New Teachers

6 Things to Consider Before Leaving Teaching

The demands of teaching can definitely take a toll—to the point that you might feel like you need a change. But before you make that decision, it’s important to make a clear self-assessment. 

March 29, 2022
AJ_Watt / iStock

About two-thirds of the way through the school year, many teachers feel like quitting. Our beginning-of-the-year energy has flagged, the end is not yet in sight, the demands seem endless and the rewards few—and the pandemic has only exacerbated these feelings. We wonder if we should change grade levels, go back to grad school, find a new career, retire, or sell our worldly possessions and go wandering.

As a longtime teacher and teacher mentor, I have been coaching new teachers who are facing these feelings for the first time. Here are some ideas that I’ve been sharing with them.

6 Things to Consider Before You Decide

1. Your struggle is natural—and may pass. Your weariness is not a personal failure. You’ve been teaching through a pandemic, through unprecedented world events and cultural upheavals. You’ve had to endure constant uncertainty and ever-changing regulations, learn how to teach in radically new ways, and support students and families through their trials. Of course you’re tired. Sometimes just knowing that our feelings are a natural response to our conditions—and the conditions will change—is a comfort.

2. Your feelings may be cyclical. A teaching year tends to have a natural and predictable rhythm—times when we feel energized and others when we feel weary and uninspired. Recognizing these cycles can help us feel less frightened and discouraged. Tracking feelings in a journal or on a calendar can help us recognize our yearly patterns.

A teaching career has bigger cycles, too: Experienced teachers will tell you that challenging years are often followed by seasons of reinvigoration, when we’re excited again about teaching questions, new collaborations, and the fresh potential in each new class and student. Talking to other teachers about the ebb and flow of their enthusiasm can normalize our experience—and promise renewal.

3. The rewards of teaching rarely come in the middle of the year. They often come at the end when a parent sends an email of appreciation, when that goofball pulls off a fantastic final project, when that silent girl with the grouchy face hands you a note telling you that yours was her favorite class. They come years later, in the surprise emails or chance encounters with former students who remind you once again that you have made a difference.

4. Be right-sized. I had a therapist, years ago, who urged me to be “right-sized.” Many of us entered teaching with grand hopes about our ability to transform education and our students’ lives, only to be faced with flawed institutions, the complexity of student needs, and our own limits. We make ourselves too big when we feel that we alone are responsible for the education and well-being of our students. We make ourselves too small when, in our anger or discouragement, we give up working for positive changes. Taking care of ourselves during a difficult teaching time means both taking action and letting go of what we can’t control.

5. Take care of your basic needs. When I feel anxious or overwhelmed, my first impulse is to start ruminating on changes I might make; I fear I’m not living my life’s purpose. I can’t say exactly what my purpose is, but I’m certain I’m not fulfilling it. Only recently have I learned that, often, what I most need is not to upend my life but to take care of a basic need: drink more water, move my body, take a nap, call a friend. I am slowly learning to ask my body and emotions for that one thing I most need that day, and the simple answers surprise me: A healthy lunch. A day without grading. A silly game with my students.

6. Take baby steps. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t explore new career options, but we can give ourselves permission to begin with baby steps. Want to follow your dream of being a poet or a musician? Give yourself 15 minutes a day to write or practice your guitar. Considering becoming an administrator? Spend a half hour a week researching graduate programs. Want to switch professions? Take a personal day to shadow someone in a position that interests you. Do just enough exploration that you feel happy and energized; stop before you feel obsessive, worried, or overwhelmed.

Of course there are times in our lives to take on new roles, have new adventures, and make radical change. My main message is this: If possible, make big life decisions when you are calm and clear-thinking. Years ago, I read Richard Carlson’s book Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff... and It’s All Small Stuff, and this line stayed with me: “When you’re in an ill mood, learn to pass it off simply as that: an unavoidable condition that will pass with time, if you leave it alone. A low mood is not the time to analyze your life.”

What many of us feel right now is more than a low mood, but I think the wisdom stands. Now might be the time to pause our worry about the future and focus on simple ways to calm and care for ourselves—and each other. If possible, wait to make big life decisions until you have the space, and clarity, to discern the next best steps for you.

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