By Michael Telek

Institute for Learning

Dr. Paul Freeman has come up through the classroom in Connecticut. The Superintendent of Guilford Public Schools gained much of his education there, honed his craft in Connecticut classrooms, and has given countless hours to Connecticut organizations aimed at improving educational opportunities for students.

Late last year, Dr. Freeman’s passion and dedication to education was recognized as he was named Connecticut’s Superintendent of the Year. During video remarks following the announcement, he shared his thoughts about the work of now and how the work of now is situated at the center of a three-part Venn diagram.

“The superintendents that I know, now more than ever, are working very hard to make sure that students are safe and healthy and continue learning,” said Dr. Freeman. “To be asked to represent this group of people, particularly this year, it’s just really humbling.”

With a light-hearted laugh and beaming smile, Dr. Freeman admits he has seen a lot in what is now approaching a thirty-year educational career; however, he has never seen anything like these last 11 months. COVID-19 has delivered a devastating blow to educators across the world, forcing teachers and administrators to push the limits of their imagination to ensure students are becoming effective, enthusiastic, and independent learners.

“Our veteran teachers are approaching this year as if they are first year teachers, they’re redesigning every lesson, they’re rethinking every objective and every goal for their students, and they’re asking, ‘How do we do what we have always done in these completely new conditions?’,” said Dr. Freeman.

This school year has been tough on everyone, including students and parents. Dr. Freeman says he has been inspired by the resiliency of the school community and their ability to rise to the challenge presented by the virus.

“Even when things go back to normal, there are things that we are discovering instructionally that are bending the structures that we thought were unbendable in the past.”
~ Dr. Paul Freeman

“Even when things go back to normal, there are things that we are discovering instructionally that are bending the structures that we thought were unbendable in the past,” said Dr. Freeman. “We are learning things about flipping the classroom, and remote learning, and archiving direct teaching opportunities for kids to re-watch multiple times.”

As part of the search for an educator on whom to bestow their highest honor, the Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents consider four standards that are exhibited in exemplar educators: communication, community involvement, leadership for learning, and professionalism. You would be hard pressed to find someone who could check those boxes off better than Dr. Freeman.

In education, leaders must meet the needs of multiple, distinct constituencies. Elementary students are certainly different from high schoolers, and the parents of those students will have different viewpoints. That does not even include the needs of teachers and members of the community. That is why communication is key, according to Dr. Freeman. “I think that the ability to communicate in both directions is just a foundational skill to be the leader of a public-school system. You’ve got to be able to speak clearly and articulate what we’re trying to achieve here in the system, but you also need to listen really carefully,” said Dr. Freeman.

This foundational skill was on display as Dr. Freeman heard the concerns over the use of “Indians” as the school mascot by members of multiple Tribal Nations, a local human rights commission, diverse community members, and his own students. Dr. Freeman recommended to discontinue the moniker in Guilford. Shortly after the decision, he told local media “this is just one step in ongoing work.” The district has since initiated a curricular audit around race and equity and launched professional learning opportunities in culturally responsive and sustaining instruction.

Dr. Freeman is living proof that an investment in knowledge is in the best interest of students. Carrying four degrees from three different schools (two in Connecticut), he looks to pay it forward, even if that is to students outside his own district. He serves as an adjunct professor at the University of Connecticut, a National Advisory Board Member of the National Center for School Safety in Michigan, and once COVID hit, Dr. Freeman answered the call by serving as co-chair of the Governor’s COVID19 Learn from Home Task Force. Under his watch, the task force got 60,000 laptops out in quick order in communities of need.

The superintendent of the year award does not go to someone satisfied with the status quo, instead it is earned by an educator unafraid of change and driven to do whatever it takes to grow their pedagogical prowess. Dr. Freeman says the Institute for Learning has been foundational towards the way that the district approaches work in the classrooms.

“The IFL’s been enormously important to our success and to our ability to continue to move forward. The fellows that we have worked with in district have become part of our team, and we enormously appreciate them,” said Dr. Freeman. “The annual learning opportunities that we’ve been able to be part of have more often than not sparked continued future work that we’ve brought into and done in our district.”

The IFL has been partnering with Guilford Public Schools for nearly a decade, empowering teachers, and students to create the conditions and capacity to support high quality classroom practice. Dr. Freeman specifically pointed to improving quality classroom conversation through Accountable Talk® as a gamechanger for Guilford.

“We in fact, as part of our hiring process, will often show prospective candidates a student discourse occurring in the classroom and using that as a conversation piece to assess where those educators are in their understanding of student discourse and their ability to see things that are positive in it to push us to continue to get better,” said Dr. Freeman.

® Accountable Talk is a registered trademark of the University of Pittsburgh.