ETOWAH COUNTY, Ala. (WIAT) — At the end of May, Danielle Waddell-Cranford took down “the fun lights” that had illuminated the faces of her students all year. She packed up her book collection, the notes her students had written her, and the pictures they’d drawn throughout the year. She looked around her empty Etowah High School classroom, she said, and she left for the last time.

Cranford is one of the many Alabama teachers who choose not to remain in the profession after just a year or so in the classroom.

Cranford, 26, began teaching in August 2020, at a time when educators across the globe were shifting to online instruction in the wake of a global pandemic. Despite the challenges, Cranford said she enjoyed her job.

“There was a little bit less pressure then because everybody knew we were just trying to make it through,” Cranford said. “I was also just getting my feet wet and getting comfortable in the classroom.”

When Cranford’s second year of school came around, things became more difficult. Cranford began to better understand, she said, the additional expectations that are placed on educators outside of the teaching they’re trained to do.

She began to see that learning wasn’t the focus of our educational institutions in the way she hoped it would be.

“I couldn’t focus on things that I wanted to do, like teaching kids how to write and speak properly,” she said.

Instead, she said, leadership focused on addressing minor behavior issues, enforcing dress codes, and obsessing over other, noneducational outcomes.

“If a girl shows up to my class and has holes in her jeans, I’m not telling her to put duct tape over it or call home,” Cranford said. “That’s taking more time away from her learning than it is for me to just let her sit there.”

Cranford said that outside events, too, impacted her ability to be effective in the classroom.

She said the political obsession with “critical race theory” made her more hesitant to openly discuss race, even though the topic was in the state’s approved curriculum.

That was the case when Cranford and her students read “Warriors Don’t Cry,” a memoir by Melba Pattillo Beals recounting her experience integrating Little Rock’s Central High in 1957.

“I teach in a very conservative area, so I get nervous talking about race,” she said. “And I want to make sure that my students of color feel safe and protected in my classroom.”

She said she was never approached about the content of her lessons, but the political climate did impact her.

Less than half of new teachers stay in the profession for 3 years or more. This map shows retention rates across the state. (Alabama Commission on the Evaluation of Services)

“It was always in the back of my mind,” Cranford said. “Am I going to be the reason this book gets pulled out of the curriculum? Am I going to say something that’s ‘not right?'”

For Cranford, the mass shooting in Uvalde, which resulted in the death of 19 children and 2 adults, was another confirmation that she’d made the right decision in stepping away from the classroom. She said the conversation around arming teachers has shocked her.

“We don’t trust our teachers to teach our students whatever the content is, but we want to give them guns to protect them?” Cranford asked. “It’s just one more thing on their plate that they have to deal with.”

She said that she felt like she had to leave the profession because the U.S. education system is “deeply flawed and broken and ineffective.”

Cranford wrote about her decision, explaining, as she said, “Why I Quit.”

“Do not be afraid to walk away from something when you know it isn’t right,” Cranford wrote. “Sometimes it’s time to stay and fight, but you have to know when it’s time to walk away.”

Cranford’s not alone in her decision. According to state statistics, less than half of new teachers stay in the profession for three years or more.

“Less than 20 school districts in Alabama have a first-time teacher retention rate above 60% since 2016,” a state report said.

Cranford said that if political leaders want more teachers to remain in the profession, they need to better understand the challenges that they face in the classroom.

“When you’re not in a classroom every day, you think that the answers are simple,” she said. “We can just ban this or say that or do this and poof, the problem is gone.”

Political leaders and administrators need to listen closely to the needs of teachers and students, too.

“They have really good ideas about how to make things better,” she said.