I’m a quitter. Rather than feeling ashamed about this, I recognize the trait as a survival adaptation. Several times, I’ve been able to admit when the balance between income and wellbeing has tipped in the wrong direction. A person doesn’t have to love his or her job, but that person shouldn’t hate his or her job, either. Some work environments are poor enough to make leaving justifiable, even if doing this means giving up a steady paycheck or abandoning responsibilities. In special education, being able to realize this doesn’t make me an exception.
Twice I’ve walked away from my chosen field. I nearly walked away while still an undergraduate. Irrationally, I went ahead and started a career despite my apprehension. I never found that inspiration some take from each day spent working with students. My day-to-day of working in schools dissolved my dignity. The field found one way after another to wear at my will. I suppose working in the classroom had its encouraging moments, but working in administration took years off my life. No matter how hard I worked, results were the same: disappointing. I had to accept that staying around wasn’t going to make anything better. It was going to continue making me miserable, though.
I was able to walk away each time because I didn’t feel an obligation to stay that was more powerful than the push I felt to leave. To be fair, I had the financial stability to be able to fearlessly quit. Not everyone has this. Some who continue only do so because they can’t afford the risk of leaving. Aside from this advantage, I recognized that any obligation to stay only existed in my head. This was a critical realization I’d like to pass to others who press on without regard for the numerous signs telling them to stop.
Teachers, whether on the cusp of leaving a position or the field as a whole, need to understand that they don’t owe anyone anything. They might feel they do because of connections with students or to a community. This is understandable, but a few points are important here. First, a person’s own mental health should be the priority. No one will be much help to anyone else if overcome by work-related depression or anxiety. Getting out with mental health intact is crucial to quality of life. Next, if a teacher chooses to leave, someone else will be along to pick up the slack. This happens all the time. Colleagues are used to it. Students are used to it. Everyone is replaceable. The belief that any individual is irreplaceable is foolish. Schools move on with or without specific team members. Finally, if a teacher leaves one school for another, there always will be new students to teach. Connections can be made elsewhere. As much as everyone would like to believe otherwise, educational professionals are movable parts in a larger machine.
With all that established, this notion of owing anything must be dismissed. In this field, people tend to dress up teaching as a more than just a job. It can be (and maybe should be if it’s to be done effectively), but at its essence, it isn’t different than anything else anyone does for money. A teaching position is an agreement between a trained professional and school to render services provided to students in exchange for pay and medical benefits. That’s it. After contractual requirements are completed, nothing is owed, at least not in an absolute sense. Teachers might feel they owe something, but I would refer them to the preceding paragraph.
Quitting certainly has repercussions. On the school’s end, resources are strained in the search for a replacement. Former colleagues might have to assume some of the deserter’s previous role. For students, stability is upended. The quality of instruction could suffer under a succession of substitutes. For the teacher who quits, a departure could be a dark spot on a resume. It definitely brings a disruption in income, savings, and benefits. It might even represent a personal failure for some.
The guilt needs to be overcome, though. Anyone who leaves any job causes a rift. This rift gets repaired in every other field just as it does in education. The teacher who feels guilt over leaving might be artificially inflating his or her importance. Some teachers who quit do leave quite a void, but again, the educational wheel keeps turning.
Instead of focusing on the negative effects of leaving, teachers who feel they’ve had enough should consider the negative effects of staying. This might be as self-centered as feeling vital to a school’s mission, but I’d argue it’s more important. Teachers need not be martyrs. If any teacher is taking too severe a psychological beating by trying to tough it out, that teacher needs to consider getting out. When the tolls associated with staying outweigh the benefits of leaving, teachers need to drop the guilt and just go. Too many burned out teachers stick around past the point of effectiveness. Quitting isn’t a crime. It might be the best decision a struggling teacher can make. The business of education will continue in the absence of any one teacher. Life will continue for that teacher, too (and might be better for it).