The first inkling Shelton resident Harold Darak had that something unusual was happening came during his lunch period, about halfway through his final day as a teacher at Trumbull High School.
“I had just gotten back from the cafeteria and sat down to send an email to a parent, when someone poked their head in the door and told me that I was wanted for a meeting in the principal’s office,” he said.
There, Darak was informed that the administration considered that an open letter he had written to students and parents explaining his mid-year retirement was a violation of policy. Specifically, Darak said, he was told he had caused a disruption in the school day and was accompanied back to his classroom to collect his belongings before being escorted off the property. Students later reported administrators demanded they return their letters
“At least I got to eat my yogurt parfait,” Darak said.
In response to Darak’s comments, school Superintendent Gary Cialfi released a written statement.
“Every decision that is made by an administrator or a teacher must be in the best interest of the student. Trumbull teachers are on every committee that develops curriculum and assessments. Our curriculum, assessments, and practices are in alignment with national teachers’ organizations, the New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC), and other school districts in Connecticut. As always, we encourage every student and parent to bring their concerns to the attention of the teacher and/or the administrators,” Cialfi wrote.
The 57-year-old math teacher, known to his students as “Coach D” for his habit of treating math like a team sport, made the unusual choice to retire during the year due to what he called a series of changes in the profession.
“I was in the corporate world for 22 years, and I realized I was making money for shareholders, but it would be really nice to have a career where I was giving back,” he said. “So I went to alternate certification and spent the summer training to become a teacher and in 2005, I started teaching math at Trumbull High.”
But over the next 13 years, Darak said the ability of teachers to be adaptive to their students has systematically been eliminated.
“I don’t know who or what was the driving force behind that, but it started with having the same curriculum that everyone follows, and then we started giving all students the exact same test to everybody, and we stopped giving the tests back,” he said. “So students don’t know what they did wrong, and you can’t give extra credit or retakes, and because of the curriculum kids get stuck with that low grade and you have to move on the the next topic.”
Darak, who had the advantage of financial security, decided it was time to move on. In October, he submitted his letter of resignation, but put off telling his students.
“I kept it quiet, because who wants to be a lame duck?” he said. “I wrote the letter because I knew I wasn’t going to be able to talk to everyone, and I wasn’t going to email every parent. So I handed the letter to the kids before class ended. I told them to give it to their parents, and they if they wanted to, they could read it too when they got home.”
But some students opened the letter early and by fourth period snapshots of it were showing up on social media.
In the letter, Darak wrote that his enthusiasm for teaching had declined, and that he was being forced to spend more and more time on tasks that do not necessarily help students. He included seven bullet points to illustrate what was frustrating to him, most of which were the ongoing efforts to standardize instruction and assessments. He also complained of teachers being pressured to recommend students move up to levels where they would likely not be successful. This is done because the percentage of students taking advanced classes is commonly used by organizations that rank school systems, he said.
His final sentence was his most direct criticism of the school administration. He wrote that teachers are dedicated professionals who feel a calling to their profession. “They want to be respected and treated like professionals, which is happening less and less these days. Expertise and experience are no longer valued by the administration.”
Though it was Darak’s name on the letter, he said it could have been signed by any number of his colleagues and parents.
“Everyone understands that the education students are getting now is much different than it was five years ago, and that’s sad,” he said.
News of Darak’s removal spread quickly on social media, generating hundreds of mostly supportive comments on Trumbull’s various community pages. Students also started a farewell page CoachDThanks, where dozens of students wished him well.
“You helped me through some terrible times when I thought I couldn’t make it through math class and I’ll forever be thankful for you!!” wrote Cassie Urban ’13.
Shea Marazita, ’10, said Darak inspired her to be a better student.
“He has always held himself with a sense of dignity and pride in what he does, and he showed me how to put my heart and soul into the things I do,” she wrote. “Even when I wasn’t taking his class, but I needed help studying for the math portion of the SAT, [he] gave me study material and helped me during his office hours.”
Darak said he was grateful for the positive wishes from his current and former students.
“I loved getting in front of students and teaching,” he said. “I love creating lesson plans that make math easier to get. Even challenging classes were still fun. It’s never been the kids. I just feel badly I wasn’t able to say goodbye to my last two classes.”