Teacher Shortage, Richer Neighbors Leave New London Public Schools Pressing to Compete for Hires

NEW LONDON — A recent report released by the human resource office for New London Public Schools shows that a growing number of teachers in the district have five years or less experience teaching in local public schools — more than 60 percent of teachers this year compared with about half of teachers last year.

The difference is particularly striking at the middle school and the high school, where 83 teachers have worked in the New London Public Schools for five years or less, compared to 36 teachers who have been there more than five years.

By comparison, about a quarter of teachers in Madison Public Schools and just under a third of teachers in Westbrook and Old Saybrook have been with those districts for five years or less.

“It’s an interesting market right now, with so many shortages and school districts basically poaching staff from each other on a regular basis,” said Bob Stacy, director of human resources for New London Public Schools.

Stacy said that teacher retention has proven to be a major challenge for the local schools and is an ongoing focus for the district, which faces a nationwide shortage of teachers and competition from better paying neighboring districts.

As a result of a salary freeze dating back to 2012, when the State of Connecticut appointed a special master over the district in an effort to improve student achievement, New London schools sometimes pay $10,000 to $15,000 less than their neighboring districts.

In the 2020-21 school year, for example, a teacher with a bachelor’s degree in their first year of teaching would earn $36,433, and a teacher with a master’s degree and five years of experience in the district would earn $49,184. By comparison, a teacher in Old Saybrook with a bachelor’s degree earned $45,770 in 2020-21 and a teacher with a master’s degree and five years’ experience earned $61,346.

Of 70 staff who left the district and completed exit interviews, 68 percent said that their salary structure was inadequate for their position in the district. Stacy told the Board of Education that the district had a number of staff members who were “hired away” from the district at the start of the school year, which he said impacts continuity for the students.

The district’s most recent teacher contract raises salaries above the state average, according to Stacy. A teacher with a bachelor’s degree in New London will now make about $44,300 their first year, while a teacher with five years of experience and a master’s degree will make about $55,000 — a significant increase, although still below some of the neighboring districts.

Teachers also reported that they felt overwhelmed by the number of expectations placed on them and the hours they were working beyond their contract. Stacy said that he believes sometimes the teachers who come into the district, particularly those who have not taught before, are overwhelmed by what being a teacher entails.

“What we typically see is, these are individuals who are coming fresh out of university or fresh out of a second career and, in many cases, didn’t realize the enormity of the task at hand,” said Stacy. “We’re seeing some of them are second career folks who are like, ‘I’ve got to come in and learn curriculum, I’ve got to learn students, I’ve got to learn behavior management and I’ve got to participate in TEAM in order to keep my certificate’ — and that’s what happens with a lot of the new teachers is you get overwhelmed in that first period of time.”

Cynthia Ritchie, superintendent of schools in New London, added that teachers are also trying to address

learning loss from the pandemic, which places additional expectations on the teachers.

“If you’re a fourth grade teacher at this moment, you don’t just have to be an expert in the fourth grade curriculum,” said Ritchie. “You need to know the third grade curriculum and the second grade curriculum, and even the fifth grade curriculum, because students are so varied in their needs to fill all of those gaps.”

But the district earned high marks from departing staff in other areas according to the exit surveys. 70 percent of teachers said they felt their position was rewarding. 61 percent said they felt their work was valued and appreciated. And the vast majority said they felt their supervisors gave positive feedback and handled complaints and suggestions fairly.

Stacy said that teachers who left New London often loved the district but couldn’t pass up the offer to earn substantially more at other schools. Stacy said the extra money for these teachers could be “life-changing.”

“We’ve had individuals who leave us crying because they don’t want to leave the district, they don’t want to leave the students, but when they’re offered $15,000 more it’s hard for them personally to turn that down,” he told the board.

He added that where the district faces limits in salary increases, it can work to address other concerns like work environment.

“Obviously better compensation, higher wages and benefits are a hard thing for us to do unless somebody’s going to give us a gigantic pot of money, but creating a safer work environment and dealing with some of the other issues that create good employee satisfaction should be able to help us in our retention areas,” he told the board.

Ritchie said the district also did other things to attract teachers. The city has a program offering mortgage assistance to teachers who purchase a house in New London. Last year, the district got passes to Ocean Beach for its employees, and hosted barbecues, kayaking, yoga and other events for staff members.

Stacy told the Board of Education that the district was providing mentoring to new teachers and offering more opportunities for feedback, including small working groups for teachers throughout the year. He said they were also working with different universities to see the best way to prepare teaching students with the skills they would need for the classroom.

About half the surveyed teachers also said they felt health and safety wasn’t properly addressed, and 68 percent said they didn’t feel there was enough space for professional advancement.

Ritchie and Stacy both said many of the health and safety concerns had to do with special education students and students with behavioral problems. Ritchie said they were offering professional development for school staff every week to explain how to communicate with and handle students who act out physically —- biting, scratching or punching.

Board of Education chair Elaine Maynard Adams told CT Examiner that she understood the challenges teachers faced coming into the district.

“There’s a huge number of students in New London public schools with high needs — more so than almost anywhere else in the county,” said Adams. “So that presents challenges, a whole lot of challenges that many other school districts don’t have to deal with — or that they don’t deal with to the same extent that we do.”

But Maynard Adams said that the New London Schools are a great place for a young teacher to have an impact in the lives of students who could benefit from it.

“The reason why we have so many young teachers is because we know that despite all those challenges, we’re on the right path. We can see growth in our students’ scores,” she said. “And so the young teachers that we’re attracting, for the most part, are up for that kind of a challenge.”

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