THE NEW CLASS: First-time teachers struggle, triumph in metro Atlanta

Brandon Wyatt paced around his classroom at Ashford Park Elementary, his mind racing.

One thought beat through the first-time teacher’s head like a drum: “What am I doing here?”

He had been teaching for all of one month in the DeKalb County school and was about to meet his students’ parents at an open house. He couldn’t shake the feeling that he wasn’t doing a good enough job. Maybe he should just quit. Every day was a tornado of paperwork and new faces. The third graders in his German immersion class were reluctant to speak German. He worried he wasn’t connecting with them.

“What am I doing here?”

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Wyatt, 24, is one of more than 4,000 teachers who started new jobs in metro Atlanta schools this year. Many of those teachers are new to the profession. Gwinnett, the state’s largest district, hired almost 1,000.

More than two years after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, veteran teachers are burned out — and brand-new teachers can already see why. For one thing, test scores have fallen below pre-pandemic levels, and fixing it falls on teachers. But many students are emotionally drained, unused to sitting in a classroom all day after long stints of distance learning, and acting out.

“I thought I had an idea, because I came from a family of teachers,” Wyatt said. “I had no earthly clue.”

School districts in Georgia and around the nation have struggled to recruit and retain teachers since the pandemic began. And there are more teaching positions to fill than before, thanks to an influx of federal funds leading to added jobs. By November, there were about 900 teaching openings in metro Atlanta’s largest districts, three months into the academic year.

In a 2021 survey by the Professional Association of Georgia Educators of about 4,500 Georgia educators, more than half of respondents said they were unlikely to stay in the profession for another five years. Teacher turnover has long been shown to adversely affect student learning — an area that’s already suffered thanks to the pandemic.

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

The pressures of the job weigh on new teachers like Wyatt, who are also dealing with the shock of expectations versus reality.

“You can’t fail the kids,” he would tell himself. More than a month passed in his new job before he began telling himself something else: “Just take things one step at a time.”

It’s the same mantra adopted by Ku Htaw, a high school math teacher at DeKalb School of the Arts.

Htaw often stays late and spends each evening planning the next day’s lessons. Some days, she doesn’t have enough chairs for her students after other teachers borrow them for their own students. In the absence of an actual nameplate, her name is scrawled on a sticky note in Sharpie and stuck outside her door. But she considers teaching her calling. Her family moved to DeKalb County from Thailand when she was 11. Her teachers and her father, a former math teacher, inspired her then and continue to do so.

“I think teaching is the greatest profession in the world,” she said.

ExploreNew Gwinnett teacher works with a learning curve

Daniel Garcia, a social studies teacher at Shiloh Middle School in Gwinnett County, feels similarly. After teaching English to French students, he considered applying to the Peace Corps or pursuing a career in foreign policy.

But he felt called to teach students about civics and the world around them. Garcia moved from his native Idaho to teach in Gwinnett. He adorned his classroom with flags from around the world and images of labor activist Cesar Chavez, acclaimed poet Amanda Gorman, and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Malala Yousafzai.

Standing in front of dozens of middle schoolers, Garcia, 28, realized this work would be harder than he ever expected.

Reality sets in

As a paraprofessional working with students with significant needs before he became a teacher, Garcia learned how physical a job in a school can sometimes be. He absorbed blows and scratches, and felt equipped to react to high-pressure situations.

He was shocked when he arrived in Gwinnett that he had to break up four fights in his classroom his first month of teaching.

“I don’t think anything prepares you for that,” he said.

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Credit: Miguel Martinez

A fight in the cafeteria led administrators to ban the entire seventh grade from eating there. Garcia eats lunch in his classroom while supervising 30 students.

“It’s not really a break, though, because you’re still with these kids,” he said.

Garcia has gotten better at preemptively stopping conflict by seating students who don’t get along away from one another or being quicker to intervene.

But student behavior is under a spotlight in Gwinnett. As the district works to change a discipline system that some call discriminatory, others say looser standards lead to more frequent and severe misbehavior. Criticism has sharpened following a series of concerning events in October, including the fatal shooting of a student near his school.

Superintendent Calvin Watts has consistently pointed to the pandemic and the disruption to students’ social development as a boiling point. A recent survey from the National Center for Education Statistics supported Watts’ assertion: More than 80% of public schools reported that the pandemic negatively affected student behavior and their social and emotional development.

“There’s a lot of pressure on teachers right now to magically bring all of these kids back to where they’re supposed to be after two years of virtual learning,” Wyatt said. “It sucks.”

Managing student behavior was a big concern for Htaw before the year began. At 23, she’s not that much older than her teenage students, she noted. She’s soft-spoken. When they’re sitting down, she stands less than a head taller than some of them.

Some days are harder than others, like when students come to class with a defeatist attitude that has nothing to do with Htaw — they just want to go home. But she’s learned to be patient on those days. And they overwhelmingly passed their first big exam, she said proudly.

“They have a desire to learn,” she said.

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Avoiding burnout

Because of various academic struggles, Garcia’s students begin their days with about a half-hour of math or language arts lessons on their computers.

A social studies teacher, all Garcia can do is try to keep them on task. Some are diligent; some pretend to be. Others don’t bother answering anything. In a class of 30 students, it’s impossible to keep an eye on all their screens.

“There’s not a lot of time to decompress during the day, catch your thoughts or even grab a bite to eat,” Garcia said.

”Too many teachers are running on empty,” wrote Georgia’s 2022 Teacher of the Year Cherie Bonder Goldman, in a report about how to alleviate teacher burnout in the state. The complaints in the report — too many assessments, not enough time, unrealistic expectations, lack of respect — are not new. But it’s the first time Garcia, Htaw and Wyatt have experienced them firsthand.

ExploreNew Georgia DOE report examines roots of teacher burnout

“I get why people leave the teaching profession,” Garcia said.

How to handle the stress is a work in progress for him. He goes home, tries his best to turn his brain off and unwinds by watching TV.

Wyatt has tried not to work too much outside of his contracted hours. Still, a basket of ungraded student work waits on his dining room table as he attempts to decompress at the end of the day.

The Watkinsville native has had a hard time adjusting to life in the city. He and his fiancee have been on opposite work schedules since they moved.

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Credit: Miguel Martinez

“It affects you a lot more than you think seeing your partner only over the weekend,” Wyatt said. “Coming home and being alone every day, and not having really any time to go out and make friends, does affect just my day-to-day life.”

Teachers in DeKalb and Gwinnett counties participate in new teacher orientation at the beginning of the school year, which aims to help inspire and prepare them for the job. In DeKalb, new teachers are paired with a more experienced mentor and coaches who can check in and offer them guidance. And teachers continuously take professional learning classes, both in-person and online.

Each of the teachers finds solace in speaking with their peers. Wyatt collaborates with all of the third grade teachers at his school to plan lessons, and has a veteran co-teacher he works closely with each day.

Garcia said working with the other seventh grade social studies teachers is a highlight of the job and they rotate lesson planning responsibilities.

Htaw’s peers support her by reminding her to make time for herself to rest, eat, see friends.

”I would not eat during the day. Sometimes I would get really tired over the weekend,” she said. “I told myself I need to take care of myself more so I don’t get burned out.”

It’s an ongoing process.

Small victories

Htaw is still taking it one step at a time, but said it’s getting easier. Every student who asks a question or masters a concept that made no sense to them last year is a buoy to her. She opened a drawer in her classroom one day and found a forgotten pile of calculators left over from a previous teacher. She got a few more from the school’s vice principal, some donated from a student’s mom, and suddenly her class was fully equipped.

That’s how new teachers measure progress: the small victories.

ExploreFirst-time DeKalb teacher adjusts to demands of job

One breakthrough moment for Wyatt was when a student called him “dad” by accident. It was an awkward moment for the student, but one Wyatt was quietly thrilled about. It showed the student was comfortable with him. As those wins pile up, the panic he felt before open house in September has begun to feel like another lifetime.

For Garcia, those victories come when the news makes it into classroom discussion. The recent death of Queen Elizabeth II and the resignation of U.K. Prime Minister Liz Truss opened up conversations about forms of government, past lessons about Europe and living through history.

“We talked about it because it’s important, even though it’s not part of the curriculum,” Garcia said.

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Moments like that are especially meaningful on the days it feels like it’s him against the world. There often aren’t substitutes to take over a classroom, so close to a dozen students may be funneled to his room if a colleague is out. It often takes time to find who can help when there’s a fight or when a student walks out the classroom. In those moments, he has to remember why he chose this work.

“You have to be in it for the kids,” Garcia said. “That’s the most important thing beyond just loving the content you want to teach.”

It’s the question each teacher has to answer: Does the love of the subject and the students make up for the challenges of the job?

“It’s not an easy job,” Htaw said. “It’s a lot of work, but it’s worth it if you have a passion for it.”

She ends each class with a reminder to students as they file into the hall: “Go be great! Go be awesome.”

She believes she’s going to be great, too — if she can just get through this first year.


About The New Class

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution is following three new teachers in their first year in the classroom. In this multi-part series, they’ll navigate pandemic-era learning challenges and try to stave off burnout — all while trying to keep sight of why they got into teaching. As metro Atlanta school districts continue struggling to fill open teaching positions, these teachers provide an in-depth look at what it takes to do the job.


Meet the teachers

Daniel Garcia

”I don’t think anything prepares you.”

- Age: 28

- Subject: Seventh grade social studies

- School: Shiloh Middle School in Gwinnett County

Ku Htaw

”Teaching is the greatest profession in the world.”

- Age: 23

- Subject: High school math

- School: DeKalb School of the Arts in DeKalb County

Brandon Wyatt

”There’s a lot of pressure.”

- Age: 24

- Subject: Third grade German immersion

- School: Ashford Park Elementary in DeKalb County