said she objected to the onslaught of changes hitting teachers all at once but was assured the implementation wouldn’t be a problem.

“Those concerns expressed by West Hartford and by me were well-founded. You can’t do these three things at once effectively. Each one of them deserves deliberation,” Bye said in an interview Monday.

Each should have been piloted with time for feedback from teachers and to make adjustments, she said. Instead, districts have been asked to do too much too fast, hurting the perception of the three programs – all of which have merit.

Though the changes are in progress, Bye said she and others will continue to listen to teachers and parents – the experts in education.

“Our job, after we’ve passed reforms is to listen… We have to ask how do we make it better? How do we make it for kids and for you? What is going to help kids with learning and what is getting in the way. You have to listen to them and do your best to make adjustments. It’s a complicated process,” Bye said.

One problem is that teachers are not feeling listened to – that’s why Natale’s piece resonated with so many, she said.

“I thought it was brilliant. … [Natale’s piece] is a really good example of what we need more of. I give her so much credit for writing that piece.”

Deb Moyer January 28, 2014 at 09:32 AM
We have a fabulous principal and teachers at Morley Elementary school in West Hartford! It pains me to think these front-line supporters of children and learning may not be an equal part of the reform process. I am concerned. It was a sad day when my 3rd grader came home and said, "Mommy, the librarian no longer reads to us." Now the children are learning key-boarding in stead of being exposed to literature in the library. Let's follow the money trail. Is it true that these Core standards were heavily influenced by corporate CEO's and test-taking companies. In my opinion, it seems teachers are being forced to teach to tests that have expectations that do not take developmental differences into consideration. I want my children to be academically well rounded and secure individuals, but not stressed out because they are simply learning to take tests developed by CEO's and testing companies. I pray that the special projects and cultural learnings such as Japan night will not be dropped due to the narrow-minded, cookie-cutter requirements of the "Core." Teachers, let us know how we can support you! Parents, let's find out what is true and what is hear-say!
Sarah Glynn January 28, 2014 at 09:42 AM
As a school librarian and former Morley parent, I am appalled that the librarian is no longer reading to the students. Although I'm now at the high school level, I spent many years in elementary and would never have allowed Common Core and testing mandates to keep me from reading. Although I'm not familiar with the CC Elementary standards, I do know that the high school standards include plenty of literary components. So, I'd live to hear from the WH school librarians about their perceptions and concerns.
Brandon Stevens January 28, 2014 at 09:11 PM
As parent whose child will be entering public school in the near future, I am concerned with the anti-reform angle this issue is taking. Not to say I don't agree with some of the sentiment expressed by the teachers, but I believe more in depth objective coverage of the issue should be provided by the media. I have been seeing many accusations aimed at corporate America lining their pockets, this reeks of public scare tactics. Some of these same people would love their child to eventually find a good job in corporate America. Yet our public education continues to fall behind from a global perspective. Yes literature is important, but so are computer skills. The future is here and technology and the ability to integrate it with education is very important. Teacher evaluations based on testing results may very well not be the answer to public education problems, but we need to do something to insure that teachers are teaching and more importantly our children are learning. The comment that legislators should not be making decisions about how a classroom is run because thy have no educational training is ludicrous, that is the mentality that got us where we are today. We need our democratically elected officials to initiate change and adapt our public education to the future based on recommendations from our educators and yes, even corporate America as well. Change is always a struggle, and there will be those teachers that can't or won't. But, that does not mean we shouldn't change. What exactly are the core standards, what are we testing and why? Is literature and other non core elements being weeded out? Did the librarian stop reading stories because of core standards? Should parents take a more active role and introduce their own children to literature? Is the length of a traditional school day and year enough time so that can we expect our children to learn everything that is needed? There are a lot of questions and I am sure there is more than one answer. I can tell you one thing, not reforming is not the answer.
Lisa Petersen January 29, 2014 at 07:39 AM
Brandon the fact is that there is science about how the brain of a child works and how they learn. Unless the legislators are knowledgeable about that, I fail to see how they can determine the standards in the classroom (the how as opposed to the what) and the best way to measure progress. We all know good test takers who are lacking in performance and vice versa. I agree that we need to prepare the children to work in the future but we also need to do it in a way in which they can learn. As with anything, what works best is a team approach where different team members bring their expertise and the end product is the better than the sum of the individual parts. This is true in business and of education reform. To pretend that legislators in a vacuum know the best is ridiculous. Your child is young so you may sing a different tune once your child is in school and you see the extent to which teachers not only have to teach facts and social skills in addition to dealing with hunger, homelessness, developmental difficulties, abuse and all kinds of other issues that make it hard for children to learn.

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