2023 Connecticut Teacher of the Year says educators are overburdened
Gov. Ned Lamont’s two-year budget proposal calls for a $135 million increase in state funding of local school districts across Connecticut with $10 million in grants for schools to address staffing shortages.
Connecticut’s 2023 Teacher of the Year, Carolyn Kielma, told Morning Edition that increasing class sizes is just one of the stressors educators are facing.
"It feels like every year there's more on our plates. And more and more. The legalities — and the requirements some students need — it's just overwhelming," Kielma said.
Kielma is a science teacher at Bristol Eastern High School and one of five finalists for National Teacher of the Year. At her school, she also leads an academic college prep program, Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID).
Kielma spoke with Morning Edition's Lori Mack about being Connecticut's 2023 Teacher of the Year and the struggles she said educators are facing.
Lori Mack: Students say you go out of your way if you think a student is struggling. You've said that you try to make students feel like they fit in no matter who they are, what their background is. How do you do that?
Carolyn Kielma: It takes a lot of work. And it takes a lot of intention. I have to definitely look to find ways to include all students. But if there's somebody who feels left out, they're not going to be able to participate fully in the lesson. And they can't learn unless they feel like they're in a safe place that they're recognized and understood. So that does take some time. But we have to be able to make a connection and understand each other. So a lot of the beginning of the year is really important for that — building that trust.
I have blue hair; it's the way to show my students that it's OK to be yourself. I am being myself; I am my authentic self. And I will respect your authentic self, too. And don't be afraid to show that to me; that is just one of the many ways that I can connect with at least one student. If I can get them with one little simple thing, it totally changes the trajectory of the class. They just are in it because I have a connection with them. So small things like that make a huge difference.
Mack: I want to quote something that Education Week wrote about you: Kielma teaches Advancement Via Individual Determination or AVID. "In 2019, more than 80% of the school's AVID students were students of color, received free or reduced-price lunch, and had parents who did not graduate from college or university. Yet every student graduated high school on time, and 92% enrolled in college. The others enlisted with the military or attended tech school." Wow. Talk about that.
Kielma: Yes; AVID is my heart. AVID is an elective class — it follows students for four years. So they are in as freshmen. And it's the same group of students, same teacher. Talk about making connections — they become almost a family. And the whole goal is we choose students who are the middle kids; the middle kids get lost sometimes. So AVID is not an intervention by any means. These [students] are good academically; attendance is good. But somebody saw that they could be great. So it's our job to pull those students and show them how college is possible for them and help them with organization, study tips and what's a grant versus a scholarship. They all think, "I can't go to college because I can't afford it." And I'm like, "Oh, we can do something about that." It's not just for rich kids. It's for every kid who wants to learn, and we're gonna get there, but we're gonna work. But we'll get there if you stay on this journey with me.
I started as an elective teacher, meaning I was one of those teachers who had the class every year, and I graduated three full classes of that. And then I took over for a teacher who had to leave for another class. Now I'm the coordinator for my school. So I make sure that the kids are getting the support along the way. I organized the field trips to different colleges so they can see themselves at the university. And I do the behind-the-scenes stuff right now.
Mack: Can you talk about the challenges that teachers are facing today?
Kielma: Oh, yeah. But I think right now, the problem that educators are finding is just that there is so much on our plates. We have to do the teaching, the curriculum. But we're also involved with the social-emotional learning. We have a lot of students who have been through a lot of trauma and teachers have too in our last few years; you know, I don't want to say the C-word. But figuring out where we are now, and moving forward with that — that is a big task, and many teachers are tired.
It's hard to get a minute because the show must go on. I think the other thing teachers are having a problem with is it feels like every year there's more on our plates, and more and more — and the legalities and the requirements some students need. It's just overwhelming. And our classes keep getting bigger, and our pay stays the same. And I hate to bring up money. But if I can't support my family, then I also have that stressor behind me as well. We're overburdened right now. I think that's our biggest problem.
Mack: As you mentioned, there are federal and state mandates and paperwork. How does all of that impact not only what it does to the classroom, but what does that do to your creativity as a teacher?
Kielma: Also a good question. If you ask any of my students, they'll say that Miss Kielma hates standardized testing. I will do what I have to do, of course, but I don't feel it's a good measure of my students. And the more reliance on standardized testing, and the scripting of teachers, the further we get from being able to take creative risks with our lessons, and we are not able to nurture imagination and innovation. Those are so important. And you'll see that there is a — it's a back-and-forth — because then they're like, "Oh, we're lessening standardized testing." And now you'll see more; as opposed to STEM courses, you're seeing STEAM, like they're finally putting the "A" in science, technology, engineering and math; "A" for arts because science and technology and engineering and math would never go anywhere if somebody wasn't creative and was like: "Let's try this, or add an art to it."
We have to be creative and innovative and not stifle those students. And scripting is not going to work for every teacher. Some teachers want a script and I understand that, but there has to be a space where we can modify and make our lessons our own.
Mack: What advice would you give a new teacher?
Kielma: Patience with yourself. I mean, patience with the students of course, but you're not going to be a rock star your first year. You are just treading water your first year, and then it gets better. But you have to remember that you're not an island and teachers need other teachers — share resources and look to the happy teachers for help. The ones who are positive and uplifting and know that you have to be adaptable. You can't have the same lessons every year; you'll burn out way too fast.
This interview has been edited for clarity.