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In a pandemic school year in which teaching felt harder than ever, veteran Bridgeport educator Sheena Graham took some solace from the fact that some of her most reticent students finally found their voice.

The students who never wanted to speak in a traditional classroom tended to be the ones who were the most outspoken through technology.

Sheena Graham

Graham, who has taught music for nearly 40 years, recalls one shy student’s rendition of “The Itsy Bitsy Spider,” a response to an assignment to create musical tracks for nursery rhymes. “You could hear the rain come down and you could hear the sun come out,” she said.  Despite the many associated challenges, technology also gave those quiet “kids the ability to speak louder than the rest of us.”

Dalio Education, the Dalio Philanthropies public education initiative, will help teachers to share stories of teaching — in a pandemic, perhaps, but also well beyond — through a new platform, Teachers of Connecticut, dedicated to amplifying teacher voices and lived experience.  An Advisory Group of teachers and civic leaders will help to lead Teachers of Connecticut, ensuring it achieves its mission of supporting public school teachers.

Barbara Dalio, the organization’s Founder and Director, created the platform in response to her many conversations with teachers.  She was always struck by the incredible value of their insights, and wanted to find a way for their experiences and ideas to be shared more widely.

Each teacher brings their own perspective and what they have to share is always so compelling and inspiring. There are so many voices and personalities and points of view... Hopefully Teachers of Connecticut can help teachers' stories to reach as many people as possible because in a way, everybody is involved in education.

Barbara Dalio

Dalio, who grew up in Spain, became invested in supporting public education, and teachers in particular, through her own background as a student (she traces her love for reading partly to one exceptional teacher’s patience and passion) and as the mother of four sons who all attended schools in Connecticut.

She is a fixture inside many Connecticut schools and classrooms, preferring to witness first hand the complexity and challenges of the work, and always stressing that education is a field dominated by nuances and “greys.”

“It is not black and it is not white,” she said.

Teachers of Connecticut debuts with a collection of about a dozen stories featuring teachers recommended by the platform's Advisory Group who bring a range of educator experiences from across the state. From there, Dalio hopes it will expand organically into a collection featuring many more stories from the state’s more than 50,000 public K-12 teachers.  

We want teachers to feel free and safe to tell their stories and experiences — in their own voices, unfiltered — so they are heard and appreciated.

Andrew Ferguson

Andrew Ferguson, Chief Education Officer at Dalio Education, hopes the stories span diverse themes, events and insights. “If it so happens that a teacher’s contribution is about their absolutely heroic efforts during the pandemic to make sure children had what they need, fantastic,” he said. “If it’s about feeling like teacher voice was not heard during the pandemic, that’s alright as well.”

Since its creation more than a decade ago, Dalio Education has focused its efforts on two key areas: supporting students who are at risk of not graduating high school on-time, and supporting public school teachers.

Key to that latter agenda has been the Fund for Teachers (FFT), which awards grants to teachers to embark on self-designed professional growth opportunities in locations across the globe. Teachers might visit South Africa to study the role of students in ending Apartheid, or travel to Greenland to learn the Inuit Sign Language in order to empathize more fully with what hearing-impaired students feel when learning how to sign. Since 2016, Dalio Education has funded FFT fellowships for 812 Connecticut teachers.

During the pandemic, many of the projects had to be indefinitely postponed. The spring virtual convenings were partly an attempt to determine where Dalio Education should go next with its teacher support.

In non-pandemic times, “we always visit schools...all the time and are talking to everyone,” said Barbara Dalio. “Covid completely disconnected us from teachers until we began to hold conversations on Zoom." During those Zoom conversations, a theme that Dalio had previously heard at times began to present more acutely.

“What I heard the most was that teachers felt like they were not being heard... and I was thinking, how can we get those important voices a platform?”

Barbara Dalio

 There is no shortage of stories to be told — encompassing the inspirational, the heart-wrenching or, in Graham’s case, a mix of both. Graham, the 2019 Connecticut Teacher of the Year who also serves on the Advisory Group of Teachers of Connecticut, said that at the end of the 2020-21 school year, she felt “a different kind of tired.” This year “took more out of us than our profession has ever taken,” she said. Graham, like most teachers, faced unprecedented challenges both at home and at work. At home, she was the only family member who didn’t lose her job during the pandemic. “Everyone was out of work with the exception of me,” she said. “You don’t want to come home and voice your concerns because everyone is dealing with stress.”

In the classroom, Graham struggled most with hybrid teaching, and how to connect meaningfully both with students sitting in front of her—and ones logging in from their homes. When in doubt, she turned to play and comedy to find her way through tough moments. “I think you have to have a great sense of humor,” she said.

She is overjoyed to return fully in person this fall, but there were many positives from the pandemic to carry with her. The shy students weren’t the only ones who found their voice: Graham also became more vocal. Prior to covid, Graham typically sat silently at staff meetings, taking it all in. But she found herself speaking up more in the online meetups, particularly when teachers met in smaller “breakout rooms.”

“It made me more outgoing,” she said. “In some ways, I’ve had more interaction with adults (colleagues) this year than in 38 years of teaching.”

Sheena Graham