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Yordon: Central Office turnover contributes to Norwalk teachers exiting

Norwalk Federation of Teachers President Mary Yordon speaks to the Norwalk Board of Education, September in Ponus STEAM Academy.

NORWALK, Conn. — Teacher shortages are being reported nationwide, but some Norwalk-specific issues are contributing to the problem here, according to Norwalk Federation of Teachers President Mary Yordon.

“School staffing shortages predate COVID and some link it to an increasingly unrewarding profession,” wrote Yordon.

Norwalk Public Schools has had “significant (staff) turnover in the last 18 months,” Chief Financial Officer Thomas Hamilton said Tuesday.

“Almost all districts in the state are experiencing teacher shortages,” Brenda Wilcox Williams, NPS Chief of Staff and Communications, said in mid-November. “Like other districts throughout Connecticut, many of our vacancies are in critical shortage subject areas, such as math, science, bilingual and special education. We’re fortunate that our vacancies are much lower than some other districts, although we are currently recruiting to fill 70 vacancies.”

A review of BoE agendas online shows:

From May 1 to Nov. 30 2019 there were:

  • 34 non-administrative resignations
  • 23 non-administrative retirements

 

From May 1 to Nov. 30 2021 there were:

  • 78 non-administrative resignations
  • 18 non-administrative retirements

 

“There are many elements that contribute to staffing shortages. It is complex, with some trends particular to Norwalk, some statewide, some national,” Yordon said in an email.

She continued:

  • There is a general greying of our population with many teachers reaching retirement age.
  • Teachers will generally stay in positions where they feel supported by administrator and colleague relationships, and where there is reasonable pathway to be successful with students in terms of identified, achievable roles and responsibilities.
  • COVID risks last year caused many experienced teachers with chronic but well-managed health concerns to retire or resign prior to their previously anticipated dates. Fears of transmission have interfered with the well-established patterns of cycling in recent retirees to fill substitute positions, and interfered with the pool of other substitutes and volunteers who help out in schools.”

 

But, there are changes in the profession itself, leading to the shortage, she said.

  • School staffing shortages predate COVID and some link it to an increasingly unrewarding profession. For example, there is an increase in scripted, timed ‘boxed’ lessons, along with evaluation and accountability measures that are shown to be highly unreliable and time-consuming but persist. Also, a graduate with a Masters degree can often earn more and work in a less stressful environment than teaching, so it is hard to attract newer teachers to the profession. There is much work to be done to re-establish teaching as a rewarding profession that allows for a reasonable work-life balance.”

 

And then, there are local issues, according to Yordon.

  • In Norwalk, in particular, we have faced several years with high turnover in important roles at Central Office. This year we also have new resources, programs, schedules, roles, and several big initiatives that are being implemented all at once, and COVID. We are all new teachers again this year, figuring out the pacing and units, who to call, where to find the slides for this unit, how to best create a needed report, what the new supervisor’s name is and what he or she cares about most. People report that they are leaving the district to find other districts that operate with more stability, better workloads, more support, and a less negative way of operating.
  • Our recent survey of members had a good level of response. Only about 22% of respondents agreed that the district cares about retaining capable employees. Three quarters reported that they are completely overwhelmed by the amount of work necessary to be successful. And our success means student success, which is what our focus is and needs to be each and every day.  We believe that students are best served by school staffing that is experienced, qualified, and able to efficiently and effectively provide instruction and services. The Norwalk Federation of Teachers continues to work collaboratively with the district and other bargaining units to identify and implement creative solutions to alleviate the shortages while still maintaining quality of service.”

 

NancyOnNorwalk asked Norwalk Superintendent of Schools Alexandra Estrella for a response Tuesday. She said Wilcox Williams would reply.

“We agree with Mary that there are many elements that contribute to staffing shortage,” Wilcox Williams wrote Wednesday. “Based on our HR exit interviews, teachers cite both personal and professional reasons when they decide to retire or move on, and Covid has changed the equation considerably for many people. That is part of a state and nationwide trend, not exclusive to Norwalk.”

There are many news stories attributing teacher shortages to COVID.

“Demand for teachers is drastically outpacing supply. Many teachers are retiring or quitting the profession due to pandemic-era stress, and universities aren’t minting new ones fast enough,” Axios wrote Nov. 15.

“Public schools have for years contended with a shortage of educators. But the pandemic has made the problem more acute, as the stress of teaching during the coronavirus has spurred many in the profession to resign or retire,” CBS News reported Nov. 12.

For Norwalk-specific issues, Wilcox Williams said NPS is “not seeing is departures attributed to district supports put in place to help teachers improve their pedagogy.”

Pedagogy refers to “the method of how teachers teach, in theory and in practice,” TopHat states.

Wilcox Williams continued:

  • In past years, teachers and staff have typically requested that the district provide more support to schools, as well as additional professional learning. The reorganization in Central Office was targeted specifically to align district resources to better support schools.
  • For that reason, our Central Office administrators spend more of their day in schools. That includes the superintendent, who visits schools on a weekly basis to make sure school principals, assistant principals, and curriculum and instruction site directors have the support they need to work effectively.
  • Our instructional coaches have been going through their own professional development so that they are prepared to support teachers in implementing curriculum materials. These include Illustrative Math, which has been adopted previously and is now being rolled out. Our prior reading program had expired and materials were no longer available, so updated tools had to be introduced to support literacy.
  • Another area we have been focused on recently is planning. We want to make sure teachers are ready to support all students in our diverse learning population. As a result, we have been holding workshops throughout the district where curriculum staff and special education service providers support teachers in planning. Voluntary clinics are also available in the afternoon for those who want to ask additional questions or clarify information. The feedback thus far has been very positive.”

 

Frontline Education states that there’s been a teacher shortage for years, and it’s been made worse by the pandemic. A survey of almost 1,200 school and district leaders across the country “paints a grim picture.”

“Teacher shortages are most common in urban school systems, with 75% of districts in cities of any size reporting shortages. In comparison, 65% of rural districts reported shortages, along with 60% of suburban districts,” Frontline states. “… {A} true solution will require incredible shifts on a national level in how education is funded and perceived.”

But FiveThirtyEight states that the shortage is not as bad as predicted.

While “Surveys from unions and education-research groups have warned that anywhere from one-fourth to more than half of U.S. educators were considering a career change,” recent stats “suggest that while some districts are reporting significant faculty shortages, the country overall is not facing a sudden teacher shortage,” the website states in a Nov. 12 story. “Any staffing shortages for full-time K-12 teachers appear far less severe and widespread than those for support staff like substitute teachers, bus drivers and paraprofessionals, who are paid less and encounter more job instability.”

18 comments

Sue Haynie December 16, 2021 at 6:22 am

“Like other districts throughout Connecticut, many of our vacancies are in critical shortage subject areas, such as math, science, bilingual and special education”

NFT head, Mary Yordon, doesn’t tell the whole story.

NFT Union rules require all teachers be paid based on where they fall on a ‘step’ pay scale regardless of whether or not the teacher has a degree in a high-need subject, and whether or not severe subject-area shortages negatively affect students. This ‘step’ ignores the needs of the District when it comes to staffing areas like math, science, bilingual ed and SPED. These are/were/will be historically shortage areas, regardless of COVID.

These Union rules regarding teacher pay based on a step system are seen nationwide, as are staffing shortages in math, science, bi-lingual and SPED,

Susan December 16, 2021 at 7:33 am

A former Norwalk superintendent suggested central office administrators were often human piñatas. Personal experience confirmed the comparison.

DryAsABone December 16, 2021 at 8:12 am

Next door in Stamford they are passing out $500 bonuses with ARP money. New Canaan doubles that.
All because teachers “stepped up to the plate” and taught from home for nine months.
Having a state controlled by employees is not sustainable.

Seriously? December 16, 2021 at 8:21 am

“NancyOnNorwalk asked Norwalk Superintendent of Schools Alexandra Estrella for a response Tuesday. She said Wilcox Williams would reply.”

The public deserved a response from the superintendent herself.

Despite the greying of the teacher population, the number of retirements listed is actually lower than it was (down to 18, from last year’s 23), but the number of resignations for reasons other than retirement is greater than twice last year’s (up to 78, from last year’s 34). Therein lies the problem.

Since perhaps late last year, I have had excellent NPS employees tell me mournfully that someone returning to the district would no longer recognize it, and they are referring to a deteriorated work environment. Some have described witnessing rude and unprofessional treatment of employees, especially by the leader of one of the central office departments.

When the district is unable to fill current vacancies (stated as 70 in the article), I know that a crisis has already arrived. Saying that nearly all districts are also having trouble is a very weak response, something like using Covid as an excuse for most of what troubles the district. It’s also not true. The response needs to be a clear explanation for how NPS is going to fill the positions because not filling them is unacceptable.

I can conclude only one of three possibilities, all of them damning: The superintendent and the board of education don’t know what’s going on, the superintendent and the board of education don’t care what’s going on, or the superintendent and the board of education approve of what’s going on. Take your pick.

DryAsABone December 16, 2021 at 8:38 am

A fun read:

“Two Connecticut governors have tried — and failed — to shift some of the massive cost of teacher pensions onto municipalities, arguing it’s inherently unfair for the state to foot the entire bill.
Education equity advocates hope to resurrect that debate this year — with a big twist.
Rather than trying to bolster the state’s coffers, the Connecticut chapter of Education Reform Now (ERN) wants the state to bill the wealthiest school districts and use at least some of those resources to help the poorest communities.”

https://ctmirror.org/2021/12/16/education-advocates-pension-savings-system-reinforces-inequities-in-cts-schools/

Piberman December 16, 2021 at 12:54 pm

Do our surrounding towns with their high performing public schools and well qualified BOE’s have similar staff problems ? Business school students learn when problems arise we look to senior management to resolve them. How has Norwalk’s Supt and our BOE addressed the issues ? If not what needs to be done ?

Norwalk Parent December 16, 2021 at 1:52 pm

I would never minimize the difficulty of being an educator, especially a high school educator. I would also say this is more challenging in a district where high school students are essentially allowed to do what they want with absolutely no disciplinary actions ever brought against them.

However, are we really going to accept that being an educator in Norwalk is not rewarding? NPS teachers, administrators, and staff together have some of the highest salaries in the entire country. The same is true for other districts in Fairfield County. The vast majority of NPS staff are pulling in way over $100k per year (look at the published salaries every year) and they essentially get 2 months off for summer.

Again, not trying to minimize what teachers do but to me there is clearly a missing link somewhere and any logical individual with kids enrolled in NPS can tell you that the other quality of life issues these educators put up with is probably the largest contributing factor.

Take the buildings they work in, they look like they haven’t been touched maintenance wise in 50 years. Costs for everything are beyond inflated and getting worse. Teachers and students alike have to pay for things that the district should be covering but the district complains every year they dont have enough money. Then add into the mix a superintendent like Estrella who is pulling in over $300k per year while presiding over not only underachieving schools, but schools that are getting worse. Imagine being a teacher in this district and having to see Estrella’s pay relative to theirs and the work that they have to do because they are, in fact, on the front lines. Estrella most certainly is not.

The BOE over the last 5 years and Estrella are the ones who should take blame for this because they are the issue. This is probably why Estrella didn’t want to comment herself even though the comment should come from the superintendent of schools, not the mayors overpaid deputy. This BOE will continue to let Estrella do whatever she wants, continue AND contribute the NPS underachieving year after year, and she will NEVER be held accountable.

Kids in NPS deserve better than this and so do the teachers. No system will ever be good, or attractive to the best teachers, when the people leading it are not held accountable.

$10+ million dollars more requested for next year. That is money Norwalk taxpayers will not only never get back but will never see a benefit from.

Oversight December 16, 2021 at 2:11 pm

Wait until the public hears what the district will be “forced to cut” in order to keep a flat/modest increase. Any guesses??

Norwalk Resident December 16, 2021 at 3:53 pm

The Superintendent deflecting a response to someone in her office tells you so much. Where is the leadership here? How is the one responsible for running the district able to pass off such an important issue to someone else. It’s a joke.

From what I’ve heard, NPS is no longer an employer of choice in our area. It has a reputation in districts across the state for being a district that doesn’t support teachers and that is in turmoil due to poor leadership. A once unique district is being homogenized in the name of equity from a superintendent that thinks that means giving everyone the same thing. Estrella has effectively silenced the unions until now and dismissed their concerns, so I’m glad Mary is speaking up.

Many existing staff feel like they are expected to “shup up and do your job” without regard for what they need to be successful. Poor decisions are being made left and right due to lack of qualified leaders in Central Office and in some schools. The finger wagging conversations behind closed doors to keep people in line are not a secret – no wonder no one wants to work here. Let’s just keep adding people to central office…that will fix the problem.

Norwalk Teacher December 16, 2021 at 3:59 pm

I am an elementary sped teacher who works in Norwalk. I’m considering leaving, and it’s not because of covid or pay issues. It’s because it is literally impossible to do all of the things the administration wants us to do. Our schedule has teachers teaching core subjects while busses are being dismissed, holding a morning meeting that’s supposed to support the students’ social emotional health in a mere ten minutes, and having to attend mandatory training twice a week that may or may not have anything to do with what kind of training or support you actually need as a teacher. My principal is a bully who uses intimidation to beat us all in to line and discourage us from asking questions or advocating for our students.

It’s a mess, and with the teacher shortage Norwalk is going to lose a lot of talented educators who move on to districts where the workload is manageable and teachers feel they are supported in actually teaching instead of following an impossible script from central office.

DryAsABone December 16, 2021 at 5:51 pm

There is no shortage of folks packing offices downtown making very,very good salaries and benefits.
Put the money in the classrooms without skimming off the cream. THEN you might actually get results!

Claire Schoen December 17, 2021 at 10:22 am

@Norwalk Resident – Please try to stick to facts. Statements like “from what I’ve heard” and “poor decisions are being made right and left” are vague and unsupported.
Have you been in an NPS classroom recently? I have, and what I’ve seen is dedicated teachers doing their jobs well, despite so many changes in the world at large. Your statement that they are expected to “shut up and do their job” sounds to me like maybe some teachers are being held accountable and don’t like it. Change is never easy, but based on first-hand experience in the classroom, there are some positive things going on in Norwalk.

John O'Neill December 17, 2021 at 10:37 am

Norwalk Teacher makes a lot of sense, but will anyone listen to her. Why would anyone want to work in an environment that’s basically built to fail. The influx of ELL students is a policy failure on many levels. The system country wide has failed taxpayers and the students. I’m quite suprised Mary Yordon didn’t mention that in her comments. Picture a teacher trying to teach a class of 20 students: 5 students speak English well but no Spanish, 5 students speak English and Spanish equally well, 5 students speak a little English but not very well and 5 students speak almost zero English. Do that 5 days a week and I think you’ll need to find of bottle of bourbon on Friday night… I’m all for immigration, but educational policies haven’t kept up with Federal Open Border Policies. Teacher exodus is just a byproduct of that.

Jim Tru December 17, 2021 at 11:16 am

The Current BOE and Superintendent are 100% responsible.

Regardless of all the spin being put on this. It starts at the top.

If a business is not successful, they don’t blame it on other companies, it’s blamed on leadership.

Why would this be any different? NPS is a multi-million dollar business and the leadership is failing…. in this case… at the expense of Norwalk kids.

Maybe all of these new six-figure positions that were created can do some work and fix this.

Norwalk Parent December 17, 2021 at 2:13 pm

@Claire Schoen are you for real with your post? Nothing @NorwalkResident said is any different from what you said. Everything in your statement you perceive to be “fact” but the reality is this is nothing more than your opinion. Someone else can walk into the exact same classroom as you and have the polar opposite opinion. It doesn’t make what they see any less factual than what you see.

How do you know that when @NorwalkResident says “from what I have heard” she isn’t inferring that she has spoken to teachers in the NPS system? I am not saying this is true but just because you don’t like when someone says “from what I have heard” it doesn’t mean that they don’t have facts backing it up. You take it one step further and actually input your opinion and try to make it seem as if you don’t. saying “sounds to me like maybe some teachers are being held accountable and don’t like it” is nothing more than your opinion and is based on what YOU perceive. It’s a two way street.

Sad reality of today’s world is that people don’t like to give their names on public forums like this one and especially wont reveal the names of any teachers in NPS (if they had in fact talked to them) because of fear of reprisal.

I agree with you that many teachers are doing their jobs and doing them well. Many of NPS teachers have roots in Norwalk and love what they do. Unfortunately, it seems to me (my opinion) that it is abundantly clear the BOE and especially Estrella and clueless and no one holds them accountable. No one should be ok with a subpar school system given the taxes we pay and the percentage of the overall city budget that goes to education. In my eyes it is just that simple.

Calvo December 17, 2021 at 3:47 pm

So, NPS has teachers exiting, but yet they keep asking to increase the budget.
Does anyone else see something not adding up??

Seriously? December 17, 2021 at 4:36 pm

The already extremely high numbers of resignations will almost certainly increase, possibly a great deal, and it is likely that the much smaller number of retirements will also grow. More teachers and other valued employees will decide that they just won’t (or can’t) do it anymore under conditions that have soured so badly.

The bad news for Norwalk is potentially good news for other districts because Norwalk Public Schools is likely to provide the replacement teachers and paraprofessionals for vacancies in the other districts. But how will Norwalk find high quality replacements for its own schools?

With the superintendent’s hefty salary comes an equally hefty set of responsibilities, one of them being to ensure that the many people in this district have an environment that promotes, not hinders, their effectiveness. Among the responsibilities is hiring leaders who are also willing learners, who can provide support and guidance to teachers, paraeducators, school administrators and others. Willing learners must also be open-minded and effective listeners. You see, the leaders can learn a great deal from the people they are responsible for leading.

However, Dr. Estrella used her own brand of “cancel culture” to wipe out so many NPS people, replacing them with transplants from NYC and elsewhere. (Does anyone think it is a mere coincidence that so many people from the NYC schools have been hired?) Among the people hired to lead are at least a couple of people who are reckless in their attitudes and behaviors, eager to push and to bully, not the kind of people the district needs in leadership positions. Others hired have so little knowledge and understanding of this community that they are at a decided disadvantage.

Dr. Estrella and members of the Norwalk Board of Education have the professional and moral responsibility to correct this situation, including the leadership problem. I know people outside the district are already saying that Norwalk’s reputation is taking a serious hit. Reputation means a lot when the district needs to convince prospective employees that Norwalk is a great place to work.

Norwalk Resident December 17, 2021 at 4:37 pm

@Claire Schoen – I think you are misinterpreting my comments. No, I’ve not been in a classroom recently. No one has other than students and staff since visitors and parents are not allowed in the buildings due to COVID guidelines. I have, however, spoken to many building staff and administrators from multiple schools. Staff have echoed Mary’s sentiments of too much being done at once without the appropriate resources, feeling a lack of support from central office, unrealistic priorities and policies being pushed down, and a general lack of confidence that the Superintendent or the BOE are moving this district in the right direction. The facts are clearly present in the staffing numbers quoted in this article – I’m just providing feedback I’ve heard firsthand. The culture has changed, and not for the better. And the person responsible wants to defer comment to the Chief of Staff.

Furthermore, my two children are in a school with a newly appointed principal (based on a series of poor decisions made by central office) who severely lacks any leadership skills and should be removed.

I do agree with you that the overwhelming majority of our teachers, admins, paraprofessionals, coaches, and support staff are rockstars and have been doing amazing things in the classroom, especially the last couple of years. They aren’t the problem. The problem is at the top.

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