Groton - Michael Graner starts Jan. 1 as Groton's new superintendent of schools, and he already has one new practice he wants to put in place.
In Ledyard, Graner said he spends two hours, twice a week, observing classes in a school with the school's principal. He said the purpose is not to evaluate teachers but rather to get a sense of what teaching looks like across the district in a particular grade, and start a dialogue among teachers, principals and him.
He said teachers were nervous at first but then found it helpful.
"Now, not even the students look up, let alone the teachers," Graner said. He said he has already discussed the issue with the Groton Education Association, and they are supportive. Graner began meeting with Groton Board of Education members individually over coffee about two weeks ago and will attend the next school board meeting on Monday in the Town Hall Annex.
Graner signed a contract on Nov. 9 to run Groton schools and will earn a salary of $175,000 a year. His contract also provides benefits including $2,800 in long-term care insurance, $500 per month in car allowance, life insurance of twice his annual salary, 22 vacation days, 18 sick days and 10 personal days.
The new job will take Graner from a district of 2,559 students to one of 4,826 students, based on enrollment from the last school year. He served as Ledyard superintendent for 10 years before accepting the job in Groton and previously served as superintendent of Putnam Public Schools and as a principal in the Thompson and Waterford public school systems.
He is known in Groton, not only because the districts are physically close to one another, but because his grandchildren attend Groton public schools. Graner's daughter, Lea Graner Kennedy, serves on the Groton Parent Council.
Many teachers also live in one community while teaching in the other. Beth Horler, president of the Groton Education Association, is among the staff who live in Ledyard.
"These two communities are very close-knit," Graner said.
Graner serves as an adjunct professor at the University of St. Joseph, and many teachers have also been his students.
During his first week as superintendent, Graner said he plans to visit each of the schools and meet with principals, although he knows some already through his grandchildren.
And he has a few ideas he believes will work well in Groton. One is what he calls "walk throughs," where he sets aside a block from 9 a.m. until 11 a.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays to observe classrooms with a principal.
The visits are intended to engage teachers in conversations about their craft by asking questions such as, "Why did you group students the way you did?" Graner said he also talks to students, and has found teachers become excited when someone asks about their work.
Graner said he and the principal then leave the classroom and discuss what they've observed, and what begins as a conversation between Graner and a principal ultimately becomes a conversation between principal and teacher. He said it's also sometimes helpful for principals from one school to observe classrooms at others to see how things are done there.
"The whole point of it is to have a productive shop talk," he said, adding that "it expands your view of what ... instruction really looks like across the district."
A second initiative he's already started involving Groton in is a program called "More than Words," in which high school students learn respect for diversity and conflict resolution, and then serve as mentors in their schools and teach what they've learned to children in elementary school.
He said the program is based at Ledyard High School but also involves students from the tribal community and New London, and this year added students from Robert E. Fitch High School.