Teachers Who Quit Shouldn’t Feel Guilty

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, I’m far from alone in realizing this.

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 didn’t find enough of that inspiration some take from each day spent working with students. My days working in schools dissolved my dignity. The field found one way after another to wear at my will. I suppose working in the classroom yielded some encouraging moments, but these were countered by disappointments. If the classroom deflated me somewhat, working in administration took years off my life. A sad truth I uncovered was that matter how hard I worked, results were the same. 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 stay 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 with 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 depression or anxiety exasperated by work-induced stress. 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 and communities to serve. 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 more and might experience genuine anguish at the thought of fleeing their posts, 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.

These practical ramifications are tough to ignore, especially those that impact finances. Hesitance is understandable. Teachers need to overcome the guilt, 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 without them.

Instead of focusing on the negative effects of leaving, teachers who feel they’ve had enough should consider the negative effects of staying. 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 overall fallout 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).

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Teachers Who Quit Shouldn’t Feel Guilty

13 thoughts on “Teachers Who Quit Shouldn’t Feel Guilty

  1. Dear Jeffrey, thanks for this beautiful blog entry. You don’t have to call it quitting. All you did was change your mind! You have that right! We all do! Students have the right to change majors. They can change schools, too, or stop school altogether. I did. Eighteen years later, I started up again, surprise surprise! You are not a failure. You still have memories of being a teacher, and years of experience and wisdom to share with the world. I sure appreciate what you share with us all, and I have never even met you. As you know, I changed my mind after being a devoted Revolving Door Mental Patient for 34 years. I encourage anyone to do the same! Should felons stay felons, or walk away? Should addicts stay addicted forever, or kick the bad habits? I quit driving when I was around 30, got a dog, quit smoking, and have been a happy pedestrian ever since. I sure am glad of that. Happy new life to all!

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    1. Thank you, Julie, for the thoughtful and detailed comment. I admire your ability to trim what isn’t necessary from your life. And fear not: I don’t think of myself as a failure for walking away from the K-12 world.

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      1. Oddly, Jeffrey, a relative of mine works in special ed as an administrator. But she won’t speak to me anymore. I have no clue why. Quite a bit of my family excommunicated me and I didn’t even do a thing to cause it. It’s not possible. There was no communication, no interaction. How, then, could I have done anything? I think they simply decided I wasn’t a good person, and that was that. They shut me out. Bye bye. This saddens me, but I have come to the realization that there is nothing I can do to change it. Once their minds were made up that door slammed shut. I tried banging on it for years, but that only hurt my fists. I guess working a job that isn’t working out can hurt your fists, too, eh?

        Julie

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  2. Jeffrey, stop on my innermost thoughts. Continue to spread this wisdom. I know too many teachers who stay in spite of how sick (mentally and physically) the system is making them. Yet, they stay because of guilty feelings imposed upon them by others. I remember a first year teacher saying that her husband felt as if she was a quitter if she left the school as I was leaving it. I shared (like Julie stated) that I was making a choice to not have this kind of stress in my life anymore. Bravo to you and your beautiful writing!

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  3. KriKe says:

    Hello,
    I came across your article and appreciated your depth of wisdom. I struggle with staying or leaving the classroom (high school special education). I had my PIP last week that went well. There was so much I truly wanted to say to the director, but I could not. It is this anxiety of the unrealistic parent expectations that I could not express: Why is my child still reading on a 7th-grade level and a senior in high school? You know he is going to college! When this child was in 9th grade, the reading level was that of a fourth grader. That is just the tip of the iceberg. Parents expect me to fix the learning or emotional deficits. I come home moody and need space, so I don’t take out my issues on those I love. That is not healthy! Again, I thank you for this article. It inspired some much-needed soul searching.

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    1. I’m glad the article was of some benefit to you, but I’m sorry you’re wrestling so much with your position. What many parents (and administrators) often fail to realize is special education isn’t intended to fix disabilities. It’s meant to provide access to an appropriate education by providing accommodations and modifications that minimize the impact of disabilities. Sure, teachers want students to make progress. The law says this has to happen as well. However, special educators aren’t in the business of completely correcting reading disabilities or dramatically increasing IQs. I understand the disappointment parents feel. They want their kids to read/do math/whatever better. They get confused when schools fail to help their kids make progress comparable with kids who don’t have disabilities. If special educators could really do this, there’d be a hell of a lot fewer kids receiving services. Special education isn’t the remedy parents want it to be.

      Coping with this was a significant contributor to my exit from the field. Butting heads with irrationality—even when it’s coming from a hopeful place—was endlessly frustrating. I too came home from work dazed from it, sometimes staying silent for an hour or two before I could regroup. While serving as a special education liaison, I stopped exercising, started eating poorly, and generally disliked being awake some days. Pushing the rock up the hill isn’t worth the toll it can take on mental and physical health, at least for me.

      I’m not you, though. Each teacher has to negotiate this balance. Whatever you decide to do per your predicament, I hope you find a resolution that gives you some peace and preserves your dignity.

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      1. To the teacher who wrote in, I was a music major early in my schooling. I went to two colleges to study music, a large state u and a small, elite private college. Now this was way back when no one really gave a hoot who had what LD. I knew immensely talented kids, kids who could really play, who could not add nor subtract. I mean they were seriously math-challenged. And I knew some who read at the junior high level but wow could they ever play. I am not capable of hitting a ball with a bat at all and you would not want me on your baseball team.

        I wish disability had never been invented. Now it’s black and white. You are or you aren’t. And not only that, in the USA, you need a doctor’s note to prove you are. To top it all off, you are, but no one can ask just how. And once they know, they’ll discriminate, but they won’t admit it.

        I think teachers need more power and doctors need less. Teachers should get paid more. And to the teacher who wrote in, I’m sure the kid you mentioned will do okay and the parents should not be pointing their fingers at you.

        Julie

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      2. Krike says:

        Yes, I agree with your standpoint. That particular student graduated with scholarship money majoring in accounting. I tell all my kids how or what they do in school will evaporate when they graduate. It means I do not judge nor should they be judged how successful they will be just by their 4 years of high school. The pressure in those four years is heavy. Parents put pressure on their own kids too. They feel stress and it has to go somewhere. It is hard to succeed when education is a polarizing and political issue. There are humans involved here, right?

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      3. I question the quality of education these days because I think the schools are relying too much on standardization and cookie-cutter-ideals of what it means to be educated. In ten years none of it is going to matter. Some 30 years after I graduated high school no one cares what my grades were nor what I studied there. Sometimes employers want to see the diploma. This is hard to believe because to me, a kid, it was a meaningless piece of paper. I was a foolish 17-year-old so I tossed my diploma out. Decades later, that is the paper employers want to see, certainly not the grades, not my stellar test scores nor what I cared about nor whom I loved back then nor what mattered most to me.

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