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    Sunday, June 23, 2024

    Where have all the teachers gone?

    Groton Public Schools Human Resources Coordinator Christina Adams, right, and Human Resources Assistant Michelle Gustavson go over questions for candidates during an onsite recruitment event at Thames River Magnet School on Wednesday, Aug. 16, 2023. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
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    Groton Public Schools Human Resources Coordinator Christina Adams, right, and Human Resources Assistant Michelle Gustavson go over questions for candidates during an onsite recruitment event at Thames River Magnet School on Wednesday, Aug. 16, 2023. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
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    After feeling burned out, Nori Lembree took a leave of absence from her job as a teacher in Stonington and went to Ecuador.

    Lembree, who taught Spanish at Stonington High School for 11 years and visited Ecuador over the summers, said she had been experiencing a “trifecta of stresses,” including teaching a language remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic; pushback from parents about grades; and news of school shootings.

    Lembree has remained in Ecuador and works for an online teaching company and teaches Spanish to a class in New York.

    She said she enjoys the relaxed pace of life and the sense of community.

    Lembree is not the only one to switch gears.

    Local schools, like others statewide and nationwide are scrambling to get teachers into classrooms amid the perfect storm of teachers experiencing stress, overwork, a lack of competitive pay, and micro-management. Some teachers are moving from district to district, while others are leaving the profession, and fewer people are entering the field.

    Amid a nationwide teacher shortage, the New London school district needs to fill about 20 certified teaching positions before the new school year starts.

    Other local public school districts reported fewer vacancies but in areas difficult to fill, such as special education, math and science, and bilingual education, and are ramping up interviews and hiring efforts.

    Groton hosts regular recruiting events. New London offers a signing bonus and salary boost for certain positions. Local districts have expanded their outreach in posting open positions.

    Connecticut had 1,300 educator vacancies, as well as 1,300 paraeducator vacancies, as of March, said state Department of Education spokesperson Eric Scoville.

    “I remember when you were lucky to get an interview,” Norwich Free Academy Head of School Nathan Quesnel said, recalling his early years as a teacher. “Now, you’re lucky to get someone to interview.”

    As of Tuesday, NFA had three teacher vacancies: math, social studies and art positions.

    New London’s 20 vacant teaching positions are 5% of the district’s 400 total certified teaching cadre, said Bob Stacy, district executive director of human resources and talent. The number changes rapidly, as applicants consider offers.

    “And there’re also those last-minute resignations we did not expect,” Stacy added.

    ‘A perfect storm’

    Sinthia Sone-Moyano, deputy commissioner at the state Department of Education, said Connecticut faces a continued teacher shortage exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

    The state in July identified statewide shortages especially in four priority areas: special education, bilingual/English for English learners and grade 4-12 math and science.

    High-needs districts have shortages of library and media specialists, school psychologists, and speech and language pathologists.

    “We are working diligently with our districts to make sure they are filling these seats with the most highly qualified individuals that we can put in front of students,” Sone-Moyano said.

    She said the teaching profession, like other industries, has an aging workforce with people retiring.

    Several programs are in place, such as the Northeastern Enhanced Reciprocity Initiative, to enable people with teaching certificates in 11 other states, Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico to get certified in the state, said Scoville. The program has led to 478 new educators working in Connecticut.

    Connecticut Education Association President Kate Dias said there has been a slight uptick in teachers retiring, but many more left “prematurely.” Nearly 75% of CEA members surveyed last year are thinking of leaving.

    Dias said a “perfect storm of issues” is at play, including increased stress, “micro-managing” of curriculum, more responsibilities with testing, uncompetitive pay and sometimes political pressure.

    Dias said when educators’ curriculum became political fodder, some said: “I really didn’t want to be a political lightning rod. I wanted to teach third grade.”

    Many move district to district for better benefits, administration, salary or commute, Dias said. Teachers can be “pickier,” she said. Some even leave districts mid-year.

    Lembree, the teacher who went to Ecuador, said teachers have been overwhelmed by the pandemic and helping students catch up, and an added political piece.

    After she left Stonington, Lembree, who was an adviser to the LGBTQ+ club, said a parent had complained that a teacher had hung a pride flag in a classroom. The flag was removed until the superintendent reversed course and allowed Pride flags, affirmed by the Board of Education.

    Michael Freeman, who was president of the Stonington teachers’ union, said he retired recently, just because it was time after 36 years.

    Freeman, long active in the CEA, has heard concerns from teachers about salaries that have not kept pace with inflation, lack of respect and autonomy and “top-down management” in some districts.

    Aspiring educators

    Emma Sands, a senior at Eastern Connecticut State University and chair of the CEA’s Aspiring Educators Program, said a prospective teacher pays for college, master’s degree and certification. But the salaries aren’t comparable to other professionals with the same level of education.

    In Connecticut, the average starting teacher’s salary is $48,007, while the average teacher salary is $81,185, according to the CEA.

    Sands advocates for paid student teaching. Student-teachers typically pay tuition for a semester, while working unpaid for a district.

    “A lot of students also have night classes when they go through their student teaching, so the opportunities to make money to support yourself are very slim during that semester,” she said.

    This isn’t the first time there has been a teacher shortage. Retired East Lyme educator James Littlefield said he started teaching in 1966 in a program that allowed graduates to teach after an intensive summer training program.

    “I was hired when I was still in the program and started my 47 year teaching career in East Lyme that fall,” he said.

    School districts in the region

    Stacy said the New London district has fewer vacancies than last summer, thanks to a 40% staff retention rate. Vacancies involve typical shortage areas ― math, science and language arts.

    “But if there’s 50 math teaching positions that need to be filled among the state’s 164 school districts,” Stacy said, “you’re going to see teachers from one district taking jobs at another.”

    New London offers a $1,000 hiring bonus for certain jobs and $750 annual salary boost over a four-year period. Remaining vacancies will be filled by long-term substitutes.

    “They’re the people we keep in our back-pocket; they’re not certified, so students aren’t getting the same educational experience as with a certified teacher,” Stacy said. “But we’re working to ensure all our students are getting the best education and experience we can provide.”

    Norwich Public School Superintendent Kristen Stringfellow said as of Tuesday, the district had two vacancies in preschool special education, three in remedial reading, one in art, two library positions, one for English language learners and one school psychologist.

    The Ledyard school district is fully staffed with classroom teachers, but is searching for two literacy interventionists, said Superintendent Jason S. Hartling.

    “Hiring practices, strong school cultures along with effective school and district hiring teams has helped to mitigate the impact of the tighter employment market,” he said.

    The Groton school district expects to start the year with nearly a full teaching staff, after hiring 30 teachers this summer, said Director of Human Resources Laurie LePine.

    The district was interviewing last week for social workers, two Spanish teachers, and one special education teacher.

    Given the need for student mental health support, there is a demand for social workers and special educators beyond availability, LePine said.

    At Thames River Magnet School in Groton on Wednesday morning, a “We are Hiring” sign was erected at a table where Groton Public Schools Human Resources Coordinator Christina Adams and Human Resources Administrative Assistant Michelle Gustavson sat.

    While no candidates trickled in the first hour of the event on the overcast morning, three candidates ultimately came to the event, said LePine. The district holds one to three hiring events each week to recruit staff and on average sees anywhere from two to eight applicants per event.

    Dias said school districts that are financially distressed are typically more likely to open the school year with vacancies.

    The Lyme-Old Lyme school district is fully staffed, said Superintendent Ian Neviaser.

    East Lyme has vacancies for a part-time technology teacher, part-time Spanish teacher, math teacher and a speech pathologist, Superintendent Jeffrey Newton said.

    Montville Public Schools Superintendent Laurie Pallin said the district has three teacher vacancies due to late changes in staffing.

    She said the district has hired 18 new teachers, seven using grant funding for mental health staff and the town’s support of special education needs.

    Waterford Public Schools Superintendent Thomas Giard III said the district is in good shape as far as teaching positions.

    “The only position currently experiencing low applicant interest is a half-time music opening at the middle school,” he said.

    Retired teachers

    Two retired teachers said last week they have returned part-time and said they see the struggles of younger colleagues, especially with the demands of technology, rigid data-driven assessments and students’ behavioral struggles.

    Rich Cirillo of Waterford retired in 2021 after 36 years as a special education teacher in Montville and Ledyard. He now tutors math at Montville High School.

    Cirillo said he felt blessed he found his calling in special education when a college schoolmate told him Seaside residential home for children with developmental disabilities needed teachers.

    “Technology was a challenge,” he said of his reason for retiring. “I think that was more the culprit of my decision making. It was starting to take away from the personal interaction, all the paperwork, the technology, the data collecting. It kind of de-personalized the student.”

    Cirillo said those same pressures are causing younger teachers to leave. But Cirillo predicted in the next five years teachers will be given more respect, as people realize their hard work and appreciate the need for quality teachers.

    Samira Clough of Mystic was among 375 foreign teachers recruited to the United States in 1972. She arrived from Lebanon to New York City, went to a Vermont training center and was hired in Groton. She earned advanced degrees and has remained in the region her entire career.

    “For me, teaching has always been a very, very pleasant experience,” Clough said. “I loved it, and I always will.”

    She retired in 2011, traveled with her husband, came home and was itching to teach again. She volunteered in New London translating for newly arrived Syrian immigrant families and has been tutoring part-time at different schools.

    “I’m 78. I am very energetic, very active and full of energy,” Clough said. “I love teaching.”

    Clough attended regular classes with her students to stay abreast of the lessons and curriculum they were learning so she could help them after class. She said she feels for teachers who face daily pressures to stay on track amid the demands of technology, data tracking and student needs. As a tutor working one-on-one with students, she is not required to follow those regulations.

    “I think there’s a lot of demand on teachers,” Clough said. “They had to learn a lot of technology and are not given enough training and time to absorb a lot of this technology and all the demands of the teaching. They are really expecting too much of them.”

    Day Staff Writers Daniel Drainville, John Penney and Elizabeth Regan contributed to this report.

    c.bessette@theday.com

    k.drelich@theday.com

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