I’m sure many people didn’t really know what to make of me when I came to the DeKalb County School District.
I had spent four years teaching English, coaching basketball, and coaching volleyball at Berkmar High School in Gwinnett County Public Schools. I had served as the Co-President of the PTSA at the ripe old age of 24.
During my time in GCPS, I had watched dozens of teachers come into the county, many of them from DeKalb County Schools. I listened with morbid fascination as they would explain that they’re been applying to GCPS for years, waiting to get out of DeKalb. They would tell me stories that I thought for sure must be untrue, that perhaps they were leaving out some key detail.
When I got pregnant during my fourth year of teaching, I decided I would try to do the stay-at-home-mom things for a while. My supervisor, Ms. Finnegan, asked me one day if I was planning to return to Gwinnett after I had my little girl. I told her, “No, I think I’m going to try to teach in DeKalb.”
Other teachers who overheard me would look at me with disbelief, they’d try to talk me out of it. I remember thinking: if experienced teachers are leaving DeKalb to come to Gwinnett, who is staying in DeKalb to teach the kids?
Those of you who’ve read any data or research on this know that districts with low-performing schools often have a difficult time retaining teachers. I figured, instead of staying in Gwinnett, where there are barely any vacancies, perhaps I should teach in a district that is short on teachers.
Contrary to whatever you may have thought, I hadn’t watched Freedom Writers too many times (or Stand and Deliver or any of those other movies). It just became almost impossible to think of staying in such a comfortable district while there were other districts that were really having a hard time hanging onto employees. (Um, don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying Gwinnett is perfect – they just have an easier time retaining employees. And hiring new ones.)
Sometimes you need to be outside of something to effect change, while other times require that you be within the system to effect change. For the past two years, I tried the latter of the two approaches: I tried to be a teacher in DeKalb that wasn’t afraid to speak up (even when the result would not be advantageous to my teaching career). I guess I thought that perhaps dysfunction sometimes occurs because people are too scared to raise their concerns, something I had heard was a legitimate fear in DCSD.
While it may have seemed that I simply tried to address issues for the sake of being controversial or combative, I had two filters through which I analyzed each action: 1) How could we help retain teachers in a district with such a hard time maintaining a good reputation? And 2) How could we holistically partner with families and schools to help students achieve more than they historically have achieved?
After my husband and I decided to live in unincorporated DeKalb, right between Doraville and Chamblee, on Buford Highway, I quickly got involved in the community, immediately serving on an education task force commissioned by Doraville’s Mayor Donna Pittman. When I started to meet high schoolers from Cross Keys, they would tell me stories that, above all, made me sad.
It didn’t seem fair that one student — who eventually dropped out — had to sit with her entire class for weeks in the media center because there wasn’t a teacher or a substitute for them.
It didn’t seem right that some of them had no air conditioning in their classrooms, or bathrooms that worked, or laptops that loaded properly.
Or testing and schedules that got messed up.
One morning, when I volunteered with a life-skills group being facilitated by Thrive Youth Development, I met some of the school administrators and staff, and within a few days, they were calling me and offering me an English teaching position at Cross Keys. I hadn’t planned to return to teaching until my kids were in school, but it seemed that the door of opportunity was opening.
I couldn’t really say no. I filled out my online application in April, and eventually signed my contract just days before school started. I didn’t even care that HR had been unable to accurately file my university transcript because it said “Rebekah Cohen” (maiden name) on it instead of “Rebekah Cohen Morris.”
I was just glad I’d be able to teach in the school in my community.
Obviously, I knew it wasn’t going to be easy. I really tried to work with the school administration to help address truly important issues that seemed essential to retaining teachers and helping holistically increase student achievement.
However, that style of proactive problem-solving was great for getting some things done. It was not, on the other hand, effective at building strong relationships between me and my administration.
When I received my contract from the district this past Spring, I really had to think hard about what I should do:
- Should I work in another school not in my community?
- Should I work in a school that had become relationally difficult and hostile? (Someone in school leadership even blatantly lied about me by saying I posted racist, anti-Black memes on my Facebook.)
- Should I leave the teaching profession and work full-time in my neighborhood?
I decided to decline my contract offer because I knew my heart was here, on Buford Highway, and I wanted to focus my limited time as effectively as possible.
I believe that living and working in the same community can allow you to understand the strengths and assets and needs in a way that isn’t possible when you simply drive to a place for work and then drive home.
I love living and working in the same area because I can be involved in my community, and I can be involved in my students’ community simultaneously. At least in my mind, if I were to teach at another school in another part of town, I would want to move there in order to be as effective as possible.
My roots here on Buford Highway are already deep, and to leave would feel premature and ill-timed. That’s why, instead of teaching at Cross Keys, I decided to give my time and dedication to the community in the form of explicit advocacy and engagement and capacity-building.
Part of me wants to go into all the details.
But the other part of me really wants to believe that somehow, at some point, the school district will internally address the issues that surfaced during my time in DeKalb. I want to believe that the right thing will be done for the students, the ones who are much more deeply affected by our district’s problems. I want to believe that it truly is a “new day” in DeKalb.
But at least for now, I think that I will be most effective outside the classroom. I’m still trying to figure out how to improve teacher retention, and I’m still trying to figure out how to close the achievement gap. Perhaps some things just can’t be done from inside a classroom alone.
I will really miss teaching. The kids are still in my heart (and in my neighborhood!) and I’m looking forward to this next exciting chapter of life working with Los Vecinos de Buford Highway (learn more at www.comunidadbuford.org) and CPACS (learn more at Center for Pan Asian Community Services).
Even though I’m no longer officially teaching, I hope you will still join me on this journey to work towards authentic and equal and rigorous education and opportunity for all students in Georgia.