Burnout, pandemic, politics: Georgia teachers start year under pressure

July 28, 2022 Snellville - Artia Strickland, kindergarten teacher, prepares for her classroom for new school year at Anderson-Livsey elementary school in Snellville on Thursday, July 28, 2022. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Combined ShapeCaption
July 28, 2022 Snellville - Artia Strickland, kindergarten teacher, prepares for her classroom for new school year at Anderson-Livsey elementary school in Snellville on Thursday, July 28, 2022. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

During her 15 years as a Fulton County teacher, Jordan Kohanim didn’t listen to the well-intentioned advice from mentors on how to navigate a career in education.

“They all told me the same thing,” she said. “Be careful. Use boundaries. Don’t allow the amount of need that you are going to be inundated with allow you to martyr yourself.”

Despite those warnings, she taught high school honors classes and readily agreed to serve as a yearbook adviser and a debate coach.

Then, at the end of last school year, Kohanim quit.

Teachers are battling burnout, rising political pressure, pandemic challenges and concerns about armed intruders. School administrators worry it’s becoming tougher to recruit and retain teachers.

In addition to retirement, more than 50% of educators are considering leaving the profession earlier than planned, up from 37% a year ago, according to a survey released by the National Education Association earlier this year. Many already have.

Atlanta and Clayton had about twice the number of vacancies than at the same time last year. Gwinnett, the state’s largest district, had 244 teacher vacancies as of mid-July, about 100 more than at that time in 2021. Gwinnett officials noted many vacant positions are new, created to reduce class sizes. Earlier this month, DeKalb and Fulton each had to hire about 300 more teachers.

While some districts, like Cobb, say they’ve filled 99% of teacher vacancies, it’s not uncommon for large school systems, which each employ thousands of teachers, to start the academic year with openings. A big challenge is hiring math, English and special education teachers.

Amid the shortages, metro Atlanta districts are scrambling to hire instructors as they prepare to start classes, some as early as Monday. DeKalb had a hiring fair less than two weeks ago. Fulton aims to have 97% of its teaching posts filled by its first day, Aug. 8, and Clayton plans to continue hiring throughout the year.

Combined ShapeCaption
DeKalb principals and administrators interview potential teachers at a job fair held at DeKalb School District Headquarters on Thursday, July 21, 2022. (Natrice Miller/natrice.miller@ajc.com)

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

DeKalb principals and administrators interview potential teachers at a job fair held at DeKalb School District Headquarters on Thursday, July 21, 2022. (Natrice Miller/natrice.miller@ajc.com)

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Combined ShapeCaption
DeKalb principals and administrators interview potential teachers at a job fair held at DeKalb School District Headquarters on Thursday, July 21, 2022. (Natrice Miller/natrice.miller@ajc.com)

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Other districts, such as APS and Fulton, are offering hiring and retention bonuses to woo special education instructors and teachers to work in hard-to-staff, higher-poverty schools. They’re also talking more about employees’ wellbeing.

The staffing problems aren’t limited to Georgia. American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten called the nationwide shortage “the worst I’ve ever seen.”

Gov. Brian Kemp this week touted his administration’s efforts to recruit and retain more teachers by raising salaries by $5,000. Kemp said Georgia’s retention rate for teachers in the first five years of their careers is 67%, above the national average of about 50%.

For Kohanim, the profession she loved had turned into a series of tasks, and it had become increasingly difficult to deal with the focus on testing and data, students’ growing social and emotional needs and online teaching during the pandemic, when many students didn’t turn on their cameras.

”When teachers speak we are, for the most part, either reviled or we are told that we are whining, or we are just ignored,” she said.

Kohanim is now setting her own hours and designing curriculum as a teacher with an online education company and as a tutor. She hopes new teachers keep their passion but protect their mental health and boundaries.

“I know that there are teachers who are going to go in there and change lives, but, man, it’s hard,” she said.

Combined ShapeCaption
Jordan Kohanim left Fulton County Schools after 15 years. She needed a break from the many demands of the job.

Credit: Submitted

Jordan Kohanim left Fulton County Schools after 15 years. She needed a break from the many demands of the job.

Credit: Submitted

Combined ShapeCaption
Jordan Kohanim left Fulton County Schools after 15 years. She needed a break from the many demands of the job.

Credit: Submitted

Credit: Submitted

In a 2021 survey of about 4,500 Georgia educators, more than half of the teachers said they would not recommend a career in education. And just like teachers nationwide, many are considering leaving the profession soon.

The survey, conducted by the Professional Association of Georgia Educators, revealed that nearly a third of respondents expected to leave the field in the next five years. Teachers with 20 or fewer years of experience cited burnout as a top reason to leave, ahead of salary, student behavior and school leadership issues.

“It is not just about pay. It is about other issues that are making them walk away,” said Cherie Goldman, the 2022 Georgia Teacher of the Year.

The Savannah teacher led a burnout task force with support from the Georgia Department of Education. The group’s June report pointed to testing mandates, unrealistic expectations and stress exacerbated by the pandemic as contributing factors.

ExploreNew Georgia DOE report examines roots of teacher burnout

Some hiring officials are responding by paying more attention to teachers’ mental health. APS offers on-the-spot employee counseling services and is exploring ways to build more lesson-planning time into the work day.

Avoiding burnout

Grace Dalton just finished her master’s degree and is about to start her career as a literature teacher at the Atlanta high school where she did her student teaching last year.

She has more on her mind than “Odyssey,” “Romeo and Juliet” and the other texts she’ll teach. She joined a group chat with teachers who offered resources and encouragement.

As a teacher-in-training, Dalton heard an onslaught of commentary about the pressures educators face. The 22-year-old said sheer stubbornness made her stick to the career goal she set for herself back in high school.

“Even when there are teachers who say, ‘This is terrible; get out of here,’ the dominant narrative is that we have a really important job to do and we are going to do it together,” she said.

How to avoid burnout came up in nearly every one of her graduate courses.

Gonzalo La Cava, Fulton County Schools’ head of human resources, said fewer college students are training to be teachers.

Fulton schools that aren’t fully staffed by the first day of classes will shuffle schedules and use substitutes and virtual teachers to fill spots temporarily.

“Kids need to have great teachers in front of them from Day One,” La Cava. “But we may have some teachers that are hired late.”

Monica Batiste, Gwinnett’s associate superintendent for human resources, suggested that many teachers were leaving for higher-paying private sector jobs. To fill Gwinnett’s openings, Batiste said, her team is targeting states that cut teaching positions and attempting to host job fairs in those places.

Combined ShapeCaption
Educators attend Gwinnett County Public Schools’ annual new teacher orientation at Gas South Convention Center on Tuesday, July 12, 2022. (Natrice Miller/natrice.miller@ajc.com)

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Educators attend Gwinnett County Public Schools’ annual new teacher orientation at Gas South Convention Center on Tuesday, July 12, 2022.  (Natrice Miller/natrice.miller@ajc.com)

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Combined ShapeCaption
Educators attend Gwinnett County Public Schools’ annual new teacher orientation at Gas South Convention Center on Tuesday, July 12, 2022. (Natrice Miller/natrice.miller@ajc.com)

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Optimistic outlook

At Gwinnett’s first day of orientation for 1,500 new teachers, the message from district leaders and a guest speaker were inspirational. Several teachers said their excitement far outweighed any concerns.

“I’m the type of person that wants to experience for myself before making any type of preconceptions,” said Artia Strickland, a kindergarten teacher at Anderson-Livsey Elementary.

Her main worry is the impact of COVID-19. Rising cases across metro Atlanta prompted some school systems, such as Gwinnett and Clayton, to once again require employees to wear masks.

“I’m nervous for things to go backwards,” Strickland said. “Especially working with small kids, it’s very difficult to learn on the computer and missing out on those social interactions.”

Combined ShapeCaption
Artia Strickland attends Gwinnett County Public Schools’ annual new teacher orientation at Gas South Convention Center on Tuesday, July 12, 2022. She will be teaching kindergarten at Anderson-Livesy Elementary School. (Natrice Miller/natrice.miller@ajc.com)

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Artia Strickland attends Gwinnett County Public Schools’ annual new teacher orientation at Gas South Convention Center on Tuesday, July 12, 2022. She will be teaching kindergarten at Anderson-Livesy Elementary School.  (Natrice Miller/natrice.miller@ajc.com)

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Combined ShapeCaption
Artia Strickland attends Gwinnett County Public Schools’ annual new teacher orientation at Gas South Convention Center on Tuesday, July 12, 2022. She will be teaching kindergarten at Anderson-Livesy Elementary School. (Natrice Miller/natrice.miller@ajc.com)

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Cherrelle Lewis expects to lean on her colleagues during her first year of teaching. She will teach kindergarten at Anderson-Livsey and has already become fast friends with Strickland.

“You can be skeptical. But I think, if you have a goal in mind and you have a passion for it, you can overcome,” she said.

Combined ShapeCaption
July 28, 2022 Snellville - Cherrelle Lewis, kindergarten teacher, prepares for her classroom for new school year at Anderson-Livsey elementary school in Snellville on Thursday, July 28, 2022. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

July 28, 2022 Snellville - Cherrelle Lewis, kindergarten teacher, prepares for her classroom for new school year at Anderson-Livsey elementary school in Snellville on Thursday, July 28, 2022. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Combined ShapeCaption
July 28, 2022 Snellville - Cherrelle Lewis, kindergarten teacher, prepares for her classroom for new school year at Anderson-Livsey elementary school in Snellville on Thursday, July 28, 2022. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Others share their optimistic outlook.

Daniel Garcia, a social studies teacher at Shiloh Middle School in Gwinnett, said he’s focused on his reason for teaching.

“I think it’s a great way to serve the public,” he said. “I think we need people to inspire the future.”

Garcia previously worked as a school secretary and a paraprofessional for students with special needs. He saw children make progress, and that motivated him to become a teacher.

Garcia is nervous about managing a classroom of seventh graders. “I feel like we don’t learn enough about it,” he said.

Combined ShapeCaption
Daniel Garcia attends Gwinnett County Public Schools’ annual new teacher orientation at Gas South Convention Center on Tuesday, July 12, 2022. He will be teaching social studies at Shiloh Middle School. (Natrice Miller/natrice.miller@ajc.com)

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Daniel Garcia attends Gwinnett County Public Schools’ annual new teacher orientation at Gas South Convention Center on Tuesday, July 12, 2022. He will be teaching social studies at Shiloh Middle School.  (Natrice Miller/natrice.miller@ajc.com)

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Combined ShapeCaption
Daniel Garcia attends Gwinnett County Public Schools’ annual new teacher orientation at Gas South Convention Center on Tuesday, July 12, 2022. He will be teaching social studies at Shiloh Middle School. (Natrice Miller/natrice.miller@ajc.com)

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

After getting through college during a pandemic, DeKalb County teacher Brandon Wyatt is starting his career in a dual-language third grade classroom.

“I considered dropping out a lot,” he said. “I now look at teaching and go, ‘If I can do that, then I can definitely teach during normal times.’”

Combined ShapeCaption
DeKalb principals and administrators interview potential teachers at a job fair held at DeKalb School District Headquarters on Thursday, July 21, 2022. (Natrice Miller/natrice.miller@ajc.com)

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

DeKalb principals and administrators interview potential teachers at a job fair held at DeKalb School District Headquarters on Thursday, July 21, 2022. (Natrice Miller/natrice.miller@ajc.com)

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Combined ShapeCaption
DeKalb principals and administrators interview potential teachers at a job fair held at DeKalb School District Headquarters on Thursday, July 21, 2022. (Natrice Miller/natrice.miller@ajc.com)

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

‘Perfect storm’

For some long-serving educators, it’s time to say goodbye.

Jodi Bitler retired in May after more than 20 years teaching social studies in Cobb schools. The challenges added up: the pandemic, safety concerns, the increasing use of technology, and the focus on how “divisive concepts” such as race are taught.

“The best way I’ve been able to describe it is the perfect storm of so many layers of things that it’s not going to be a quick fix,” she said. “I’ve done my best for a very long time, and I’m tired.”

Mindy Mailman taught for 20 years before retiring from APS this year. Teaching was her second career, a passion she followed after working in advertising. She loved helping kindergarteners learn to read.

“If it wasn’t for the meetings and the paperwork, I probably would have continued going,” Mailman said.

She plans to return as a substitute. And she’s hopeful about the future of education.

“You’re going to have a whole new group of teachers … and they’re going to bring their heart and soul into it,” she said.

Staff writer Leon Stafford contributed to this article.

Join AJC education reporter Ty Tagami for a back-to-school discussion with three Georgia educators on Facebook Live at 6 p.m. Wednesday. Read more about and register here.


Combined ShapeCaption
July 28, 2022 Snellville - Cherrelle Lewis, kindergarten teacher, prepares for her classroom for new school year at Anderson-Livsey elementary school in Snellville on Thursday, July 28, 2022. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

July 28, 2022 Snellville - Cherrelle Lewis, kindergarten teacher, prepares for her classroom for new school year at Anderson-Livsey elementary school in Snellville on Thursday, July 28, 2022. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Combined ShapeCaption
July 28, 2022 Snellville - Cherrelle Lewis, kindergarten teacher, prepares for her classroom for new school year at Anderson-Livsey elementary school in Snellville on Thursday, July 28, 2022. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

A New Year

Here’s when some metro Atlanta’s largest school districts will begin their first day of school:

Atlanta Public Schools: Monday

Cherokee County: Monday

Clayton County: Wednesday

Cobb County: Monday

DeKalb County: Aug. 8

Fulton County: Aug. 8

Gwinnett County: Wednesday and Thursday


By the Numbers

The National Education Association released a poll of about 3,600 members in February that showed what it described as astartling level of stress and burnout among educators.” Here are some key findings:

  • 55% of educators are thinking about leaving the profession earlier than they had planned.
  • 91% say that pandemic-related stress is a serious problem for educators.
  • 90% of members say feeling burned out is a serious problem.
  • 80% report that unfilled job openings have led to more work obligations for the educators who remain.
  • 74% say they have filled in for other employees or assumed other duties because of staffing shortages.

Source: National Education Association