Gwinnett’s teacher of the year is quitting the school district

Lee Allen at his home on Thursday, May 12, 2022. During the pandemic, Allen set up an office in his dining area to teach virtual classes to his students. (Natrice Miller / natrice.miller@ajc.com)

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

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Lee Allen at his home on Thursday, May 12, 2022. During the pandemic, Allen set up an office in his dining area to teach virtual classes to his students. (Natrice Miller / natrice.miller@ajc.com)

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

Lee Allen tried to reassure the 12,500 other teachers in Gwinnett County as he was named the district’s teacher of the year in December.

“If you work in education and you’re struggling, hear me: You’re not alone,” Allen, a ninth grade math teacher and assistant wrestling coach at Archer High School in Lawrenceville, said at an awards ceremony.

The education system is being stressed by the pandemic, he said. “But it’s not broken.”

Now he’s quitting out of frustration. His last day is Wednesday, the final day of the school year.

Allen said this year was the most difficult in his eight years of teaching. Many students returned to school from a year of online classes with completely different habits and behaviors. He doesn’t think administrators handled it well and put undue pressure on teachers.

“I don’t feel like a teacher very much anymore,” Allen told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “I’m just managing behaviors.”

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Lee Allen, an algebra teacher at Archer High School, was named the Gwinnett County Public Schools teacher of the year at a ceremony Dec. 7, 2021. (Josh Reyes / joshua.reyes@ajc.com)

Credit: Josh Reyes/AJC

Lee Allen, an algebra teacher at Archer High School, was named the Gwinnett County Public Schools teacher of the year at a ceremony Dec. 7, 2021. (Josh Reyes / joshua.reyes@ajc.com)

Credit: Josh Reyes/AJC

Combined ShapeCaption
Lee Allen, an algebra teacher at Archer High School, was named the Gwinnett County Public Schools teacher of the year at a ceremony Dec. 7, 2021. (Josh Reyes / joshua.reyes@ajc.com)

Credit: Josh Reyes/AJC

Credit: Josh Reyes/AJC

A national survey found that the stresses teachers faced before the pandemic became worse, driving many away from the profession.

In leaving his job, Allen is walking away from the possibility of being chosen state teacher of the year and a teacher retention initiative he began developing. He is hoping to teach again in a smaller Georgia district. Gwinnett is the state’s largest district.

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Allen said students should receive more leniency than past years because of all the disruptions from the pandemic, but he felt the policies at his school went too far.

He saw students break rules like wearing a hat or being tardy over and over without facing consequences or intervention.

“Teenagers are going to push boundaries,” he said. These infractions didn’t lead to discipline or any serious response by the school, so the behavior continued or even got worse.

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Lee Allen holds his teacher of the year plaque on Thursday, May 12, 2022. (Natrice Miller / natrice.miller@ajc.com)

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

Lee Allen holds his teacher of the year plaque on Thursday, May 12, 2022. (Natrice Miller / natrice.miller@ajc.com)

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

Combined ShapeCaption
Lee Allen holds his teacher of the year plaque on Thursday, May 12, 2022. (Natrice Miller / natrice.miller@ajc.com)

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

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

“When the little things don’t matter, nothing matters,” Allen said. Students “see people being tardy all the time and breaking dress code and cussing out teachers and doing these things and think, ‘So why should I take anything seriously?’”

Allen said some students went through virtual learning without participating in class or turning in work. That behavior didn’t change once they returned to in-person learning.

But administrators came down on some teachers because more students were failing than usual, he said.

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“It feels like we’re not really trusted as professionals,” Allen said. “We’re just as good of teachers as we were two years ago, but now suddenly, we get questioned a lot more.”

He recalled one administrator in Archer who substitute taught in January when there were high staff absences. She said that the students didn’t listen to her and “wouldn’t do anything.”

Allen wasn’t surprised. He and other teachers had tried to explain that situation to their leaders. On Thursday, he talked about the issues with the district’s Board of Education.

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To improve matters, he has suggested that all administrators should spend at least a week in a full or overfull class at a high-needs school. No titles or “suit and tie,” Allen said. They would be substitutes and teachers.

“Bridge that gap and they would kind of understand what we’re dealing with,” Allen said.

While he cites many challenges that teachers are facing, he thinks they’re solvable if administrators and teachers, along with students and their families, work together.

“There’s a lot of smart people here,” Allen said. “There’s a ton of intelligent teachers with great ideas. And they have the ability to give a world-class education.”