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A Connecticut teachers union president seeks smaller classes and better pay for educators

Visual representations of emotions, helpful for students struggling to find the right words for their feelings, hang in the offices of a school based health center.
Tyler Russell
Connecticut Public
Visual representations of emotions, helpful for students struggling to find the right words for their feelings, hang in the offices of a school-based health center.

Better pay and smaller classes would help fill teacher vacancies, the leader of the Connecticut Education Association said.

CEA President Kate Dias spoke with Connecticut Public Radio's John Henry Smith about ways to fill teacher vacancies.

She also discussed how teachers address issues of race around Martin Luther King Jr. Day, as some conservatives have opposed what they say is critical race theory.

Here are highlights from their conversation:

How bad of a teacher shortage is Connecticut facing right now?

We started the year with 1,200 teacher openings, 25% of those in special education and 71% of them in some of our most distressed communities. And we're still sitting in a situation where we've got a lot of openings across the state, and that's getting mirrored nationwide. There are more than 300,000 teacher vacancies in the country right now. So how do we deal with the missing teachers you still need? If you don't have the individuals to serve the students, what are we going to do about it?

The CEA recently met with another teachers union and lawmakers in Hartford to talk about ways to encourage more people to become teachers and to stay in the profession. What was the most important development from that gathering?

I think it's the raising of the teacher salaries. We had the opportunity to speak to the governor, and one of the things we talked about was the fact that somebody like myself, who is a math person, I was able to as a kid determine, "Do I want to be a teacher? Do I want to be an actuary?"

Today, if a student is sitting there making that decision, it's like a $40,000 pay difference. So I definitely feel like there's a commitment and a sense that we have to drive towards a common set of goals that uplift the profession. And I was really heartened by the bipartisan nature of that. And the reality that we had the speaker of the house, the ranking member of the Education Committee, the chair of the Education Committee, all speaking the same sort of mantra of "Education matters." We have to put money towards it, we need to invest in the teachers and the schools that are going to allow this beautiful state to continue to thrive.

I think a second thing that came out loud and clear was the need to drive class sizes down. Universally, that's understood that if we fail to lower class sizes, we're impacting student opportunity.

Martin Luther King Jr. Day is coming up. And in this era, when some conservatives are making a lot of noise about so-called critical race theory in schools, what guidance do you give teachers in this state about teaching kids an honest history about why King's activism was necessary?

We have the obligation as educators to be truthful. And to be fair. And to be honest, I think it's important that we never lose sight of the end goal, which is to create spaces where kids can talk and can think through. Do I think there are people who are trying to prevent that from happening? Sure. We've had a lot of conversations about particularly aggressive approaches towards educators. And we're going to continue to have conversations about how to protect our educators, because that needs to happen.

But the discourse needs to continue, because our end goal with education is to grow thinkers and to grow kids who can be really active and thoughtful members of our society.

The state passed a law in 2021 that makes Indigenous studies and climate change studies required parts of the school curriculum. Are you hearing concerns from teachers worried about covering these subjects in this polarized environment?

Fortunately, I've actually heard more enthusiasm than concern. It's interesting, because teachers are always kind of looking for new opportunities to embrace different areas of learning. Do I think there's a sort of a sub conversation of "How will this be received?" Maybe. But there's more enthusiasm than concern at the moment.

Advocates are pushing for legislation making school lunches free for all Connecticut students. How could that make a difference in kids' learning experiences? What have educators been noticing about kids' hunger in terms of the way it's affecting their ability to learn?

Hungry children don't learn. That's just an absolute practical matter. What we saw during sort of the free lunch period was there wasn't this huge hunger. We knew kids had access to breakfast, lunch, and in some cases, even dinner.

The other thing that it really took away was any sort of stigma to a free lunch program. There was no, "Oh, you have free lunch." Everybody gets lunch. And there's really no question as to who qualifies or who doesn't or who pays or who doesn't. I think that this is really important for us to think about how we can continue to fund those programs, because I do think they matter. And I think when we started to see those fall off, I was talking to teachers who brought back out the snack carts and the snack closets, and it becomes the teachers who fill that void. Teachers do that because they care about their students. But do teachers have to? Probably not.

This conversation has been edited for clarity.

John Henry Smith is Connecticut Public’s host of All Things Considered, its flagship afternoon news program. He's proud to be a part of the team that won a regional Emmy Award for The Vote: A Connecticut Conversation. In his 21st year as a professional broadcaster, he’s covered both news and sports.

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