Georgia Teachers of the Year: If you want to be influencers, be teachers

White County teacher Holly Witcher (left) celebrates being named Georgia Teacher of the Year on May 31 with the current title holder Christy Todd of Fayette County. (Courtesy of the Georgia Department of Education)

Credit: Courtesy of the Georgia Department of Education

Credit: Courtesy of the Georgia Department of Education

White County teacher Holly Witcher (left) celebrates being named Georgia Teacher of the Year on May 31 with the current title holder Christy Todd of Fayette County. (Courtesy of the Georgia Department of Education)

In her fifth year of teaching, Holly Witcher decided she was done with the profession she had dreamed about as a child when she sat her Barbie dolls at desks and read to them. To boost student performance, Witcher’s district was imposing what she regarded as a cookie-cutter curriculum that snuffed out innovation.

“It was 2006 and I was done. I was so deflated. I saw myself as a creative person. I had been learning all these techniques, getting these endorsements and am handed a scripted curriculum,” she recalled. “I went to the assistant principal and said, ‘I don’t think I can continue to do this.’”

What the administrator told her deeply affected Witcher. “She looked at me and said, ‘You matter. Forget the curriculum. Yes, it is scripted. But you bring a unique spin that nobody else has. The love you show these kids — we need you here.’”

Witcher stayed in the classroom and continued to hone her teaching skills and her creativity. On May 31, the state named Witcher, now a 23-year veteran, the 2025 Georgia Teacher of the Year. Witcher teaches a self-contained special education classroom at Tesnatee Gap Elementary School in Cleveland, Georgia.

Holly Witcher, a special education teacher at Tesnatee Gap Elementary School in White County, was named 2025 Georgia Teacher of the Year. She shares the stage with other finalists for the honor. (Courtesy of the Georgia Department of Education)

Credit: Georgia Department of Education

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Credit: Georgia Department of Education

On hand to cheer her selection was Christy Todd, the 2024 Georgia Teacher of the Year, a music technology teacher at Rising Starr Middle School in Fayette County. Her term ends in December.

In separate interviews last week, both women offered the same immediate response to a question about what they would advise young people considering teaching: “Do it.”

That’s an increasingly rare reply as more teachers express exasperation with their career choice and fewer young people pursue education degrees. A day after I talked with Witcher and Todd, a new study popped up in my email that underscored this mounting disillusionment: “Education Tops the List for Fastest Career Burnout.” And the latest RAND State of the Teacher survey — released today — finds the well-being of U.S. teachers continues to be worse than that of similar working adults, especially for female and for Black teachers.

“I love my job. My desk is in a recording studio,” said Todd. Noting that many young people now list social media influencer as a top career choice, she said, “Teachers are the ultimate influencers; we literally change the future.”

Todd warned a teacher’s impact may not be felt immediately “It can take years to measure our success. I see it when I go to a college graduation or get wedding invitations. Or, I get a phone call or text years later telling me about an update on their career.”

“There’s just something about knowing that I’m influencing the future,” agreed Witcher. “Parents come to us sometimes not knowing how to help their children. If we can shine a light and help make their children successful, we change the lives of not only the children, but the families,” she said. “There is nowhere else where you have that impact. It is a hard job, but there is a lot of reward.”

In declaring Witcher the 2025 Teacher of the Year, state School Superintendent Richard Woods cited her forays to local grocery stores and hair salons with her young students to build the adaptive skills their parents report as struggles.

“Parents will say, ‘I just want to take my kid to get a haircut.’ The noise of a salon and the smells can make kids completely melt down in a barber chair,” said Witcher. So, she and her students visit the salon in the high school career and tech program several times. The children progress from turning on the sprayers and dryers to sitting for a wash and dry and ultimately to getting a haircut.

“I received so many photos from their parents that summer of them at salons, getting their hair cut,” said Witcher. She and her classes also visit dentists and fire stations. And they go holiday shopping to acclimate to large, loud stores.

“One of my little guys couldn’t deal with sensory overload and could never go into a Walmart,” said Witcher. On a holiday shopping trip, Witcher walked the 6-year-old slowly into the store, pausing between each step forward to watch a favorite video with him on learning the alphabet. “Before you knew it, we were in the store,” said Witcher.

Witcher was originally a general education teacher, but her school leaders believed she had the patience and enthusiasm to teach children with significant developmental delays. “They saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself,” she said.

She is now a proselytizer for special education. “I cannot tell you how many students teachers who, after spending 10 to 15 hours in our classroom, tell us they had no idea about the joy in these kids. It is magnetic.”

During her upcoming tenure as Teacher of the Year, Witcher wants to highlight the joy in the profession. “I am excited this year about being able to hear stories from other teachers and elevate those stories.”

Looking back on her year in the role, Todd said, “The biggest thing I learned as a teacher coming from the classroom is I now have a much broader perspective on how connected education is to workforce development in our state. We are all proud that Georgia for 10 years has been the No. 1 state to do business. It has become clear to me that to continue to be the No. 1 state to do business, we have to become the No. 1 state for teachers to work.”