Two years ago, as her students protested perceived injustices by police officers against black men, she said she stepped out of her classroom to help monitor the students. She was suspended several days after an administrator accused her of participating, though she was eventually cleared of wrongdoing. No students were disciplined for what the district called at the time a peaceful protest.
The Georgia Professional Standards Commission reported in 2015 that half the state's teachers leave the profession within the first five years of employment. "Georgia's Teacher Dropout Crisis," a survey by the Georgia Department of Education in response to the commission's shocking statistic, found tens of thousands of teachers who felt devalued and constantly under pressure. Many said in their survey responses that the job was too test-heavy, they often found themselves evaluated by unfair or unreliable measures and the job was constantly being changed without input from those in the classrooms.
“DeKalb has a special place in my heart,” said Bree Sharper, who taught at DeKalb County School District for 21 years until she left this spring. “It’s been my home for the last 21 years. Blood sweat and tears for 21 years. DeKalb County taught me a lot about becoming a better educator. It made me tougher and more determined.”
The decision was not all hers to make. Her principal eliminated her school’s early intervention program, in which dedicated teachers focus on students with achievement gap issues. Other jobs were available, but she learned her fate so late in the school year that many were no longer available.
“It was mid-March, and the transfer deadline to put in papers (for other jobs) was in February,” she said. “Some of them were already filled by the time I’d applied.”
A 2017 Learning Policy Institute study found most teacher vacancies — about 90 percent — are the result of people leaving the profession. During the 2017-2018 school year, the DeKalb County School District lost 682 teachers, according to information posted online. Just over half of them were due to people leaving the industry, either through retirement or for financial reasons, family responsibilities, a spouse being transferred out of the area or unspecified reasons.
Monise Seward said many teachers, to avoid being reported to certification agencies, won’t tell the truth about why they quit. Politics can play a role in that, she said. She left her metro Atlanta school in 2006. She said she addressed an issue involving her son and another teacher, and became a target for harassment herself.
“There is no organization in place here, like a teachers union, to protect teachers,” Seward said. “This is a right-to-work state and employers can let you go because they don’t like you. You can easily lose the freedom to go to work and do what you were hired to do in your classroom.”
“I’ve been trying to get back into education,” she said, “but you can’t get a teaching position without a reference from a previous principal or assistant principal.”
The National Center for Education Statistics’ Schools and Staffing Survey looked at teacher retention in the 2012-2013 school year. Of the nearly 3.4 million teachers, 8.1 percent ended the year at another school, while 7.7 percent left the profession after that year.
Activism spurred Rebekah Cohen Morris' decision to leave the classroom in 2017. For the last year, Morris has worked to establish a nonprofit that helps refugee residents in apartments along the Buford Highway corridor — a large hub for the area's refugee population, and more than 1,000 immigrant-run businesses — through educational outreach on various issues, from landlord/tenant relations, immigration and communicating with area leaders in government and schools.
“I really enjoy working in the community that many times doesn’t have people speaking up alongside them or helping them get their voices heard,” she said. “That’s why I’ve always taught in Title I schools that primarily serve students who live in apartment complexes. I just want to help clear out any barriers that are there.”
She’s back in a classroom this fall, working in Gwinnett County in another school that serves students of color from low-income families.
The AJC is updating The Ultimate Atlanta School Guide to bring you the latest information on school safety ratings, student demographics and more. Research schools in your community and across the state at schools.myajc.com.