Following the receipt of an anonymous letter, purportedly written by a Wilton teacher and sent to a handful of recipients, GOOD Morning Wilton has put together a multi-part Special Report about the letter’s contents. The letter is critical of several aspects of the Wilton school district, most notably changes to curriculum, teaching practices and administration. GMW has tried to speak with as many players in the situation as possible.

In this interview, we speak with Board of Education chairman, Bruce Likly.

GOOD Morning Wilton:  Was the letter sent directly to you?

Bruce Likly:  No it was not.

GMW:  When you read it what was your first reaction, and now being able to sit with it for a few days, what do you think about the letter?

BL:  I received the letter from one of the other board members who had received it directly in the mail. I reviewed it with the same analytical eye that I receive all information, down to the bottom of the letter. I had three impressions. One was, I was disheartened that this individual chose to take this path as opposed to communicating more directly and more clearly with the organization, if their feelings were this strong. I was disappointed that they didn’t. I was further disappointed that they hadn’t signed it, because it doesn’t give us any way to assist them.

The third feeling was that change is very hard for this individual, or group of individuals–and I empathize with it and understand it. But the reality is, we are moving forward, and evolving the culture and embracing a couple of very exciting new initiatives that, if given the chance, can have huge impacts, both for the students and for the staff.

So I’m hopeful, that, while it’s sad that this group of individuals feel so frustrated–that good will come out of it, and that a conversation will be struck up somehow, with them. Hopefully they’ll come forward so we can find a way to assist in this transition. Because it’s pretty exciting where we’re headed, and there’s no doubt that this district of tomorrow is not going to be the district of yesteryear.

GMW:  Here are some of things I’m hearing from some other teachers–both those who have been in the district a very long time and others who only came in more recently.

  • Some people have said, ‘I’ve tried to give the new initiatives a yeoman’s effort. I’ve tried to be openminded.’
  • That they’re feeling overtaxed with the number of new initiatives that have been introduced and with the way the initiatives have been rolled out. They haven’t felt supported in the execution.
  • Some have said that all the testing is taking a toll on the students;
  • that things are not being explained clearly enough to the teachers for them to be able to effectively use the data that’s gathered from testing and respond in the curriculum.
  • They’re having trouble with the coaching initiative.
  • And almost universally they’re saying that when frustrations are expressed to supervisors, building administrators, even directly to the superintendent and assistant superintendent, they’re either told, ‘We’ll relay your concerns, but there’s nothing that can be done,’ or they’re told one thing and then something different happens.   

BL:  I think it’s important that those folks find a way to articulate clearly to the administration what those supports are that are needed or those supports that aren’t being effective in order to help improve the situation.

The MAP testing and coaching programs are, in some respects independent, and in other respects inextricably entwined. I don’t think it’s accurate to say they’ve been given a tremendous amount of time to try to help make it work, because ultimately in the age of a school district, and the number of years that some of these folks have worked for us, they’ve barely just been rolled out.

David Clune was in the district 30 years; Gary Richards was in the district for 10 years. Some of these folks may have been teaching 25-30 years a certain way. It’s very difficult for people to change–not all people, but some–it’s challenging to address change over that period of time.

I understand it–education is evolving. The terminology that’s been shared with me is, it’s an ‘egg crate mentality.’ Where teachers went into their classrooms and closed their doors and did what they felt was best. There are a number of things we’re trying to improve on through MAP testing and coaching, and one of those is addressing a well-identified transition challenge that we’ve had going from school to school to school.

Also, we’ve heard from many parents that each child’s experience isn’t necessarily consistent. So, while one child may have a fantastic experience with one teacher in one classroom, another child coming along at the same time may have a completely different experience. We’re trying to improve on that, and that requires communication, interaction, measurement, changes in behavior, and feedback and adaptation. I believe we need more feedback and we need adaptation.

We’re on a journey. It’s an exciting journey. But we’re not at the endpoint yet–we’re only at the beginning of this journey.

“There’s no doubt that this district of tomorrow is not going to be the district of yesteryear.”

GMW:  Some of the teachers have said that since the coaching model has been introduced, they have yet to experience coaching. That it’s not being executed in a way that’s been helpful. The coaches haven’t had time to be in their classrooms, they haven’t been coached. There have been positive things said about some of the coaches, and it’s also been said that some of the coaches have less experience with the subject matter–and they’re ‘teaching’ the teachers wrong information about the subject.

BL:  Now that would be something, if someone was frustrated about, they should bring that up with Dr. Chuck Smith to work through and understand. I’ve sat through some classes with Dr. Smith, and what I observed in one situation was a matter of communication and interaction and student involvement technique, more so than it was subject matter. So is it possible that there’s a disconnect there? It’s probably possible.

We have approximately 272 teachers, and just a handful of coaches. You could say that there are over 40 teachers for each coach and it’s quite possible, given the short period of time that this program has been implemented, that not all teachers have had an interaction with a coach yet. It’s quite possible. Especially if the administration is viewing  that teacher’s performance as satisfactory and not in need of additional support, as soon as perhaps some other teacher might require support.

While I was disappointed to see the mechanism with which this individual used to communicate, I’m hopeful that through this process a greater level of communication will ensue, and the folks who are frustrated will reach out to Dr. Chuck Smith and try to better understand where the district is headed and what they can do to support that path.

We have amazing teachers, and it may be that they need more communication, more support. It may be that we just don’t have the resources to get to all of them yet, but will. It’s exciting, but it is going to take some time. It’s a journey.

Just because we’ve rolled it out doesn’t mean it’s fully accomplished all of its goals yet. It’s going to take time. We’re talking about new teaching techniques that some of these teachers have never experienced before. Let’s not forget, we’re bringing new technology into the classroom; with Common Core we’re bringing new curriculum into the classroom. There’s a lot of challenges being thrown at teachers, and I truly empathize with their frustrations.

GMW:  Have you heard that morale is low among teachers?

BL:  Not directly, no. I have heard from both Drs. Chuck and Kevin Smith that some of the staff are having more difficulty adapting to change and adapting to all of the initiatives–some being driven by the district and some being foisted on the district by Hartford–and they’re sensitive to that.

There are a lot more things that we’d like to do, we’d like to move even faster, but we can’t. We’re resource constrained, and we understand that we’re in a marathon here, we’re not in a sprint. It would be nice to go to virtual classrooms, that’s not going to happen. We can’t undertake that initiative right now. I think we’re on a journey towards that, but we’re not there.

The implementation of SMARTboards was an initiative that, with some classrooms, was wholly and excitedly embraced. And in other classrooms, it was a real challenge. That’s understandable. Last year we put a computer in every teacher’s hands. Some teachers took those and ran with them; others were challenged by the technology. It took additional time to get needed support. That’s completely understandable.

But in order to assist those with more support, we need to hear from them and continue working with them. Just because they’ve communicated for support and there’s been an effort to provide support, doesn’t mean that journey is over or won’t continue.

GMW:  Some teachers have said, from their point of view, the pull-out model of intervention has been damaging.

BL:  And I know specific examples where students have absolutely gotten the supports that they need and are thriving now. The pull-outs only happened for a short period of time, less than a semester and the kids are happier, and doing better than ever. I was thrilled to see it. And with it comes the confidence in the child.

Interestingly enough, when pull-outs were first introduced, I saw concern and apprehension, both on the parents’ and on the students’ part. Once the reason for the pull-out was articulated, and it was relatively intensive for a short period of time and then they stopped when the student no longer needed it. And the increase in confidence of the student–it was like a completely different child. Spectacular. This happened before high school, in the lower grades.

GMW:  I keep hearing two different things from opposite points of view, but what is clear is that the teachers feel they don’t have a voice and aren’t being heard. 

BL:  I’m trying to hear and listen to the frustrations, but articulate that an anonymous letter isn’t going to solve it. We need to continuously work on it and solve the issues. It’s possible that communication needs to be improved all the way through the chain. But that takes two people to do that, like any relationship.