Mariam Mohamed, a teacher, mom, and children's book author, is leaving the classroom to spend more time with her kids and on her writing. Credit: Courtesy Mariam Mohamed

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Qorsho Hassan, the 2020 Minnesota Teacher of the Year, isn’t the only educator stepping away from teaching at the end of this school year. This spring, Education Minnesota, the state’s largest educators union, surveyed 14 union locals statewide:  7 percent of licensed teachers who began this past year in the classroom said they would not return next year. It’s the highest one-year exodus union leaders have ever seen.

In my reporting over the past several months, I’ve encountered a number of educators of color who are leaving their jobs. While some themes emerged—many teachers feel burned out, insufficiently supported, and frustrated by racism in the workplace—others left for growth opportunities or better work-life balance. Together, their stories begin to paint a picture of why teachers are leaving their jobs—or the whole profession—and what, if anything, schools can do to retain them.

Here are some of their stories.

Christina Nystrom: ‘I have definitely had more anxiety attacks this year’

Christina Nystrom taught second grade at Jefferson Global Studies and Humanities Magnet School in Minneapolis before resigning in February. She took a job with an education technology company.

“I thought that 2020–2021 was difficult and I knew nothing,” she told me in February, shortly before her colleagues staged a three-week strike in hopes of improving staffing levels and pay. “This is much harder.”

Ultimately, she had to choose her own mental health, she said. “I have definitely had more anxiety attacks this year,” she said. “I’ve been sick more than I’ve ever been before.”

Teachers did not receive enough support at school, and the pandemic had revealed profound educational inequalities, Nystrom said. She also cited micromanaging and racism from colleagues in her decision to resign. She supported her colleagues’ demands in striking, she said, but left her job before she could join the strike.

“I look at my school, which is predominantly students of color, and I look at schools that are predominantly white students and how vastly different they are,” she said. “I mean, my classroom is falling apart. And that’s not fair to my kids.”

Leah James: ‘It’s not comfortable for me here anymore’

Leah James, who taught special education at Minneapolis’ Bryn Mawr Elementary School, got her teaching license through Minneapolis’ Grow Your Own program, which helps train educational support professionals to become teachers. After the strike, James felt that neither the union nor the school district was looking out for teachers or students of color. Ultimately, she decided to leave the district.

“It’s not comfortable for me here anymore,” she said. “It feels toxic. It’s really negative.”

James plans to stay in education—for now. She’s received job offers from multiple other districts, including one that will pay $8,000 more than her current job in Minneapolis Public Schools.

“I have some major skills in other fields,” she said. “I have a background in retail. I’ve got a history in corporate. So if the right opportunity presents itself, there’s nothing tying me here.”

Mariam Mohamed: ‘Teaching is my passion, and writing is my passion, but writing allows me to be home’

Mariam Mohamed, a teacher at the charter school MTS Banaadir Academy, decided to leave the classroom to spend more time with her own children and focus on her writing.

The May 24 massacre in an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, which left 21 people dead, was a “wakeup call,” she said. “Life is short, and being a teacher I think it really did hit home.”

Mariam is also the author of two picture books, and a Los Angeles-based agency recently signed her as a screenwriter for animated children’s television shows. For the past year, she’s been spending three to six hours a day writing, on top of her full-time teaching job and being a mom to two toddlers. When she realized she was missing milestones in her children’s lives, she decided she had to give something up.

“Teaching is my passion, and writing is my passion, but writing allows me to be home,” she said.

Like many teachers, Mariam felt burnt out at the end of a difficult year. She’s seen friends leave the field due to burnout, she said. Yet she stressed that her school had been extremely accommodating, and her decision to leave was not about the school. Her choice came down to her family, she said. But it was difficult.

“I was crying the entire ride home,” she said. “I’m definitely going to miss it, because I feel like I’ll always be a teacher.”

Becky Z. Dernbach is the education reporter for Sahan Journal. Becky graduated from Carleton College in 2008, just in time for the economy to crash. She worked many jobs before going into journalism, including...