After ten years as a classroom teacher, Qorsho Hassan, the 2020 Minnesota Teacher of the Year, decided to step away from teaching at the end of this past school year. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

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A few days before the end of the school year, Qorsho Hassan gathered her second graders for their daily morning meeting at Echo Park Elementary School, in Burnsville. She had some hard news to share, she told them, but it was happy news too.

They would not see her in the hallways next school year, she told them. She would not be teaching second grade.

Would she be teaching them in third grade? her students asked.

No, Qorsho told them. She would not be teaching at all.

“I made myself a promise ages ago that when I get to a point where I no longer can dream in the classroom, can feel the passion just flowing through my veins, that I would step away,” she told me in June over an iced chai, at a table outside an Eagan cafe.

I’ve been reporting on Qorsho’s journey since she became the first Somali American to win the Minnesota Teacher of the Year award, in 2020. Over that time, I visited her classroom, spoke with her students, and talked to school parents and fellow teachers. All of them praised Qorsho’s teaching methods, her uncanny ability to connect with children, and the representation she brought to their schools. In the classroom, at award ceremonies, and even at a school board protest, I’ve observed how much Qorsho means to her students—and how much they mean to her.

“We’ve got children all across Minnesota that believe that they can do anything because of your example, and for that I am incredibly grateful,” Governor Tim Walz told Qorsho in a speech at the following year’s Minnesota Teacher of the Year ceremony.

But more recently, the joy Qorsho had once found in the classroom was fading, she told me. She dreaded going to work. She felt like she was becoming less of herself.

After that award ceremony in 2020, when I first met Qorsho, she told me she wanted to use her platform to advocate for better retention and more support for teachers of color. The issue was personal: She’d already faced retention challenges. Just that summer, she’d lost her job in the Burnsville–Eagan–Savage school district during budget cuts: the district first-in last-out policy left newer teachers of color vulnerable during layoffs.

Two years later, she feels like she’s been pushed out of the classroom again.

“I didn’t willfully walk away,” Qorsho said of her recent action. “I felt like I didn’t have the proper support.”

Qorsho Hassan was named the Minnesota Teacher of the Year in a ceremony on the Capitol lawn in August 2020. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

Many educators had hoped the 2021–2022 school year would bring a return to typical school rhythms. Some, like Qorsho, hoped the disruptions of the pandemic and the police murder of George Floyd would allow space to reimagine education. Instead, many teachers reported it was the most stressful year of their careers.

After two pandemic years, students had fallen behind academically and socially, and were struggling with major mental health challenges. And staffing shortages meant teachers had to take on extra work. 

Minnesota public school staffing levels declined by 7 percent between March 2020 and May 2022, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data. That meant teachers needed to cover for other staff during their limited free hours. 

For teachers of color, this additional workload presented even greater burdens. Even before the pandemic, many of these teachers paid an “invisible tax” by providing unpaid leadership on anti-racism in their schools and delivering extra support to students of color. Those needs grew exponentially after the twin upheavals of the pandemic and Floyd’s murder. 

Emily Buss, the communications supervisor for Rosemount–Apple Valley–Eagan Public Schools, acknowledged the challenges of the last few years in education, but said the district was on an “upward trajectory.” She praised district office employees for stepping in to fill paraprofessional and substitute teacher roles while putting the needs of students first. The school district has nearly reached pre-pandemic staffing levels again, she said.

“Everyone experienced a horrible time with this pandemic,” Buss said. “In District 196, we continued to provide the best education under the conditions that we were dealing with, and I think that’s what our families expect.”

Yet as teachers stretched themselves ever thinner, Qorsho felt the existing school structures were inadequate to serve her students’ growing needs. Behavioral and academic intervention could not solve homelessness or help a self-harming second-grader. She did not want to provide “Band-Aid solutions” to structural problems. 

This June, at the start of summer vacation, Qorsho began a discretionary leave from her school district. This means she could return after a year. But right now, she doesn’t think that’s likely. 

“I’ve been fearless and unapologetic about teaching for justice and liberation but now I must rest,” she said in a tweet announcing her indefinite departure. “Looking forward to the next chapter of my life that includes healing and peace.” 

She included a photograph of herself flashing a peace sign and preparing to drop a microphone.

“We’ve been tasked with the impossible job of fighting systemic racism,” Qorsho told me at the cafe. “I haven’t just been able to teach. If I were, I could see myself teaching for 10 or 20 more years. But I don’t do the same work as my white colleagues.”

‘I thought this is rock bottom. And it’s just gotten worse.’

When I first asked Qorsho, 32, to speak about her decision to leave the classroom, she told me she was still processing her thoughts. A week later, she met me, wearing a floral head scarf and a nose ring. We spoke for more than an hour. 

She described her past few years in the classroom with matter-of-fact candor: her fears of not being enough for her students; her questions about the role public schools play for children of color; her deep love for her family; and her initial feelings of guilt about leaving the classroom. She laughed about being able to use the bathroom whenever she wanted, now that she would not be teaching. At other times, she neared tears while reflecting on one student’s experience with trauma.

Ultimately, a clear narrative emerged: An extraordinarily passionate teacher had poured herself into her craft during a time of compounding crises, leaving herself depleted.

Qorsho first started to feel the signs of burnout during the 2018–2019 school year, when she taught 35 fifth-graders in one class. (The average Minnesota elementary classroom has an enrollment of 23 students.) Most of her students were Black and brown. She knew these students could benefit from seeing a teacher who looked like them. But she did not have enough support for such a large class.

“I just felt like I couldn’t be enough for all of those students, and that I wasn’t even enough for myself,” she said.

As the 2019–2020 school year began, she looked forward to a smaller class size of 27, “which is still a lot, by the way,” she added. Then, in March, COVID–19 shut down schools across the country, forcing teachers and students to adapt to remote learning.

“I thought, oh my God, this is rock bottom,” Qorsho said. “And actually, it’s just gotten worse. Exponentially worse.”

As Qorsho began her new job at Echo Park in the fall of 2020, her school opened using a “hybrid” model. That meant Qorsho’s students were divided into two cohorts: Each day, half her students were in the classroom, while the other half completed online assignments from home.

In September 2020, Qorsho Hassan decorated her new classroom at Echo Park Elementary School with posters of diverse leaders. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

I’d seen how that worked in September 2020, when I visited her fourth-grade classroom. The walls were lined with posters affirming immigrants and diversity. I watched as she led her students through an activity to identify their unique characteristics.

Qorsho modeled the exercise for them by identifying her own. “I’m silly, I speak three languages, and I can write with both hands,” she told her students.

A blond girl raised her hand to share her special traits. “I’m small, I can eat mashed potatoes with chopsticks, and I speak two languages: English and gibberish,” she announced.

On a break, Qorsho told me she designed the activity to lift up their strengths and identify areas where they can grow. Developing this “growth mindset” would help them recognize where they could overcome challenges, she explained.

At the same time, Qorsho was struggling to overcome challenges of her own. She effectively had to teach both her cohorts at once, managing one group in person while providing real-time feedback on the other group’s online assignments. She had to spend more time policing students’ behavior with the new COVID safety protocols. And she was working long hours to prepare dual lesson plans. 

Sometimes Qorsho dreamed of leaving teaching to open a bakery. “I keep a close circle of educators who are positive, passionate, and equity-minded,” she said. “I’ve never had so many teacher friends, including myself, think about quitting.”

Sometimes she dreamed of opening a bakery, she told me.

“I keep a close circle of educators who are positive, passionate, and equity-minded,” she told me that September. “I’ve never had so many teacher friends, including myself, think about quitting.” 

The picture book incident

Another factor making her job difficult: backlash from parents who disagreed with her anti-racist teaching methods, she told me. Sometimes that backlash showed up in “unsaid words” and “passive behavior.” But in one case, it boiled over into a social media firestorm.

In October, her second month at her new job, Qorsho’s teaching methods came under fire when she read the picture book Something Happened In Our Town with her fourth-grade students. The book, published by the children’s book imprint of the American Psychological Association, aims to help children process the trauma of a Black man in their community being killed by police. Qorsho’s students—a diverse mix of mostly white, Black, and Latino children—had been bringing up Floyd’s murder and the subsequent unrest since school reopened that fall. 

Jai Hanson, a Bloomington police officer, found out about the picture book assignment from a classroom parent and wrote a Facebook post about it. (Hanson is now a candidate for Hennepin County Sheriff.) Hanson wrote that he was disappointed to see the book being used at Echo Park Elementary. He worried it could teach children to fear the police. 

His post received hundreds of shares. Minnesota’s largest police association took up the cause. Its executive director penned a letter to Governor Walz, whose departments of education and health had publicly listed the book as a resource, and asked him to remove the recommendation. Though neither Hanson nor the police association mentioned Qorsho by name, an inflammatory conservative blog did.

The Rosemount–Apple Valley–Eagan school district told media outlets the book was not part of its curriculum. Only one teacher was using it, the district added, and they would investigate the use of the book further. 

“Essentially, they threw me under the bus with their statement,” Qorsho told me that November. 

On the night of a school-board meeting, Qorsho’s union local, classroom parents, and students organized a protest at the district’s Rosemount headquarters to support her and demand the district take a bolder stance. (The superintendent, Mary Kreger, said in an email to families that the district had not responded to the Facebook post in order “to not further inflame the responses of hate and intolerance that were shared.” Kreger added that while the book was not part of the curriculum, it could be used appropriately with elementary school children.)

When rally organizers handed 11-year-old Nashaad Ali the megaphone, she told the crowd about her favorite teacher.

“She helped her students when they needed help and she would do anything to help us,” Nashaad said. “That’s why Miss Qorsho deserves better than what she’s dealing with right now.” 

Eleven-year-old Nashaad Ali, a sixth-grader in Burnsville schools, spoke in support of her fifth-grade teacher, Qorsho Hassan, at a rally in Rosemount in November 2020. Nashaad told Sahan Journal that Qorsho is “the best teacher in the whole entire world.” Credit: Becky Z. Dernbach | Sahan Journal

‘There were just so many needs, and not enough of anything’

Qorsho hoped the 2021–2022 school year would mark an improvement.

“I thought we were getting to a better place,” Qorsho said when we met at the Eagan cafe. “But we were just experiencing more needs, both emotional and academic needs, and not enough personnel.”

Her school experienced more staffing changes than she could count, on top of staff COVID leaves and high student absence rates, she said. (Buss, the district spokesperson, acknowledged “significant staffing challenges” in terms of absences.)

“There’s just a lot of intermittent learning, and not enough being taken off of our plates,” Qorsho said. “The same level of high expectations, with the most minimal amount of support and resources.”

For example, she said, her district does not provide a literacy curriculum. So when Qorsho switched to a second-grade classroom this year, she had to create a literacy curriculum herself.

(Buss said a new literacy curriculum was implemented during the pandemic. That meant limited professional development opportunities to share the curriculum with teachers.) 

“There were just so many needs, and not enough of anything,” Qorsho told me at the cafe. “And I felt that every day. I had students who were self-harming,” she added, choking up. She paused to collect herself, looking out at the parking lot. “A lot of outbursts. It was hard.”

Salma Hussein has served as a mentor to Qorsho over the past few years. Since 2020, she has been an assistant principal at St. Paul’s Central High School; on July 8, she was named the incoming principal at Gideon Pond Elementary School in Burnsville—the same school where Qorsho taught for three years before losing her job in budget cuts. Salma observed that Qorsho’s empathic nature made it difficult for her to witness inequities in the classroom.

“I tried to encourage Qorsho to take care of herself and not get burned out,” Salma said. “But that’s really hard to do when you care about the work, and you’re in the classroom like Qorsho is. She sees the children. She sees what people talk about in terms of policy, she sees it live out in her classroom. So for her, it was deeply personal.”

Qorsho started to wonder why the education system failed to meet the needs of so many students, especially students of color and those living in poverty. Her thoughts turned sociological and dark: Does society need an underclass of poor and uneducated people? 

She reflected on her own experiences as a student and why she’d ended up teaching. “Why did I go back to the crime scene where I was harmed?”

She’d thought George Floyd’s murder, the pandemic, and rising poverty would serve as a “wakeup call.” Now, she’d come to a different conclusion: “There’s just a lot of comfortable people making decisions that are more than fine maintaining the status quo.”

Qorsho’s spirits hit a low point during the Omicron surge in January 2022. So many teachers and students were out sick that she felt like she was expected to provide childcare at school, rather than education. While some school districts temporarily switched to remote learning to alleviate these pressures, Rosemount–Apple Valley–Eagan schools did not. 

“It just felt very hopeless,” she said. “There was a moment of thinking, when is there light at the end of the tunnel? And at that point, I don’t know. None of us saw it.”

Qorsho’s mother encouraged her to take a leave.

She recalled her mother’s advice as she reflected on her teaching career: “I planted many seeds the past 10 years, and the garden that I have taken care of is in abundance. And I need to just sit back and observe it.”

A retention problem grows

Retaining teachers of color was already a challenge for Minnesota school districts before the pandemic. Advocates say that’s a barrier to addressing Minnesota’s notorious achievement and opportunity gaps. Studies show that when Black students have even one Black elementary teacher, their academic performance increases. They are also less likely to drop out of high school and more likely to apply for college. 

But hiring more teachers of color is not enough to increase their total number in the state’s teaching force. Districts need to retain them, too. The Minnesota Professional Educator Licensing and Standard Board told a state House committee in January 2021 that even as school districts hire more teachers of color, retention problems offset hiring gains. 

Since then, the pressures on teachers have only grown. This spring, Education Minnesota, the state’s largest educators union, surveyed 14 chapters statewide, and asked about teacher turnover. Seven percent of surveyed teachers said they would not be returning to the classroom this fall. Union leaders say this decline is the largest one-year exodus they have witnessed in their careers. (Buss, with Rosemount–Apple Valley–Eagan Public Schools, said nearly all of her district’s departures this year are due to retirements.)

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A Gallup poll last month found that K–12 education workers have the highest burnout rate of any profession in the United States. And those stresses have fallen disproportionately on teachers of color. A February survey from the National Education Association found that 55 percent of teachers, including 62 percent of Black educators, were considering leaving the profession earlier than they had previously planned.

“It’s a matter of not just hiring us,” Qorsho told me when we met in June. “You have to really be intentional about the space that you’re bringing us into, the curriculum that you are providing, the feedback that you’re expecting. And you have to be ready to hear the truth.”

“Qorsho is the best of us. She really is,” Salma said. “She received the best award in the state of Minnesota. And yet, it wasn’t enough to protect, support, retain her.”

Salma continued, “What that tells me is we’ve got work to do. And the system is broken.”

‘She was putting in extra emotional labor that white people aren’t expected to do’

Becca Buck, a Burnsville music teacher, got to know Qorsho when they shared an office space at Gideon Pond Elementary School.

Buck remembers being impressed with Qorsho’s students when they came in for music class.

“You could tell that she worked so hard on empowering her students,” she said. “Students were just so proud to be themselves and to bring their whole selves into the classroom.”

Buck had seen how Qorsho poured more of herself into classroom teaching than anyone else she knew—and then fielded extra responsibilities.

“I knew that she was putting in a lot of extra emotional labor that white people aren’t expected to do,” Buck said. That meant white colleagues frequently asked Qorsho for advice, Buck said. 

But it also meant that she had to defend her teaching from additional scrutiny. “They’re questioning everything she’s doing. There’s this extra policing,” Buck said. As a white teacher, she added, she has not had to face those challenges. “I’m not as burnt out as she is, because I have not had to do that extra emotional labor.”

The firestorm over Something Happened in Our Town took a major toll on Qorsho, Buck said. 

“That was just really devastating,” she said. She recalls Qorsho telling her she did not feel safe in the classroom, and asking the school for a room with a lock. (The school honored her request, Qorsho said.) “Since then, she’s had to kind of look over her back,” Buck said.

When Buck visited Qorsho’s Echo Park classroom in February, after the Omicron surge, she could see that something had changed. Qorsho asked Buck how her year was going. They looked at each other in silence and shook their heads.

“What’s your next step?” Buck recalled asking her. “I just could tell.”

She could see the strain on her friend’s mental health. Qorsho lives with her family in Apple Valley, but at home, she did not feel like a good sister, aunt, or daughter. At the end of the school day, she mostly wanted to be alone. 

Qorsho’s choice to leave the classroom should serve as a warning to school districts, Buck said.

“We talk so much about hiring and retaining teachers of color, and there’s so many, quote, ‘pushes’ for this in the districts,” Buck said. “But where is the follow-up? How are they tangibly being supported?”

“She is the most passionate teacher that I know,” said Becca Buck, a music teacher who worked with Qorsho in Burnsville. “If she is stepping away from teaching, there’s a big issue that is happening.”

“She is the most passionate teacher that I know,” Buck added. “If she is stepping away from teaching, there’s a big issue that is happening.”

The abundant garden

In March of this year, Qorsho took her second-graders on a field trip to the Children’s Theatre Company in Minneapolis. They came to see an adaptation of Something Happened in Our Town.

The performance was full of “beautiful moments,” Qorsho said. As part of the class trip, the theater invited the students backstage to talk with the actors. Since some educator colleagues had come to chaperone the trip, Qorsho took an opportunity to step back and reflect. 

She wished she could have given this experience to her fourth-graders, after the previous year’s book battle. But a year and a half after that firestorm, she could see signs of progress. The previous year, she’d said her district “threw me under the bus” for using the book. 

Now, the district included Something Happened in Our Town as a school resource for Black History Month. The Children’s Theatre Company commissioned a playwright to adapt the book for the stage. And the district had approved her field trip to see it.

“In Islam, we talk about how with every hardship, there’s ease,” she said. “I couldn’t see it at the time when I was going through that experience, but I can see it now. The book gained traction and was made into a play. And I honestly don’t think any of that would have happened without the initial exposure of it.”

Qorsho had wrestled with guilt about leaving the classroom. But at the Children’s Theatre, she could see that she had left a lasting impact. And she could feel the beginnings of something else: healing. 

She would not forget what she had been through. But she could move past it and let it go. She would watch her abundant garden bloom, from a distance.

Becky Z. Dernbach is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.