Mindset & Motivation, Edupreneur Resources, Podcast Articles | Jan 24, 2016
5 things I learned from quitting my teaching job twice
By Angela Watson
Founder and Writer
Some of you right now are barely making it through this year, and are so dreading the return to school the following morning that you can’t even enjoy your evenings. The idea of going back to That Place just makes you sick to your stomach. You want to quit more than anything but have no idea what the alternative would be. I get it. I have been in your shoes.
Others of you still love teaching, but you’re feeling an itch to do something different. You want to make a greater impact for kids, or you want a more flexible schedule, or just feel like there’s something more out there for you. I’ve been in that position, too.
You see, I’ve quit teaching twice: once because the school environment was so toxic that I hated my job, and once because I wanted to shift into a different role in education. I’ll share both of those stories today with you and share five things I learned that might be helpful to you, if you’re thinking about quitting for either reason.
Why I quit my teaching job in the middle of the school year
It was just over 10 years ago that I quit my teaching job mid-year, during my sixth year of teaching, and it was one of the hardest decisions I ever made. My administrators were blindsided by the decision–after all, I was an experienced teacher with multiple years in urban schools, and I had a good handle on my classroom. My students were learning, and their benchmark test scores showed strong gains. The kids liked me, their parents liked me.
Things seemed to be fine. But what people didn’t know was that it took EVERYTHING out of me to keep it that way.
I had just moved to the state and had no idea what to expect in my new school. I was disappointed to learn that most of my second graders were reading on a late kindergarten level, and the pressure to get them up to speed was weighing heavily on me. We had no windows in our classroom and were not allowed to have recess or any break at all during the day (per district mandate), so I was stuck in a tiny, dark classroom with a large class of energetic seven-year-olds and zero outlet for all their energy.
Beyond our four walls, the school’s atmosphere was in total chaos. We couldn’t send students to the bathroom alone, as there had been instances of both girls and boys being raped there by other students. One of my kids found a knife on the ground on our way to lunch. An off-duty police officer and a drill sergeant were hired to help control the students in the cafeteria: one of them would bend over and scream in the children’s faces while the other marched up and down the center aisle, yelling into a microphone as the kids threw food around his head.
Not exactly a fun working and learning environment.
Things were quite a bit calmer in my classroom, but student behavior still posed a huge problem. Getting students to respond appropriately to even the smallest request took Herculean, first-day-of-school efforts from me. It was like the movie Groundhog Day. We practiced the same basic routines and procedures over and over, and three-quarters of the class just wasn’t internalizing anything. I was managing the classroom, I was maintaining some sense of order, but I wasn’t teaching.
I wanted to have deep conversations with my students about current events.
I wanted to delve into books with them and watch their eyes light up when they made connections between the text and their own lives.
I wanted to see them develop a sense of curiosity and wonder about the world through investigations in science.
I wanted to teach.
But by the second quarter of the school year, the kids still weren’t anywhere near ready for those things. And so I was still spending the entire day disciplining students and teaching them basic work habits and socio-emotional skills, alone and without support in a chaotic, unsafe school where neither their needs nor mine were being met.
I hit a breaking point where I realized my job was not worth the energy expenditure I had to put out every day. I realized that I was up against too many obstacles, and most of them were insurmountable. Things were not going to improve significantly and I was going to go home exhausted every day because the school culture was so toxic.
And yet the guilt I felt over even thinking about quitting was indescribable. Was I really willing to abandon such a needy group of children in the middle of the year? What kind of person would give up on those kids and look for an easier job just so her own life could be more comfortable?
I felt selfish. I felt like a hypocrite. I felt like a failure as a teacher.
My principal was absolutely furious at me for putting her in such a difficult situation. But even worse was the unexpected reaction of my students. I thought they’d be devastated, but most of the kids barely blinked when I told them Friday would be my last day. Part of their nonchalance was because of their young age, but I realized with a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach that they were so used to losing teachers and other important adults in their lives on just a moment’s notice that this was par for the course.
I got hugs and letters and a few tears on the last day, but the majority of the class was so wrapped up in their own issues that they weren’t even thinking about me. Five minutes before the final bell rang, two of my toughest kids got into a physical altercation over an eraser one of them had thrown, and I was so busy dealing with them and school security that there was no opportunity to have wistful goodbyes. My time at that school ended just as chaotically as it had started.
My decision to quit in the middle of the year would have been much tougher if I’d decided to leave the field altogether. I knew that I wasn’t done with teaching, and within a day of making my decision, I had an interview in a neighboring county and was hired on the spot.
I realize that’s not the norm. But maybe you can relate to this part: the hope that in a different school, the love of teaching would return.
I can tell you without a doubt that it did. My new school had its problems, of course, but I felt safe there. My students were safe. And I was able to really teach, again.
I stayed in the classroom for another five years and even moved back to another urban high poverty school for the last two years of my time as a teacher. Urban teaching is where my heart has always been and will always be. If you have the right leadership and school culture, as I did in those final two years in the classroom, the quality of teaching and learning can be exceptional and they can be fantastic places to work.
“Winners quit all the time. They just quit the right stuff at the right time.” --Seth Godin. Click To Tweet
Why I left the classroom to become an instructional coach
It was right when I had moved to that last school that I published my first book for teachers, The Cornerstone: Classroom Management That Makes Teaching More Effective, Efficient, and Enjoyable. I had been sharing ideas on my website for years and my readers encouraged me to compile everything together and write a book. So, I did, and then I started getting professional development requests on the book.
I remember the first PD I did for a charter school locally in Fort Lauderdale. I spent the morning doing a workshop and the afternoon meeting with individual teachers in their classrooms, coaching them and helping them apply what I’d shared in the PD to their unique teaching situations. One new teacher I sat with just poured her heart out to me, and actually cried, because she was so grateful to have someone who cared and understood her situation.
And that was the day I was absolutely hooked on coaching and mentoring teachers.
I knew in my heart that for at least a time, I wanted to focus on teaching teachers instead of kids. It was a brand new challenge that excited me in a way that teaching children hadn’t done for a while, to be perfectly honest, and it was rewarding in a completely different way.
I had been impacting 25 kids a year in my classroom, but just with this one PD day, I was impacting an entire school full of kids AND changing how their teachers taught every class in the future. I knew — both from the reaction of the teachers I’d taught and also from the uninspiring PD experiences I’d had myself — that the need for instructional coaches who really know and understand teachers is incredibly great. Teachers need someone in their corner, and I wanted to do that beyond just through my website.
I wanted to make supporting teachers my #1 job.
I stayed in the classroom one more year while I planned my next steps and also got married to my husband who was living and working in New York. I moved from Florida to New York to be with him and took on a part-time instructional coach role in the city. I was blessed with the opportunity to not only create change in education on a larger scale but to encourage and inspire my fellow teachers who were so very tired and discouraged. And make more money. And have a more flexible schedule. So as bittersweet and scary as it was to leave the classroom, I truly have never looked back.
As much as I miss the kids, I know there is absolutely no way I could be doing what I’m doing right now with coaching teachers in The 40-Hour Teacher Workweek Club and supporting teachers through my blog, podcast, books, PD, and school-based work and speaking if I were still in the classroom.
Some people manage to do it all, but there’s no way that I personally could have done everything well — my family life and health would have suffered, and my students would have suffered because they wouldn’t have been my #1 work priority anymore. I knew it was the right time for me to move on to a role as an instructional coach and educational consultant, and once again, I have peace about my decisions to quit my teaching job.
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This post is based on the latest episode of my weekly podcast, Angela Watson’s Truth for Teachers. A podcast is like a free talk radio show you can listen to online, or download and take with you wherever you go. I release a new 10-15 minute episode each Sunday and feature it here on the blog to help you get energized and motivated for the week ahead.
5 things I know for sure after quitting teaching twice
So, those are my two experiences with quitting: once in order to find a different teaching position, and once to pursue a different role in education. If you’re considering quitting, I hope it’s helpful to know you’re not the only one facing the transition and to know that someone else has been through this. Here are a few things I’ve learned that might be helpful for you:
1) Sometimes, the school year does not get easier with time, and that’s not necessarily your fault.
Usually, I’ve found that teaching becomes less stressful as the year progresses because students get the routines and make more and more academic progress. Occasionally though, this was not true for me and it’s not true for other teachers I know. Sometimes the class is just a really difficult one and your stress level won’t improve until the following year when you have a different group. Sometimes the school environment is toxic and you don’t have the support you need.
If you’re feeling like quitting because every single day with your students is a struggle, and you have not experienced that in past years, please know that just about every teacher eventually has That Class or teaches in That School, and don’t blame yourself for how difficult the job has been. Some years and some classes are just more challenging than others.
2) It’s not your imagination — teaching IS getting harder.
Our students are coming to school with more and more problems, and the bar for achievement is continually being raised. More things are added to teachers’ plates every year and rarely is anything removed. The job will take more out of you, and there’s an even greater need for support roles in education: non-classroom-based jobs that help meet the growing demands that are being placed on teachers and kids.
3) You are not a bad teacher just because your job feels too hard.
Even the best teachers get put in situations that are physically and mentally exhausting. Feeling like you want to quit does not mean that you were not cut out for the job or are a bad person. The position you’re in just may not be the best one for you, or you may just be having an exceptionally tough year.
4) Quitting does not equal failure.
When I quit my teaching job mid-year at that toxic work environment, I struggled with the decision to quit long after I’d left the job, because I felt like I had abandoned the kids who needed me the most. I had to remind myself over and over: It’s not that I couldn’t do the job, it’s that I chose not to for my own mental well-being and physical health.
I was not a failure, I was successful in taking care of myself. I have many other responsibilities in life in addition to being a teacher, and I was not willing to let all those other areas fall apart because of my job.
5) There are lots of ways to use your talents and gifts to help children.
Many teachers who quit still have a deep desire to work with children and make a difference in their lives. There are many, many ways to do that. Your career as an educator does not have to be over simply because you don’t want to stay where you’re at. When I left the classroom in 2009, I knew I had the chance to make a difference on a larger scale. It’s hard to see that sometimes as a teacher because there are not many promotion opportunities within the average school. But if you think outside the box, there are ways to stay in education without being in the classroom.
What to do if YOU’RE thinking about quitting teaching
I’m not telling you to quit your job. Quitting is not always the right decision: in fact, there were plenty of other low points in my teaching career in which I wanted to walk away but didn’t.
During those times, I found that I was frustrated in the moment, but I knew in my heart that things WOULD get better, that an overbearing principal would transfer to another school (he did), that the transition to a new curriculum would be for the best (it was), or that I could make it through just a few more months with an exasperating parent or student (I did.) One of the best things about teaching is that every fall is a new start. Sometimes the best thing to do is hold on until then.
But for those of you who have emailed asking me whether to quit your job or teach on (and there have been hundreds of those emails over the years), I continue to say: do what you know is best for yourself.
If you’re not sure, keep teaching and form a good game plan. Hang in there as long as you can.
- Read my book Awakened: Change Your Mindset to Transform Your Teaching and learn how to perceive teaching as a less stressful job.
- Read my book Unshakeable: 20 Ways to Enjoy Teaching Every Day…No Matter What and get ideas for infusing your day with meaning, purpose, and joy.
- Read my book Fewer Things Better: The Courage to Focus on What Matters Most to help you get clarity, and figure out how to use your life to make an impact in ways that really matter.
- Join my 40 Hour Teacher Workweek program and get productivity strategies to help you achieve work/life balance so teaching isn’t such an all-consuming job.
- Join Daphne Williams’ Teacher Career Coach course + networking group to help you explore careers beyond teaching, and work for companies part-time until you’re ready to quit.
If and when you hit that breaking point — your gut feeling is to go, and the reasons to leave truly outweigh the reasons to stay — you’ll know, and you should trust that knowing within yourself.
You will hear many voices within the school system telling you to prioritize your work (or more accurately, your students’ test scores) but it will be far less often that you hear the message to prioritize your health and well-being, your lifestyle and family goals, and your professional aspirations, either within education or outside of it.
I’m telling you that today: you have an obligation to your students, sure, but you have an even bigger obligation to yourself to create a life that you want to live.
Living your best life might mean finding another job, or it might mean staying and developing different coping strategies for stress, but my advice is to do whatever it takes to pursue your dreams and aspirations, both professionally and personally. You deserve that.
There is no shame in quitting. Choosing to say no to one thing will leave space in your life to say yes to something else.
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Thank you for your post. I had a very difficult group last year. It is not my place to judge you, as I don’t know how I would have faired in such a class like you had. However, I disagree with your decision to quit in the middle of the school year. While I know what its like to be at a school that doesn’t give you the support you need, it’s understood that you are making a year commitment. If you don’t want to return the following year, then move on. I don’t know how many qualified teachers there are who would be available in the middle of the year. Even if you don’t make the academic progress with them that you want to, you never know what kind of impact you can have on them
I felt terrible about breaking my commitment. But physically and mentally, I just couldn’t stay. Teaching is just one part of my life, and I couldn’t sacrifice everything else I cared about for my job. It was the right decision for me.
As for the kids…ultimately, life goes on. The class I left mid-year graduated from high school this past spring–my absence didn’t stop them from accomplishing their goals. Some other second grade teacher came along and filled my shoes. I was just one teacher out of dozens they had during their time in the K-12 system. I’m not carrying the weight of abandoning them or feeling like their success was wholly dependent on me. It was honor to play a small part in their lives for a short time, but that wasn’t the be-all and end-all for either of us.
Aaron is correct, it is NOT his place to judge you. I don’t know how you could’ve made it any clearer, because it comes across VERY plainly and SINCERELY that this was a decision you made for the sake of your own health and for the sake of your relationships with your family, that the personal cost to you was beyond what you could pay (not to mention, WAY beyond what any of us should be asked to pay)!
I applaud your decision, and wish I had done as you have. Sadly, I stayed the entire year, was assaulted 2 more times by students (making for a total of 5 – and this is Kindergarten),and wore myself out so completely that I have become seriously ill, and will not be able to return to full time work of any kind for at least the coming year.
And, I also wonder if Aaron even read you entire post….?
Thank you again – it was wonderful to find your blog!
Sometimes Aaron you just physically and mentally can’t, the tank is empty. Until you hit this point I don’t think you can understand. It is no longer a choice.
Angela, I chose early retirement after 25 years of being in education; most of those years were spent in the classroom (secondary English). My conditions were really very good; however, teaching 160 students a day and giving them feedback on their writing and research papers took its toll, as well as getting up at 4:30 each morning. I chose to retire early so that I’d end my career on a good note. If I’d stayed, I would have been less of a teacher, unable to give 100% anymore. That would have been unfair to my students. I really enjoyed my students, but I am not sure I would encourage young folks to go into teaching these days, and that’s sad! And this from a teacher who had a great district and mostly good students to work with!
I think you’ve made some important points–there’s a lot to be said for leaving BEFORE you burn out. We all know teachers who should have quit YEARS ago and are doing a tremendous disservice to their students by staying at a job when their heart isn’t in it. I love your decision to go out on a high note.
Thank you for explaining why you left teaching and most of all, for laying it out there openly and honestly that yes, we deserve to live a life that we want to live!!
Teaching kids is awesome, but we are not slaves to the district, to the parents, or to the “system” as a whole. Teaching means we give our time and our expertise consistently during contract hours, but we are not obligated to give up weekends, evening hours, or personal family time “for the kids”. And shame on those who make us feel that way.
At some point, we have our own families to take care of and we need to adhere to those things that make life worth living. Thank you for this post!
Well said, Laura. Thanks for reaffirming the message this message.
Laura, well said…well said…”shame on other’s who think we should lay down our life to please parent’s, the district, or the system. To not be obligated to our family or personal time. I enjoyed your words of truth!
Wow! I think you are in my head! I am in my 6th year and feel like I am done….not done teaching….just done where I am. I really loved my school so much that I was a long-term sub there for 2 years before getting hired. Things have changed so dramatically that it is not the school I loved teaching at anymore. There are many days I am in tears and so stressed that I know it is not good. I almost feel myself checking out.
I am looking at other opportunities because I love teaching, but I also find assisting other teachers, mostly with tech stuff, is where my heart is right now. Thanks for this blog – it really, truly has spoken to my heart and soul.
Angela, you have expressed what I could not. I know in my heart what I need to do. I love #4 on your list. Thank you for stating it so eloquently. I am sharing this.
You’re very welcome!