SPECIAL REPORT–Anonymous Letter: What the Teachers Say
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.
GMW tried to give as many teachers as possible the opportunity to speak. We asked some teachers we knew to spread the word to their colleagues. Below is a compilation of what we learned from them.
In this article, we feature the words of more than a dozen of teachers who work in the district, who came forward to give their opinions on the issues raised in the letter. They were given the choice to speak on the record or anonymously; none of them felt comfortable enough giving their names.
A note on anonymity: In talking with an impartial observer, someone not involved in the district at all, he commented that remaining anonymous and not signing your name is ‘cowardly.’ We weighed the decision to accept comments anonymously, and ultimately decided to do so because we felt it would be unlikely to get any comments from teachers otherwise.
“The letter is spot on. I’ve spoken with many colleagues at the other schools and they all have the same sentiment, it’s a lot of worry. This is my 14th year here, and never before has anyone worried about their job or the way that the administration perceives the way we’re doing our job. They’re all asking, ‘Am I going to be on the chopping block?'”
“The morale here is the lowest I’ve ever seen it. There’s more medication and meditation at Middlebrook just to deal with the stress and anxiety.”
“There used to be a system in place, if there was a problem parents would contact teachers directly. That’s been superseded with an open door policy with the Smiths, who say, ‘Let me know and we’ll handle it from the top down.’ People worry now that if there’s an issue there’s nothing teachers can say in defense. There’s instances of letters going into people’s files. Even if you ask, ‘Why wasn’t I contacted by the parent, may I see the letter?’ we get told, ‘No we don’t want that information out there.’ It puts everyone on edge.”
“I tried reaching out to my building principal, but I was kind of dismissed and told that people have to get used to different ways of doing things. It’s understandable to a point, but when you have seasoned teachers, mentors, master teachers all saying same thing, you worry about the direction we’re going in.”
“I applaud them for writing. These are things I’ve talked about and others have said. I’ve thought everything that is in that letter. I almost thought someone had taken notes on what I’ve said.”
“I didn’t agree with the tone of the letter, it was pretty nasty. I might not have agreed with the way it was written, but I do agree with everything the writer was talking about.”
“There are different messages coming from above about any changes to the team structure, world languages, and any other aspect to our daily lives there. Trying to triangulate the reality only leads down murkier rabbit holes. As those messages bloom through the school like a mold at team meetings, hall duties, prep periods, and lunch tables, people are confused, frustrated, and upset, which leads to a toxic teaching and learning environment. The culture and the climate has devolved into one of mistrust and suspicion among some, and retreat and entrenchment among others.”
“Even for the best educator it can be a struggle to leave those feelings at the door when entering their classroom to work with the children, and it seems like many are struggling more and more to do so. In the end it is the success of the children that stagnates and suffers in this kind of environment.”
“Just like information gets filtered going down the ranks, it also gets filtered going up. Whether it is the ‘career’ Instructional Leaders who have been advising multiple administrations, or different administrations advising superintendents it seems the nature of the machine is to want to make it appear as if we are all just protons spinning perfectly with our positive charges. The second reason I am sending this to you is that I have specific and personal experience with being retaliated against after being honest with administrators about what I know, feel, and see. Even though I have stood there listening to a superior say, ‘If you don’t tell me, I don’t know.’ I am reluctant to try that avenue, and for good reason. I do not know what you will or will not do with this, but you have a unique voice in the community, you are a citizen who cares, and a parent of children in these schools who I know wants the best for them; as do I.”
“If the decision’s not being made with them, if you’re not listening to your qualified staff, where are you getting your data from?”
“Wilton has always been in the forefront, leading the charge. This new evaluation system, we jumped in by choice, while some other districts were told by the state to show they were improving and meeting goals. As a result, there’s focus on, ‘We need to see the data.’ It takes the spontaneity out of education, takes out the fun of learning, and causes us just to be data collectors. In past years, we could be innovative with our students. We saw them grab it and take it further, across curriculum to a deeper level we never reached before. Now we don’t have the time–we’re just collecting data, entering data, compiling data.”
“Before last year–the first year of having to do data–I brought the 6th graders into lessons where I typically bring the 7th graders. I’d never done that and thought, ‘Wow, let’s see what else I can do.’ But last year I had to dial it back, because I’d have to spend two hours a day at home entering data, using every possible moment to enter data before my evaluation. No one wins and our students suffer.”
“I haven’t been here long, compared to my other colleagues. I’ve never been worried until now about where we’re headed. There’s always been a clear vision shared with us. Aways a confidence in us, publicly displayed and spoken about and privately to trust us as experts in the room to do what’s best for students, to help them to become the independent learners and be engaged in creating opportunities for them. That’s gone. We’re no longer allowed to be free thinkers. Now we’re told, ‘This is what you have to do.’
“There’s an atmosphere of uncertainty, I’ve seen teachers weeping…”
“Another expensive initiative has been to implement MAP testing in addition to the SBA testing the students are already required to do. In many ways this is an even more high stakes assessment than SBA since the teachers’ evaluations are now tied to how well the students do on the MAP testing. The Smiths have decided to do this against the advice of the NWEA (the company for MAP testing), which says that MAP testing should never be used for teacher evaluations. When MAP testing was first rolled out last year, Chuck Smith sent out a letter ensuring parents that the results of the testing would not be used for placement purposes. As of this school year, the MAP tests are being used to determine placement into intervention programs for reading and math and will be used to determine placement into levels for math. Currently, the students spend approximately 15 hours a year taking just the MAP test. As a classroom teacher, I have spent countless hours trying to analyze the data on my students from the MAP testing. What I have found is that the results are not able to help me in planning for my instruction as they do not allow me to determine what topics or standards each of my students needs more support in. The results do not align with how well the students are performing on the curriculum in the classroom.
“What is so upsetting is the large price tag associated with the coordinators, coaches and MAP testing, especially in a time when the schools are being asked to significantly reduce their budgets. Schools across the district are losing classroom teachers and paraprofessionals while the number of district employees with no instructional contact time has gone up significantly since the Smiths came to Wilton, and there are plans for that number to go up even more next year in the form of technology integrators. I have more than one student whose IEP is not being met because of the shortage of paraprofessionals. Instead of paraprofessionals being shared by a few students in one classroom, they are now being shared by students in different classrooms, so are only getting para support every other day or so. As someone who has been in the district a long time it is really hard to see other programs being cut in favor of these failed initiatives. At the Board of Ed meeting about the school budget, Kevin Smith said that it was important to make value choices by maintaining class sizes at the Miller Driscoll and Cider Mill and keeping the teaming model in place at Middlebrook. If the schools are told they must continue to cut teachers while not being able to touch the coaching program, then class sizes will go up. Instead of wasting the money on coaches, wouldn’t it be better for the students to have more teachers who work with children at the younger grades, either allowing for smaller classes or having more people to work with students who are behind in reading, writing and math. And despite what was said at that Board of Ed meeting about teaming, Chuck Smith is already working on taking world language off team at Middlebrook, which changes the fundamental structure of the school.”
“The letter is quite a tirade and not entirely inaccurate, though it promotes somewhat of a romantic notion of the Clune-Richards era, when we were masters of teaching to the test, with an Instructional Leader model that really has been more of a cohort of secretaries and informants through the years. The criticism of the coaching program may be a nearsighted point of view, and misses the bigger, cultural issue of how we hire people in this district based on those same privileged voices who end up on every committee; hiring or otherwise. I would say that here this school, the people they hired as the coaches were the wrong people for the job, and had no experience doing what they were being asked to do. Now, it seems, their roles have been modified to be more focused on MAP and SBA data, not teaching teachers, and integrating themselves into the intervention process.”
“A few points make me suspicious of where the letter came from. I have never once heard the coaching program called ‘the million dollar lie’ since its implementation, despite being part of uncountable conversations about its ineffectiveness. The number of grammatical errors seems odd to me, and I do not believe any of the teachers I personally know would release such an incendiary document without it being impeccable in its voice and structure. I do not disagree with the state of the climate here, but I would never call the Clune-Richards era a ‘Golden Age.’ I have also never heard anyone, ever, call it ‘Magical Middlebrook.’ ‘Flagship school,’ yes. Magical, never.”
“As someone working in the SPED program, we are out of compliance–we often have no lunch breaks, we’re working hours outside of school, and it’s going to get worse. Not only not doing what the kids need, we are out of compliance–not in every case, but the staff is just stretched too thin.”
The following is the complete text of an email sent to GMW:
“When we became a part of the WPS staff, it was evident that Dr. Gary Richards was respected by all. He valued the opinions of classroom teachers which created a collaborative environment where both students and educators thrived. The instructional leaders at each building provided the necessary input on behalf of classroom teachers from all disciplines. With the implementation of the coaches and curriculum coordinators that voice has been lost, and with it the input of those who work day in and day out with the students. We agree that there was a need for vertical alignment and each building seemed its own entity with little insight about content students should enter and leave each school with. Unfortunately, even with the implementation of K-8 curriculum coordinators over a year and a half ago, that is still the case. One fundamental flaw with these positions comes from the coordinator being K-8 without having department heads in each building to support communication, initiatives, curriculum planning, etc. Moreover, the high school plays a vital role and all curriculum should be designed with necessary skills for success at the high school in mind.
We don’t currently have any true understanding of what our curriculum coordinator does as she is almost never in our building, only runs department meetings on occasion, has never observed us teach an entire lesson, and has not outlined any type of curriculum framework that can be used by our department. Together, we can count on one hand the number of times we’ve seen our curriculum coordinator this year. This past summer, at least one of us was at every summer day for our department. We were designing and/or aligning curriculum. Yet, our curriculum coordinator was not a part of any of those days. Rather the instructional coaches were assigned to be there. We have personally asked our curriculum coordinator for resources and guidance and each time our department’s coach has been sent to help us instead.
We are teachers in one of the four subject areas that have instructional coaches assigned to them. In our building there is a humanities coach for English/language arts (ELA) and social studies (SS), and another for math and science. It should be noted that as a school we were told at the beginning of last school year that ELA and math would be the areas engaging in coaching cycles during the 2015-2016 school year and that SS and science would have their cycles during the 2016-2017 school year. However, upon returning to school in August we were informed that the coaching cycles would again remain with ELA and math. This creates an equity issue as each ELA and math continue to dominate the coaching cycles overloading the two disciplines with more work and taking away from prep time that should be used to create more engaging lessons. It also limits the amount of teachers who have access to the coach. With this current structure, the coaches in my building work with less than half of the teachers in that building.
Based on our experiences with coaching and the experiences shared with us by colleagues, we would urge parents to ask their children if an instructional coach has taught their class. If yes, ask them to describe their experience. If not, they should ask if any of their children’s friends have discussed with them having an instructional coach teach their class. One beautiful thing about working with students is that they are brutally honest. Our students have expressed to us and other colleagues that lessons taught by a coach have left them confused, frustrated, and with no clear understanding of the content. As a teacher, you want nothing more than to support your students. Yet, as a professional asked to engage in lesson modeling you have to take a step back. Having a coach model has cost us valuable instructional time as we’ve had to go back and reteach lessons and/or correct misconceptions. We cannot stress enough that although this does not apply to every coach, for the coach we have worked with the line “unfamiliar with content and confused about pedagogical approaches in certain grade levels or are lacking the interpersonal skills to effectively coach” rings true. We have done our due diligence and informed our administration of all issues faced and presented them with documentation of supporting evidence. We have no way of knowing whether this information has been passed up to central office. However, the surveys completed by teachers will surely support that thinking, and Chuck Smith should be urged to make the coaching survey results public for parents. We recognize that eliminating coaching will not solve all problems. However, coaching is an initiative that comes with a high price tag. While the district continues to higher non-contact personnel, they continue to cut paraprofessional positions. We both are experiencing the shortage of paras as students who should be receiving shared para support daily are receiving it every other day as the paras must alternate between different classes.
Please know that we are by no means anti-coaching. In theory, we recognize that coaching should be an individualized process that builds on the strengths of the teacher and that together both coach and teacher target areas for growth. If this was the structure being implemented in the WPS system, perhaps we would not feel so strongly that the money is not being allocated properly. However, we feel that coaching is a great asset when the resources are available. When dealing with 0% budget increases and the need to justify all spending, we must consider what makes our schools unique. The teaming model has come under fire this year and without the support and petition from an entire staff, this would have been demolished. The teaming model supports the whole child and de-teaming world language undermines the value of the disciplines, as well as the team structure in general.
We know Wilton is a special place for students, staff, and families. It’s frustrating that at the moment what’s best for students is not the focus of the WPS. We hope that with your help these issues can be addressed, and parents can finally be fully informed of the initiatives being drive by the Smiths.