The Guilt of Leaving Teaching
Letting down the kids; telling my parents and what do I even call myself?
When I was teaching, one of the biggest tasks of my job was ‘marking’. Not the traditional formative assessment whereby, I carted boxes and boxes from my car boot to my kitchen table with regimented frequency. No, not that kind of marking. The thing I marked the most was my time.
I spent a wealth of my time in the classroom counting down. Starting with the clock watching, captured with painful accuracy by D H Lawrence and the yearning for the bell to ring. The marking of time also started from Monday morning until Friday evening and that weekly countdown - well, that sat within a half-termly countdown until we finished for any given holiday. All of the mini-countdowns were then underpinned by the overarching countdown to the big one - the six weeks summer holidays!
My teaching life consisted of marking time as well as books.
And with peak irony, when I finally reached the light at the end of the tunnel which was a weekend or a week off, a summer holiday, I managed a couple of carefree days and then started dreading the return until the countdown could begin again!
So, why did I spend so much time fixating on ‘marking time?’ What was it that made me so desperately unhappy within the classroom that my only incentive was to survive until the next break?
On reflection, it was, that despite a period of 10 halcyon years from 1994 until about 2004, teaching had become an insurmountable job that had working hours, inside and outside of the classroom, exceeding 60 hours a week; I was drowning to keep up even with that level of dedication.
But more than that, whilst drowning, I was taking innocent casualties down with me: the raising of my children; friendships that were being neglected; extended family never seeing me; days out and family time marred by me not being present and a lifestyle of healthy balance that I only ever talked about, was eluding me daily.
And yet, with all of that considered, the thought of leaving the classroom, the thought of being anything other than a teacher - filled me with absolute guilt, shame and abject fear because I could not imagine myself being anything other than a teacher.
Furthermore, I couldn’t even begin to imagine what would happen to my classes if I left. The thought of telling my mum and dad I was no longer going to be a teacher, triggered me with the same level of fear as when they caught me smoking at the age of 15. But the main thing I couldn’t process was - if I wasn’t a teacher, then who even was I?
I think the dichotomy lies within the fact that teaching isn’t just a job for a teacher. Teaching is in a persons’ DNA. It is probably the one certainty they have had from an early age. A conviction that has been so intrinsic to their identity, that the thought of losing the title of teacher would have such a profound psychological effect that the horror of remaining in the classroom is actually the lesser of two evils.
But is it really? Or are these the hard-wired, self-limiting beliefs that we use to keep us ‘safe’ rather than actually embracing a life outside of the classroom.
Let us start by unpacking, unpicking and deconstructing one of the key things that we tell ourselves that keeps us in the classroom. ‘I am a teacher and I don’t know how to be anything else, what would I even call myself.’
If you resign and leave the classroom - here is some news for you…
Just like a doctor deciding to take a break from practicing, they are still the very thing they have qualified to be. They are still doctors, they just don’t work in a surgery.
In the event of somebody choking on a plane and the flight attendant shouting, “is there a doctor on board?’ The doctor would jump from their seat, make their way down the aisle and attend to the person in need.
They would not have to do some form of preamble and disclaimer as they go by the passengers, to explain that, whilst they are still a doctor, they are no longer practicing within a surgery and so possibly not a doctor. They are a doctor and if you were the person choking, you would want them to attend to you.
You are still a teacher, you are a teacher who is currently not teaching in the classroom.
The term teacher is granted as a result of the qualifications you have achieved, this might be a BEd, PGCE or by any route in which you have achieved a QTS. Not working within the classroom doesn’t negate the fact you are still able to justifiably call yourself a teacher because of the very qualifications you hold. Remember, you are not what you are doing currently. I haven’t worked within the classroom environment since 2016, doesn’t stop me being a teacher. But it’s not because it’s in my DNA; it’s not because it is my vocation, it’s because I have the qualifications to justifiably say so.
If you feel uncomfortable doing so, there are alternatives that might make it more palatable when you have to explain to somebody what you do for a living: Freelance teacher, self-employed teacher, Educator, Educational Consultant or a Freacher (Free Teacher)
Leaving the classroom requires stringent mindset approaches and one of which is don’t overthink your title. You are still a teacher. Believe it and cherish it if you still want it - if not get rid of it.
You are still a teacher but maybe there is more to it than that.
Maybe you have allowed yourself to believe that you are the ‘indispensable teacher?’. The one who feels so guilty for leaving the kids! Is that the mantra you have adopted at this point?
Let us face some stark facts. In the statistically unlikely, but possible event of you being struck by lightning and you are unable to continue your role within that school - do you genuinely believe the wheels of education would grind to a halt; the school will be forced to close and the children within your class condemned to a subservient and inferior life because you stopped being their teacher?
Absolutely not! And fundamentally you know it because you have watched colleagues and friends leave over the years.
“Take a bucket and fill it with water, Put your hand in it up to the wrist, Pull it out and the hole that’s remaining Is a measure of how you’ll be missed.” The poem Indispensable Man by Saxon White Kessinger, beautifully grounds you and should serve as a real leveler, if you really believe that your leaving will impact anywhere near the amount you think it will.
Whilst you remain a teacher and you are serving out your notice, individual children will tell you how much they will miss you. You will receive cards and you will also receive real strong pleas to make you stay; parents may add a layer of guilt as may other members of your team.
There will be individual children who will miss you, they will remember you because you will have had a profound impact upon them but they would’ve left you at some point anyway. Whether it be the end of year 11; when they left the primary school or at the start of a new academic year when the timetables change. Being their teacher was always a temporary thing.
If you were important enough to them, they will remember you at whatever point you exited. 80% of them probably will struggle to remember your name in 10 years time.
It’s not a good enough reason to stay.
And I’ll let you into a secret, you work within an organisation that has a predisposition of preparation for when staff leave.
If you have an exam class, if you have a particularly difficult group - you know what? You will be replaced because it is in the school’s best interest.
Your team will miss you but you will dwindle in all memories - as will they in your mind; you too will move on and rest assured it will feel very natural when you do so.
Telling the world you are leaving the classroom.
Despite being in my 40s when I exited, I found it really difficult to reconcile the fact that I believed I was disappointing my parents. I think it was due to the fact that I was first generation university; the level of pride they had with me being a teacher was something that fed my ego for many years. My father, in particular, never stopped being overwhelmed by the fact his daughter was a teacher because for his generation, the profession of a ‘teacher’ really had standing and status.
He passed away before I exited the classroom. I would like to think he would have supported me in whatever decision I made but I suppose I’m glad that I never have to find that out.
The pressure we place upon ourselves by considering other ‘peoples’ opinions’ is immense.
‘What will the neighbours think?’
That is an absolute throw back to the Victorian era of middle-class respectability in which people placed more value upon what others think of them rather than the priority of their own mental health, well-being and happiness. Living lives in the shadows and not being able to be one’s authentic self is a prison of our own making but one that needs consideration.
Intrinsically we are pre-programmed by a default setting, to not want to upset people, especially those we love the most.
I speak to hundreds of teachers each year who all express this fear of letting people down as one of the main reasons they have remained in the classroom as long as they have.
There is no quick fix or easy solution but there are some simple and powerful strategies you can use.
You can re-package your message.
When you announce your departure from the classroom it does not have to be shrouded in the semantic field of failure such as: burnt out, struggling, unable to cope. You can ‘pitch,’ for want of a better expression, your departure as an amazing opportunity, a gift that has come your way that you would be foolish to pass up on.
You could explain the concept that you remain a teacher but you are exploring other avenues within the field of education.
You could explain that you are leveraging your skills as a teacher to diversify across other areas in commerce: you are entrepreneurial, going into business, leveling up.
You could explain that you are taking stock and assessing what is the best move forward for you and your family. And without even pausing for breath, or waiting for a response - thank them for their support (before it has been even offered!)
When the questions start coming with regard to the false gods that you are giving up: your pension, your holidays, your sick pay etc – explain that all of this has been factored into the plan and really isn’t an issue.
Control the narrative of your departure and spin it.
Walk out of the room leaving friends, families, colleagues and anyone who will listen borderline jealous of the next chapter of your life.
Nobody has left the classroom by simply walking through the door with no prior consideration. I am not diminishing the decision that lies with thousands of teachers every day. But what I am saying is, if you have found yourself marking time and dream of a life outside of the classroom - what are you telling yourself that makes you stay?
So here’s my final thought.
Think of children when they are having fun, what do they want? “Mum, can I stay for 10 more minutes?” “ Mum, I don’t want to go yet – I want to stay longer?”
They want more time
And then I think of the clock watching; crossing off days in the diary; killing time and how we have come to devalue it and see it as a curse not the blessing it is, something has to change.
If you are marking time in a classroom, it is your responsibility to really reflect upon that. Flip and create your set of circumstances to the point where you do not want your day to end because you are having fun.
Teaching is in your DNA; it is the lifeblood that runs through your veins. That doesn’t have to end when you exit.
You can press pause, you can revisit your teacher status. You can decide if you want to completely shut off from the title and reinvent yourself for the next époque of your life as something completely different.
But fundamentally, do not let the very job that once filled you with such joy, inspiration, passion and desire to make a real change to the lives of young people be the very thing that destroys and wastes the best years of your life, marking time.