Classroom Crisis: Connecticut Public Schools Face Ongoing Teacher Shortages

AP Photo/Jessica Hill

By Aman­da Amer­al | UConn Journalism

Hell on earth” is the way Leslie Blat­teau described teach­ing dur­ing the COVID-19 pandemic.

While Blat­teau, a 15-year teach­ing vet­er­an and Pres­i­dent of the New Haven Fed­er­a­tion of Teach­ers, has remained in the pro­fes­sion, many of her col­leagues have not.

Sheena Gra­ham, 2019 Con­necti­cut Teacher of the Year, who taught music at Hard­ing High School and Cen­tral High School in Bridge­port, chose a dif­fer­ent fate and retired ear­ly in Jan­u­ary 2022.

After 40 ful­fill­ing years in a self­less pro­fes­sion, Gra­ham real­ized that it was final­ly time to pri­or­i­tize her­self, “I was forced to look at myself and say, you know, you have oth­er dreams, too.”

Every year, more and more teach­ers across the state are step­ping down from teach­ing. Their rea­sons vary: under-appre­ci­a­tion, under­pay, lack of resources and sup­port, cul­ture wars, and burnout, said Blatteau.

The Con­necti­cut Depart­ment of Edu­ca­tion iden­ti­fied that in the 2022–2023 school year, the ratio of stu­dents to staff in areas such as spe­cial edu­ca­tion, for­eign lan­guage, school psy­chol­o­gy, and speech-lan­guage pathol­o­gy is dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly high.

The issue of teacher short­age is even more extreme in dis­tricts that are already chal­lenged, such as Bridge­port, where Frances Rabi­nowitz, Exec­u­tive Direc­tor of the Con­necti­cut Asso­ci­a­tion of Pub­lic School Super­in­ten­dents, was a dis­trict Super­in­ten­dent, and where Gra­ham taught for almost 40 years.

Patrice McCarthy, Exec­u­tive Direc­tor of the Con­necti­cut Asso­ci­a­tion Board of Edu­ca­tion says that while teacher short­ages are not new, they were mag­ni­fied by the COVID-19 pan­dem­ic. “The pan­dem­ic caused peo­ple to repri­or­i­tize and say ‘ok, I can retire now, so I think I will.”

Gra­ham said she hoped to con­tin­ue teach­ing for anoth­er 5–10 years, but the burnout she was expe­ri­enc­ing was pre­vent­ing her from doing the job she loved.

Teach­ing your sub­ject mat­ter isn’t the issue, your love for chil­dren isn’t the issue, its oth­er issues that teach­ers deal with 24/7 that is giv­ing teach­ers burnout,” Gra­ham said.

The pan­dem­ic increased stu­dents’ emo­tion­al needs, putting an increased bur­den on teachers.

Teach­ers want to teach, but we’re feel­ing like there aren’t enough social work­ers, there aren’t enough school psy­chol­o­gists, and then we’re hav­ing to absorb a lot of that trau­ma and expe­ri­enc­ing that vic­ar­i­ous trau­ma our­selves. And that can lead to burnout and exhaus­tion,” Blat­teau said.

Gra­ham also under­stands that emo­tion­al toll.

I had been push­ing so hard for so long and every­thing in you says, ‘you’ve got to get the kids to a cer­tain point’, or ‘you’ve got to make sure that emo­tion­al­ly they’re okay.’ And what I found, and I’m not the only one, is that at no time are we mak­ing sure we’re okay.”

The scarci­ty of staff is not just con­se­quen­tial for teach­ers but also cre­ates a less-than-ide­al envi­ron­ment for stu­dents, experts say.

It is very very seri­ous. Class sizes are larg­er, teach­ers are tak­ing on addi­tion­al class­es, none of which is good for kids. Lack of con­ti­nu­ity in instruc­tion is very hard,” Rabi­nowitz explained.

There is a revolv­ing door of adults com­ing and going, and that is not help­ful for young peo­ple. Our stu­dents are impact­ed because they are get­ting a chem­istry cred­it, but there’s no chem­istry teacher.

Stu­dents are get­ting a Span­ish cred­it, but there’s no Span­ish teacher,” Blat­teau said. “There’s not the deep teach­ing and learn­ing that should be hap­pen­ing. So our stu­dents are being shortchanged.”

Gra­ham said that through­out her career, she would often have to dip into her own bank account for school sup­plies, which as a sin­gle moth­er, took a great toll on her finances.

There were times when I would leave work and come home to a house that did­n’t have lights,” Gra­ham added.

Teach­ers feel that not only are they under­paid, but they are also under-appre­ci­at­ed and under-respect­ed, Rabi­nowitz said.

I do think that the respect for the pro­fes­sion has not been as evi­dent in the last 10 years as it was pri­or. The lev­el of respect for teach­ers that we see in the Unit­ed States is not the lev­el of respect that we see in some oth­er coun­tries where the pro­fes­sion is held in the same regard as med­ical doc­tors,” Rabi­nowitz said.

For Gra­ham, this dis­re­spect cul­mi­nat­ed in the 2021–2022 school year when just two days before school start­ed, Gra­ham was informed by her stu­dents, not the school admin­is­tra­tion, that she would not have a class­room for that school year, as her choir class­room was going to be replaced by a cohort room.

My stu­dents should­n’t have been the ones to inform me of that news,” Gra­ham said. This lack of respect towards edu­ca­tors has also fueled cul­ture wars.

Guil­ford Pub­lic Schools has dealt with its fair share of cul­ture wars as in 2021, the dis­trict became a tar­get of an anti-pub­lic school sen­ti­ment at the hands of right-wing politi­cians who accused the dis­trict of teach­ing Crit­i­cal Race The­o­ry, said Guil­ford Pub­lic Schools Super­in­ten­dent Paul Freeman.

Free­man main­tained that while Guil­ford rec­og­nizes the impor­tance of, and teach­es top­ics such as equi­ty, social jus­tice, and crit­i­cal think­ing, they do not Teach Crit­i­cal Race The­o­ry, which is a com­plex the­o­ry look­ing at Amer­i­ca’s trou­bled past which is pri­mar­i­ly taught in law schools.

There have been com­plaints about books in our library, there have been sug­ges­tions that we shouldn’t shelve books that deal with LGBTQ themes, we have had sug­ges­tions in town that we should­n’t bring in staff train­ing that helps teach­ers to be more sen­si­tive and more sup­port­ive of trans­gen­der stu­dents,” Free­man said.

Free­man added that these crit­i­cisms only serve to dis­en­fran­chise pub­lic schools and dis­cour­age young teach­ers from enter­ing the pro­fes­sion, fur­ther­ing the already exist­ing shortage.

When there are teach­ers who are look­ing for posi­tions, and they google Guil­ford and they see some of the vit­ri­ol that is in the media or that gets report­ed in the press at times, I don’t think that helps us.”

Blat­teau also rec­og­nizes the back­ward role that this harm­ful rhetoric has in recruit­ing teachers.

We ded­i­cate our exper­tise and our com­pas­sion, our hearts and our minds to teach­ing kids. And then, we get told that we’re try­ing to indoc­tri­nate kids or we’re or we’re try­ing to brain­wash kids. And it just could­n’t be fur­ther from the truth,” Blat­teau said.

Gra­ham noticed this hos­tile rela­tion­ship toward teach­ers through­out her career as well. “I don’t know any­body that would allow me to walk into an oper­at­ing room and tell a doc­tor what I think he should do,” she said. “But yet any­body can walk into a school sys­tem or a board of edu­ca­tion meet­ing and tell teach­ers what they should do.”

Rabi­nowitz said that anoth­er issue in recruit­ing young teach­ers is the lifestyle changes encour­aged by the pan­dem­ic, which attract young peo­ple to careers in which they could work from home.

We have to look at Gen­er­a­tion Z and the oppor­tu­ni­ties that they have right now; some of which involve work­ing from home, and not want­i­ng to be so tied to the same place, same time, every day, 5 days a week. This cre­ates a con­flict because obvi­ous­ly, our pro­fes­sion is a very hands-on, in-per­son pro­fes­sion,” Rabi­nowitz said.

Gra­ham remains enthu­si­as­tic about edu­ca­tion and as a mem­ber of the Asso­ci­a­tion for Retired Teach­ers, and the Nation­al Edu­ca­tion Asso­ci­a­tion Retired com­mu­ni­ty, she is work­ing on behalf of edu­ca­tors to increase pay and resources in under­fund­ed dis­tricts like Bridgeport.

I stayed in Bridge­port, but I could have crossed over city lines in any direc­tion and made at least $10,000 more a year. And in some cas­es, 25,000 more a year,” Gra­ham said.

This is a com­mon trend among large urban dis­tricts. To reverse this issue in New Haven, Blat­teau has worked to nego­ti­ate a con­tract, grant­i­ng teach­ers a 15% pay increase over three years, which was over­whelm­ing­ly approved in the fall.

McCarthy argued that pay alone is not going to solve the prob­lem. “If teach­ers are feel­ing over­whelmed, anoth­er $5,000 isn’t going to make them feel any less over­whelmed,” she said.

Anoth­er way to reduce teacher burnout is for the State to imple­ment low­er class sizes across the board, Blat­teau argued, as larg­er cities like New Haven have dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly larg­er class sizes and a low­er prop­er­ty tax base to address this issue with.

The State could reduce extra­ne­ous paper­work require­ments that many teach­ers, espe­cial­ly Spe­cial Edu­ca­tion teach­ers are strug­gling with in response to a new elec­tron­ic paper­work sys­tem that is man­dat­ed by the state, Blat­teau said.

We have found that the state has not been respon­sive to our col­lec­tive con­cerns about how dys­func­tion­al this sys­tem is. It’s tak­ing peo­ple’s time and ener­gy away from our stu­dents. Teach­ers become teach­ers because we want to work with stu­dents. We don’t want to be sit­ting at a com­put­er doing paper­work all day,” Blat­teau said.

Blat­teau also wants to elim­i­nate any finan­cial bar­ri­ers that may be pre­vent­ing young peo­ple from going into teach­ing. Blat­teau is in favor of a nation­al Gov­ern­ment Issued- type of bill that would allow peo­ple who want to become teach­ers to under­take that respon­si­bil­i­ty, with­out hav­ing to take on any debt to do so.

There are pro­grams that help para­pro­fes­sion­als who may have a col­lege degree but don’t have teach­ing cer­ti­fi­ca­tion. These pro­grams will cov­er the cost of their tuition, enabling them to work, and com­plete course­work that allows them to become cer­ti­fied,” McCarthy said.

Rabi­nowitz is in sup­port of anoth­er ini­tia­tive that will stream­line the teacher cer­ti­fi­ca­tion process by mak­ing the cer­ti­fi­ca­tion con­tent areas more rel­e­vant to today, by giv­ing teach­ers more on-the-job train­ing and less philo­soph­i­cal training.

We may trade off some of the the­o­ret­i­cal parts of the cer­ti­fi­ca­tion process. They may not have the phi­los­o­phy of edu­ca­tion, or the his­to­ry of edu­ca­tion, in the great­est of depth that they have right now, but per­haps that’s less rel­e­vant than hav­ing them get hands-on expe­ri­ence in a class­room under a mas­ter teacher,” Rabi­nowitz explained.

Rabi­nowitz empha­sizes that the moti­va­tion behind chang­ing the cer­ti­fi­ca­tion process is not to make it eas­i­er, but rather more rel­e­vant to today’s climate.

Though Blat­teau rec­og­nized that there is more to be done to hold elect­ed offi­cials account­able at the local, state, and nation­al lev­els to make teach­ing a pri­or­i­ty, Blat­teau remained opti­mistic about the future of edu­ca­tion and is proud of the teach­ers, past and present, push­ing for changes. “There are many signs of hope and of improve­ment on the hori­zon,” she said.