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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. I quit after the first two weeks of my seventh year teaching and experienced true grief over the decision, but I had to put my health first. We were under yet ~another~ new administration, discipline was out of control and getting progressively worse year after year, and I had 38 kindergartners in a room without enough tables or chairs. I just knew that I could not go through another year of chaos, stress, and maltreatment. Eight months later, my first thought is still “Oh no, we can’t have recess!” when it rains and I can’t resist going down the school supplies isle. I’m still very sad about the whole situation.

  2. Wow, I just finished reading some of these stories. Here I am after 17 years trying to buy years so I can retire early. I love being a teacher but the workload is more than most people can handle. I’m going to teach another year and hope things get better but the job has definitely caused health issues related to stress. Sometimes I wonder how my husband has put up with me because I feel like I’m always doing “school stuff.” Those of you with young children, I don’t know how you do it and I give you a lot of credit. I love working with children and will continue when I retire but not at this pace.

  3. Without a job lined up, I quit from my teaching job when the school year had already started. I never got to say goodbye to my students, fellow teachers and staff. I simply picked my purse and personal belongings went to the principal’s office and tendered my resignation right on the spot. I was teaching in an urban charter school. I must admit I had left the school unprofessionally because I had blindsided everybody including my students. I just reached the point that I couldn’t take it anymore. I have been in the teaching profession for almost 10 years, two years of which was spent in special education. When I left the building that day, I felt a heavy weight on my shoulder had been lifted and went home with a smile on my face chanting on my way: no more school, no more books, no more administrator’s dirty looks. I miss my students but only very few of them. Most of them just don’t give a **** when a teacher quits midyear. They just think it’s normal and that the school can always find a replacement. Fast forward, I am still unemployed, not because I am unemployable but because I couldn’t figure out what I really wanted to do as most of my working years have been spent in teaching. I just don’t want to go back to teaching anymore but I also couldn’t imagine myself doing something else. I also think that my quitting midyear has hurt my chance of getting a teaching job. Maybe.

    If you are reading this and thinking of quitting from your teaching job, yes, go ahead and quit but make sure you know what you want to do next and you have back up plans, enough funds to survive the days figuring out the changes you want to happen. It’s been hard for me but I am just glad that these things are happening now that I am still single and I only have myself to tend and be concerned about.

    Now, I would like to ask what other job options for former teachers. Thanks for reading.

  4. In a Bind

    I have been a teacher for twelve years. For nine years I worked with special education students with significant emotional, social, and academic challenges. About half of these students were physically aggressive. My caseload averaged about seven students, and I always had two I.A.s. My sudents were all “mainstreamed” for at least 75% of the school day. I had to collaborate daily with multiple classroom teachers and specialists, and I was in frequent contact with parents, some of whom were as challenging (if not more) as their kids. Despite the challenges of this work, I was good at it, and
    did feel that my program was much better supported than most programs in the district. By my 9th year though, I was restless, and I wanted a change and returned to grad school.

    I got a 2nd Master’s and switched to teaching middle school humanities in an urban school. While I did well in my grad program and with student teaching in an urban school, I have done poorly in my new position. At the end of my first year, I blamed my challenges with discipline and the long work
    hours, on my lack of experience. During my second year, I actively sought out help but received no support from my administrators. No adminstrators visited my classroom all year except for the two required half hour observations. It wasn’t until the end of the
    year when I received a poor rating in classrrom management that my supervisor promised a coach for me the following year. I should have left then, but I felt ashamed by my evaluation and felt that it would keep me from being hired elsewhere. So, I spent last summer recharging and started the new year with optimism. I did get a coach, but it didn’t really help. My workload actually increased because of the after school meetings with my coach and weekly check-in nettings with my
    supervisor. I wasn’t able to grade, create work material & anchor charts, or correspond with families – and often even lesson plan – during these meetings. On top of that, my district increased the number of dept. “planning” meetings, which, at my school, basically end up being gripe and gossip sessions
    plus a lot if loose brainstorming which results in great ideas that are never followed through upon. So, I was basically working 6 to 6 daily + 8 hours on the weekend, and was still unable to keep up. I experienced major burnout by winter break but kept trudging through until the spring when I was forced to take extended medical leave because of the toll the stress took on my health. At the end if the year I was placed on probation status.

    I have spent this summer tutoring ESY (“extended school year” for students with IEPs who haven’t made adequate progress toward their goals) students , teaching an ESY class, and applying for jobs,
    but I have not landed anything. I feel like my probation status is like the Scarlet Letter even though I
    am looking for special education jobs I know I could excel at. Comparing most Sp Ed jobs to secondary reg ed jobs is like comparing apples and oranges. Both, of course, have their challenges,
    but the challenges are extremely different. I cannot transfer to a different job in my own district because of my status. Now, school is about to resume, and I am sick to my stomach about returning to the job that has made me miserable (and an ineffective teacher!) but resigning would carry a huge
    toll. I am single and have a mortgage, car and school loan repayments, a health issue that needs ongoing treatment, and no family who can help me out financially. Unemployment could quickly lead to the loss of my insurance, car, and home. I would not qualify for unemployment compensation or be able to refinance my home. My therapist and a career counselor both have advised me to hold onto my job, but I fear that things will go even worse. I am close to the point of taking to huge financial risk of resigning.

  5. Oh wow, Skylark. I really feel for you. I don’t know if your private system is any better but maybe it’s worth looking at applying to the private school system too. Also, can you get your doctor or therapist to authorize a stress leave?

    I’m really sorry you’re going through this. Public education can be so brutal to its employees, uses them all up and then offers no support when they stumble. Take care of yourself and my advice would be that it you cannot stomach going back to school, take the financial risk. Talk to your bank about missing a few payments, take a loan, downsize, whatever you need to do to protect your mental health. Sending you all good wishes.

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