What Teachers Can Try Before They Quit
Recently I’ve seen that, for many, discussions around ‘teaching’ are shifting from creative, innovative, and thoughtful pedagogy to matters of well-being, sustainability, and professional survival.
I have been there. Not here, obviously. Around 2012 (it’s not a coincidence that it was around this time that I started TeachThought), a combination of personal and professional circumstances led me to walk away from the classroom. Though I ended up returning a year later to teach at another school, it was almost immediately apparent that teaching–as I had experienced it in a variety of positions over the years–was not sustainable for me.
I badly miss the classroom (mostly the students but certainly the collaboration with other teachers, working in communities through project-based learning, meeting parents and families, etc.) but teaching seemed less about knowledge, critical thinking, people, or places and more about the ability to do what you’re told.
And to do without anywhere close to the resources you need, not the least of which include time, expectations, and support. In the last district I taught in, there was more discussion about ‘teacher non-negotiables’ (the things that teachers were expected to do without discussion, lapse, adjustment, or failure) than about what children really need or what teachers need or how the brain learns and what it means to understand or think critically or what was worth knowing and the application of various learning models, teaching frameworks, learning technologies, emerging literacies, curriculum mapping strategies, etc.
Compared to what I thought teaching was before I became a teacher, it was, at best, baffling and, at worst, punishing for me psychologically.
I now understand in hindsight that what I ‘experienced’ depended as much on my own mindset and thinking (my cognitive behavior) as it did my circumstances. Put another way, the events around me were only part of the story. What I believed about ‘what teaching should be’ and ‘what children need’ and countless other beliefs shaped what I thought and observed and these thoughts and observations led to feelings and that by focusing on how I felt (i.e., how I was ‘experiencing’ it all) instead of why I was feeling that way and separating truth from fiction and personal truth from universal truth and temporary fact from ongoing fact and–well, I didn’t give myself the best chance to overcome the challenges I was facing as an educator.
These kinds of realizations have rescued me in many ways as a person. I used to do a lot of ‘thinking’ and as a result, a lot of ‘feeling’ and it just wasn’t healthy and certainly wasn’t rational.
And it’s at this point that I’m tempted to talk about the rationality that can sustain good teaching (and living) but this post is more about alternatives to quitting teaching. The pushback I’ve gotten recently while emphasizing ideas that underpin TeachThought–critical thinking, learning models, knowledge demands, the role of ‘place’ in learning, innovation, etc.–has been eye-opening. Right now, teachers don’t want another learning framework, they want help, or for the madness to stop, or for the school year to be over, or for people on the outside telling them how to teach to come and try for themselves.
So, I’m writing this to the me that left the classroom ten years ago. Of course, as ‘things teachers can do instead of leaving the classroom,’ these are necessarily simplified. Or over-simplified. How feasible any of these may or may not be for you depends on a thousand other factors: your beliefs (see above), income requirements, previous professional experience, support system at home, mental and physical health, geographic location, and so on.
Also, this post is not about if you should quit. Nor are these thoughts about reshaping education to reduce the need for this kind of thinking altogether (which is much closer to our mission at TeachThought).
With that in mind, here are a few things I wish I’d have thought of. I’ve (somewhat) put them in order from easier-things-to-try-first to less so.
10 Things To Try Before Quitting Teaching
Change your mindset.
This is just one strategy that can be a part of CBT (more on that below), but a new mindset can change everything. And note, this isn’t about ‘attitude’ or ‘learning to accept the stress and suffering’ or even ‘teaching with gratitude’ (though that can help). Rather, mindset is about the expectations you have and beliefs that form those expectations and how each significantly alters how you experience each moment of your day–teaching or not.
Think of how happy you were to get A’s in school or your first car or apartment. Or how much breakups used to hurt in high school. How you experienced these events was, in large part, influenced by what you were accustomed to and expected–the scale of your previous experience. In hindsight, all of the end-of-the-worlds never are.
That doesn’t mean that a ‘growth mindset’ or ‘attitude of gratitude’ will rescue you from your current circumstance but it’s certainly the easiest way to try and can pay massive dividends over time whether you’re teaching, parenting, or relating to other people.
Also, note: mindsets don’t have to be permanent. It could be that your overarching mindset for teaching is healthy and well-considered and intact but to survive the rest of the year, a new one can be more useful. For example, instead of seeing that ‘this is how teaching is now’ and then having to reconcile that with what you expected and what you want as a person and professional, you instead shift to a ‘finish the year and let’s re-evaluate this summer’ and then make an agreement with yourself to not weigh those kinds of decisions until you’ve made some space for yourself mentally.
Or the mindset shift might be less about moving from survivability to function and purpose. Maybe, just for the rest of the year, you can focus on human relationships with other teachers, your family members and friends, and being a steward for children and you, to a degree anyway, throw pedagogy out the window.
For this to work, you have to not just ‘focus on people’ but actually give yourself permission to make this kind of shift and trust yourself to revisit after the year. Otherwise, ‘focusing on people’ is really ‘avoiding the things that actually cause suffering’ and that could end up making things worse for you in the end. It’s difficult to actually, truly, shift from ‘teacher’ to ‘person who teaches and needs to make these adjustments’ because your teaching philosophy can get in the way, making such a shift seem undesirable, not to mention difficult and ineffective. Or at least this was true for me. I would’ve felt like I was gutting my definition of ‘teacher.’ I would’ve been wrong but I wouldn’t have listened to anyone trying to convince me otherwise.
Mindfulness and meditation are also incredibly powerful as well but I understand that for many, their needs go far past meditating (sidenote: The Waking Up app by Sam Harris is a good place to start).
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
If you would’ve told me then that what I needed was ‘counseling,’ I probably would not have responded favorably. The problem, as it seemed to me, was teaching and what was being asked of me. Suggesting I see a shrink would’ve likely offended me.
Of course, both can be true: 1. Things can be very bad and not my fault and incredibly unsustainable and poorly thought-out and 2. CBT could help (whether I remain in the classroom or choose a new direction).
I’m now an enthusiastic proponent of CBT (or just the idea of understanding the relationship between beliefs, thoughts, and feelings and the role rationality plays in all three and even think it should not only be taught in school but is more important than most content areas combined. This, of course, is a matter of education philosophy: what should a school do?, what should they teach, what are families at home ‘responsible for,’ etc.
But understanding how thinking promotes or reduces well-being seems more important than critically analyzing a text, doesn’t it? Or at least more fundamental? A higher priority? Or necessary in a kind of hierarchy for many students if you ever hope for them to feel like a ‘text’ is accessible to them, much less worth their scrutiny?
See also What Is Social-Emotional Learning?
Take a sabbatical.
Some schools offer temporary leave. This is highly variable depending on your needs and what your school may or may not offer. But if you really need help now and can’t or don’t want to simply quit, this is a place to start.
Change your teaching.
It may be that teaching in a modern context just isn’t what you had in mind. It may also be true that it’s not teaching but how you teach that’s impacting your well-being. It may be that primarily direct instruction with a handful of literacy and assessment and instructional strategies aren’t enough–that this approach to teaching is joining other factors in making teaching less enjoyable for you.
A shift to student-guided project-based learning with clearly scripted competencies, for example, while not the right answer for everyone, could be the kind of change that could make teaching what you always hoped it would be. (Incidentally, this kind of growth is why we created TeachThought University–a place to read, connect, learn, and grow as a teacher.)
Switch to a different grade level.
The difference between 6th and 8th grade is significant. Same with freshman and juniors and seniors. If classroom management or content or something else related to ‘age’ is an issue, switching to a different grade level, even if you have to be re-certified or go back to school, can work.
Teach in a different school.
I tried this and am convinced that beyond cognitive behavioral therapy, this would’ve been the best thing for me to do. I needed to find the right principal in the right district running the right school with the right philosophy. I could’ve taught my entire life–or at least as long as those conditions remained. But try as I might, I couldn’t.
Teach in a different district.
Sometimes switching schools isn’t enough. Sometimes, a new school district with new leadership and different thinking and policies and resources and priorities can make all the difference. This was somewhat effective for me. I went from a small, rural district where I had autonomy and support but little room for innovation to one of the largest districts in the United States where I was less autonomy and support and even less room for innovation.
This district then added, among other new realities, classroom management challenges that were at that point unfathomable to me. I had a student throw a chair at me and asked me if I wanted him to ‘knock me out’ (after halting the lesson every 30 seconds for the previous 15 minutes) and when I asked for support from administration, was told that I ‘lost the power’ in these kinds of interaction by seeking outside intervention and that ‘keeping them in the classroom’ for ‘maximum instructional time’ was the correct response.
When I asked about learning, I was asked to imagine how much ‘learning loss’ the student would experience by not being in the classroom and it just baffled me. However, the year after, I went to a third district and while it also wasn’t what I ‘thought teaching was,’ I managed to stick it out another year before being pressured out by the assistant superintendent who stopped by my classroom almost daily asking to see my blue binder and to highlight shortcomings in my lesson plans.
And so on.
But, again, for some of you, a new district help. In hindsight, if I’d have gone in reverse–my last district first–the first position I had (that would’ve ended up being my last) would’ve seemed so much different. I just didn’t understand enough at that point in my career to know what was what.
Switch to a different content area.
I’ve taught Math and English-Language Arts and the planning and instructional and assessment practices and overall requirements were more different than I would’ve expected and each suit a different kind of personality. This might be a possibility for some.
Find a position other than teaching (in the same or different school/district)
For others, it might make sense to do something else in a school building (or district office). I’ve had colleagues become librarians, instructional coaches, consultants, assistant principals or principals, technology specialists, or even for brief stints, substitute teachers or instructional assistants.
Take a year off.
Some people can afford to simply take a year off and do nothing (not me). Some people can work a part-time job and maybe re-charge their batteries (I strongly dislike that phrase because a former principal of mine would email all staff on Sunday nights saying how pleased they were that we’d had a weekend off and that our ‘batteries should be fully re-charged’ and I remember wincing at how out of touch that idea seemed. I couldn’t relate to that.
Some may take a year off to test-drive a new career of some kind–maybe something they’ve done before or have always wanted to do or have a professional connection for. This can also be an effective strategy to shed light on where you are compared to where you want to be.
Most people can’t ‘take a year off’ but if you can, it can provide the distance required to develop a more accurate perspective on what you’re experiencing as a professional and as a person.
I’ll follow this post up with another on things teachers can do if they decide to leave teaching–ways to earn money (we used to call these ‘jobs’ but that word doesn’t really work anymore because–well, the best ways to ‘earn money’ is changing).