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Teaching Tips & Tricks   |   Nov 22, 2012

Why I quit my teaching job mid-year (no, it wasn’t the testing)

By Angela Watson

Founder and Writer

Why I quit my teaching job mid-year (no, it wasn’t the testing)

By Angela Watson

I wanted to write a post for those of you who are barely making it, and are so dreading the return to school the following morning that you can’t even enjoy your evenings off. The idea of going back to that place just makes you sick to your stomach. I get it. I have been in your shoes. And I’ll share with you what happened when I quit my teaching position at exactly this point in the school year almost ten years ago.

What my teaching situation was like

Quitting 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.

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 sargeant 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 behaviors 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.

Why I quit my teaching job mid-year (no, it wasn’t the testing)

My breaking point

I remember the exact breaking point. I hadn’t used our social studies books yet that year, but there was a particular passage I wanted the kids to check out as an intro to our activity. I said to the class, “Okay, when you hear the magic signal, you’re going to take out your social studies books and turn to page 35.” At the mention of the word social studies, one student burst into tears and crawled under desk so he could bang his head against the floor. (Later I learned this was a reaction to social studies he’d begun having in first grade and his previous teacher had no idea why.) Another boy murmured something under his breath, causing all the children in his vicinity to say, “Awwww…Andre called you the B word!”

Simultaneously, another child took out his social studies book but accidentally dropped it on the floor, causing the children around him to laugh. “What you laughing at, punk? Shut the F up!” and then punched the kid nearest him in the arm. The child who was punched did the same thing right back. The two of them sat there glaring at each other, and the children around them were either frozen in anticipation or egging them on to a fight.

Almost every child in the classroom was now either disrupting the lesson or distracted by the disrupters. One child had her hand up asking to go the bathroom. Another had his hand up and was pointing at the child next to him, who was gleefully ripping out pages of the social studies book. Yet another child was tapping me on my arm and asking me to repeat the page number.

As I took a deep breath and made a decision about which fire to put out first, I heard a scuffle outside the door and a voice come over the intercom. “Lockdown, code 3. Lockdown, code 3.” That meant the police were pursuing a suspect in the neighborhood, and I had to cover the small window on our door and move the class away from it.

I wanted to teach…and THAT wasn’t teaching

It was in that moment that I knew my job was not worth the energy expenditure I had to put out everyday. 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 for the entire year.

I was managing the classroom, I was maintaining some sense of order, but I wasn’t teaching.

It wasn’t that I was incapable of handling it. That day, I could have had the class back on task within a minute or two after all those interruptions. But those things happened all day long, every day. 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 after seven weeks of school–almost the entire first quarter–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.

The worst part? All teachers who were new to the district were required to stay in the same school for THREE YEARS. Sticking it out until June wouldn’t have done me any good, because I would have had no choice but to return to the same situation again in the fall. And again the following fall. I was trapped in that level of stress for another two and a half years, and the thought of going in for even one more day after the long weekend passed was enough to make me physically ill.

And yet the guilt I felt over even thinking about quitting was indescribable.

Making the decision to quit my teaching job

Was I really willing to abandon such a needy group of children in the middle of the school 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.

But I had to do it.

My principal was shocked and furious, vowing that I’d never work in the district again (Not for a million dollars, lady!, I wanted to yell.)

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 in 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.

What happened after I quit my teaching job: a fresh start in a new school

My decision to quit in the  middle of the year would have been much tougher if I’d had to leave the field altogether. I know that’s the situation for many of you who are reading this post and unable to find other teaching jobs. I quit in a year when there were far more teaching positions then qualified teachers. You’re going to groan when I tell you that within a day of making my decision, I had an interview in a neighboring county and was hired on the spot.

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 probably would have stayed longer, except I got married, moved to New York, and started doing instructional coaching). I even chose to spend my last two years as a classroom teacher in another inner city school.

Urban teaching is where my heart has always been, and will always be. I know that it doesn’t have to be a nightmare. These days I work with teachers in some of the toughest areas of Brooklyn, Harlem, and the Bronx, and I see the amazing things they’re able to do. The quality of teaching and learning in many high-poverty schools is truly exceptional and they can be fantastic places to work.

5 things to know if you’re thinking about quitting YOUR teaching job

There’s no clear-cut moral to this story, I suppose. I’m hoping it’s helpful just to know you’re not the only one and someone else has been through this.

But there are a few other things I want you to know if you feel like quitting teaching right now or are still feeling tremendous guilt about having quit:

1) 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.

2) 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. That’s very normal.

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.

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.

Is quitting really the answer?

Now, to be clear: 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. Hang in there as long as you can.

Read Awakened: Change Your Mindset to Transform Your Teaching and learn how to perceive stress differently.

Read Unshakeable: 20 Ways to Enjoy Teaching Every Day…No Matter What and get ideas for infusing your day with meaning, purpose, and joy.

Join The 40 Hour Teacher Workweek Club and get productivity hacks to help you achieve balance.

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 shouldn’t ignore that realization if you can find another option.

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. I’m telling you that today.

It 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 avoid complete burn out. I think as teachers we owe that to ourselves.

I’d love to read your stories on this topic. Have you ever quit mid-year? Are you thinking about doing it? What advice would you give teachers who are in that position?

Angela Watson

Founder and Writer

Angela created the first version of this site in 2003, when she was a classroom teacher herself. With 11 years of teaching experience and more than a decade of experience as an instructional coach, Angela oversees and contributes regularly to...
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  1. It was so refreshing to read the main story, and the comments from other teachers.

    We are highly-educated professionals, tasked with an important mission, but we are not given the resources or authority to do our jobs effectively, the basic respect that other professionals receive, or the wages to match.

    Any teacher who finds him or herself in a stressful situation would do well to resign. There are other schools and districts, and beyond the world of public education, other jobs. It is hard to find a professional-level job with longer hours, less status, and a lower wage than teaching.

  2. I Want to quit my job as a college professor, NOW. It’s driving me crazy, my life is destroyed, I can’t handle it anymore….
    I’m new to this field…I’m working as a college professor for 4 months, till now, but I feel very bad. In the end of the semester students do a survey online, and their comments about me was terrible; that I’m incompetent, incapable and incommunicative; In fact I did my best, but I didn’t have experience and now I want to quit (as a looser of course).
    What do you think? Do you think that I would finish this year and than quit? Or should I quit Now,in the middle of the second semester?
    Thank you very much

  3. I have been teaching in a public Jr./Sr. high school for 15 years.
    I am currently teaching seventh and ninth grade computer classes.
    For the past several years I have been seriously considering a career change
    as I feel burnt out and exhausted. Student behavior gets worse every year
    and I feel like I accomplish very little in my classroom after all the interruptions
    and distractions. The apathy and disrespect are taking its toll. It seems the older
    I get, the less tolerance I have in the classroom. The other teachers in my department
    typically have fewer students in their courses and always have the higher achieving
    students to deal with, which can make for a much nicer day. I know I am the workhorse
    and this never seems to change.

    I began teaching at age 33, and I have a business background in insurance and
    banking. I have been on some job interviews and even had two offers that I
    really thought hard about, but when the time came to give my acceptance I just
    couldn’t do it. Financially I understand that I will not be where I am today and
    that belt tightening is unavoidable. I am a single male so I am only supporting
    myself at this time. I guess my worry is that I am giving up a pension and security
    to jump back into the business world and such a volatile economy. My colleagues
    tell me I am crazy for jumping ship with such a horrible economy right now.

    There are times I don’t want to walk into that building and face the day, but
    I push myself to do it. I do enjoy teaching and working with technology but if
    only the students would let me do my job.

  4. I quit mid-year as well, and wanted to add my $.02 because I never, ever thought I would. I got into teaching through an alternative certification program and found a job at an urban high school in Chicago. I had 5 weeks of training before I started. It was rough from the very beginning.
    I was assigned an extra subject to teach a few days before school started (not uncommon), had no projector screen for my classroom (bought a bed sheet and hung it up, but at least I had a projector), and had no access to the online system for the first month or two (couldn’t input attendance, didn’t have a list of students, etc.). By the way, discipline at the beginning of the year is next to impossible if you don’t have a list of students, especially if they’re being switched from class to class.
    Anyway, within the first month they start throwing things at me. First, textbooks and the CDs that come with them. My stapler. Then some of them brought eggs and a milk carton which they pelted at me. I was very green at the time so I was in a state of shock when this happened. I didn’t quit – instead I just cleared my room of everything so they had nothing to throw at me.
    I took a day off in late October (school year started in September) because the job was killing me, I was considering quitting. I get a text from another teacher that my students had broken into some supplies in my classroom and were throwing them around the school. I went back and yelled at them, which was actually somewhat effective… I learn to yell.
    At this point I’m working ~110 hours / week, staying until 11 pm on Friday’s, taking graduate classes for my credential, and making an hour of parent phone calls every day, and 3-4 hours on weekends (I make so many that I max out my cell phone plan and have to buy an unlimited one…). I keep this up until I quit at the end of January. I also have 10-15 people observing my classroom regularly, but their advice is mostly nonsense because they don’t realize that my students and I are at war.
    Anyway, some kid gets into a cabinet when my back is turned and spills a toxic, cancer causing, highly dangerous chemical. When I see this I am horrified (I am a trained chemist and knew what it was on sight). I am sick to my stomach and start cursing like a sailor (not proud of this). This was the worst thing I’ve ever seen in my life. I tie plastic bags to my shoes and put on my gloves and clean it up. Not my best day.
    I scare them by doing a class on lab safety. For some reason they all now want to work with chemicals. Not going to happen.
    I buy speakers for my class so we can watch useful YouTube videos. When my back is turned they are stolen. My briefcase is ransacked and my headphones are stolen at the same time. I call up a few friendly parents (remember, I have been making phone calls nonstop the entire year) and ask them to question their kids. One of the kids saw who did it.
    The police arrest the perpetrator, search him, and recover my headphones but not the speakers. The perpetrator claims that the kid who saw him do it sold the headphones to him that morning (impossible because the kid and his dad were with me). He refuses to admit his guilt, even when caught red handed. The cop asks me if I want to send him to prison. I decline.
    Instead I file a police report and keep it on file in case he ever gives me trouble again. He never does, though like many of my students he simply disappears (probably transferred to another school).
    Now it’s the week before Thanksgiving and my father comes to visit me. I’m in bad shape. I’m working every waking hour and living off of diet soda, crackers, and pizza (Chicago has great pizza, though!). He isn’t happy. He basically saves my life by co-teaching with me for a week and buying me a printer, a jacket, and other essentials (and making me eat real food). FYI I moved to a new city 2000 miles away for this job, so I have no family or friends nearby. Support network is so important.
    Anyway, December comes and things are calmer for the most part. One of my female students is mad about her grade and curses me out for 5 minutes in front of my entire class and storms out. 2 of her friends join her. I call their parents. This is old hat now.
    I spend my entire Christmas vacation writing curriculum. (we don’t have a written curriculum at my school). This facilitates more teamwork (the other teachers are great, but they are so swamped with their own problems they can’t help me much).
    I come back and things are much calmer. I’m pretty unshakeable now. If a kid gives me problems I kick them out of the classroom for the entire period and then I call their parents that night. This is actually effective. I’m more prison guard than teacher though.
    Now it’s late January. Two of my best students get into a fight before my class starts (I haven’t had a fight in my class for a good, long while). One of the students puts his hands on the other’s neck and raises her up off the floor (she’s very small FYI). I yell at him and kick him outside the classroom. Then I send him to the dean.
    The kid’s grandfather shows up the next day. I tell the grandfather that it’s not OK for his grandson to put his hands on another person. The grandfather tells me that I only think this because I probably got beaten up in school (I try not to laugh). Then he tells the dean that growing up in this neighborhood if someone hits you, you always respond in kind. The dean sympathizes, and tells the parent that I grew up in another place and was taught differently. The kids are given a slap on the wrist.
    I go back to the dean later (he’s a great guy BTW, pretty much holds the school together, and a friend) and ask him if the grandfather was serious about the responding with physical violence in turn thing. The dean tells me “it’s a black thing.” (FYI he’s black himself, though I disagree with him – it’s a poverty thing). At this point I’m done.
    I give my principal my resignation letter. I didn’t mind the long hours, I loved (some of) my students, enjoyed the challenges of teaching, and I could handle the disrespect but not the disillusionment. As a classroom teacher you and the students are on opposite sides of a never ending struggle for classroom management, but there’s a line that neither of you is supposed to cross. Unfortunately they crossed it and I was afraid that I would too.
    When I told my students I was leaving I got mixed reactions. Some were sorry to see me go but they understood. Others celebrated and said good riddance. I cleaned up my classroom and walked out the door.
    It’s been 2 months and I’m only now fully coming to terms with the whole ordeal. I gave up my entire life in Chicago and returned home (which I said I would never do). Plus, I’m 24 years old, I left my job mid year, and I have no teaching credential. When I was in college I taught and tutored for years and I thought I’d do this for my entire life. I never thought I’d leave. There’s no easy way back into the profession for me and I don’t know if I want to go back (I can’t afford a regular certification program, either in terms of time or money).
    Anyway, I put this up here because I wanted to add some nuance to whether it’s OK to leave your teaching job. Sometimes things play out in ways you can’t possibly imagine. Don’t judge other people because you don’t know what went into their decision. A human being can only take so much abuse and still show up with a smile on their face.
    And BTW, most kids will have many teachers in their lifetime. I was only 1 of their 7 teachers for that year and I gave my boss enough time to find a replacement (I was replaced the day after I left by a veteran teacher). They aren’t psychologically scarred because of the whole experience. If anything they are probably happy to have me gone because now they’ll probably get less homework.

    1. I am considering quitting early, but I’m the favorite teacher. I have been picked on by a co-worker who the administration honors over my own word. CC has made things harder, but I keep thinking of my kids. They would be devastated; yes they’re a mess, yes, I’m on high blood pressure pills for the first time in all my life, and have panic attacks…and yes that’s not good either. But I don’t want to spend anymore money in certification when I want to change careers. Caesar, you’re the first posting I can connect with. I tutored for years and came in on alternative certification; now I’m being crucified. Even with representation, I don’t think I want to go any further. I have put myself out there, and think if I can make it to April-May, I can leave. But there are kids really trying, and once they graduate, I want to bounce so I can live and be me again. Thank you Angela for sharing, and helping me to deal with the guilt. Thank you Caesar for helping me to calm down.

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