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When it is time to leave teaching?

I have a ceramic sign hanging in my home office, and it reads, “Leap and the net will appear.” My mom gave it to me when I left my second school. I had already leapt, and she wanted to assure me that a net was down there because I wasn’t seeing it. If you’ve seen the third Indiana Jones movie, you will remember that scene when Harrison Ford scatters sand across a chasm, and the sand reveals a stone bridge that had been hidden as an optical illusion. I didn’t even know where the sand was in my situation; I just saw the chasm.

I had more than one chasm, actually, because I quit my job in 1999. And 2005. And 2009. And 2013. And 2021.

I think you know when you know when you know, and for me, every time I left a position, I KNEW that it was time to go. I didn’t feel indecisive; I knew.

If you’re at the end of your end, here are some questions to ask yourself:

Am I staying out of guilt?

In study after study, urban high school teacher ranks #1 or #2 with air traffic controller for the most stressful job. If you’re going to stay in a job like that, your reasons for staying need to be beyond good. If the reason is a love of teenagers, a sincere desire to make an impact in their lives, and the resolution to help them become better readers, thinkers, and writers, staying put is an option.

If you’re still there because you think you’re irreplaceable or that you’re solely responsible for your fellow man, climb down off your cross and get a different job.

But Angie, the kids need me.

Yes, they do. They need rested you, happy you, inspired you, sabbatical-ed you. They won’t have you at all if you burn out. It’s really ok to stop teaching for a year! I’ve done it three times, and I served students so much better when I came back in.

I don’t know your district situation. I have never worked in a state with a union, so I have no concept of working in a district in which teachers are highly respected and well paid. (My district did things like require teachers to work on Saturdays, sometimes without pay.) Where you are, it may be almost impossible to get back in if you step out. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t step out.

Am I staying out of fear?

“What if?” cannot dictate the trajectory of your professional life. What if I can’t find another teaching job? What if I die cold and alone in a cardboard box? THAT’S NOT GOING TO HAPPEN! Do you know how many companies are hiring people with the soft skills you have? You can control an entire roomful of humans with a LOOK! You make several HUNDRED decisions a day! You give several thoroughly-planned presentations EVERY DAY OF YOUR LIFE.

The education realm is not the business realm. You might have a cap in your brain of how much a “good salary” is. Just for a second, erase that cap and imagine that, with your skill set, you could make twice what you make as a classroom teacher.

Here are some interesting facts to consider:

There are multimillionaire teachers who are creating curricula and selling them online with little overhead. (Think WordPress sites with plugins like WooCommerce or marketplace sites like Teachers Pay Teachers).

Educational consultants are paid by the hour, by the day, or by the project, often resulting in fees that come in (on the low end) at hundreds of dollars an hour.

The online course world has taken off. (I just produced my first online course, and it’s pretty fun to interact with teachers from my recliner while I’m wearing pajamas.)

Teachers offer priced webinars to teach what they know. Heaven knows, you’re good at Zoom by now.

Do I dread going to work?

I taught at my first school for eight years. For the first seven, I was exhausted but happy. I was convinced that I was making a difference, and I got along well with my colleagues. The summer after my seventh year, our administration reorganized some departments and moved my classroom across campus. I lost my people. Although I adored my students and enjoyed what I was teaching, by January, I was as tired as I usually am in May. What was missing was the camaraderie that gave me energy, and I made the hard decision to leave (even if my transfer wasn’t approved.)

What does dread look like? I think it looks like a pit in your stomach on Sunday night, getting to work and praying your principal doesn’t see how late you’re sliding in, and teaching on the fly because you have come to hate planning.

Do I still like my students?

I probably don’t need to write more than a sentence here, but seriously, GET OUT if kids get on your nerves more than they make you laugh. It’s time.

Do I respect my administration?

My third “quit” was a move from a central office position back to the classroom. The position right above mine was a stepping stone to being a superintendent, and by the end of my very short three-year tenure, ELEVEN different people had stepped on that stone and supervised me. Some treated me like a trained professional and checked in once in a while, and others micromanaged. Number eleven decided that the passive, cowardly way to weed out the weaker curriculum specialists was to have us re-interview for our jobs. I was told, “You don’t have to worry, Angie. You’re good. But we do have to interview you.” DONE. The day I learned of that plan, I called a principal whose leadership style I respected and asked for an interview.

I always heard the back-of-the-room cynical curmudgeons (is that redundant?) say, “Oh, I’ll just wait him out. I’ll be here long after he’s gone.” Fine. Then wait him out–and do it with your mouth shut. Rather than stay and complain, just leave. There is NOTHING worse at a school than the lounge lizards who sit around and grouse, gossiping about administrators. You don’t have to like the people above you, but showing blatant disrespect for them by talking about them behind their backs is unprofessional. Venting with your co-workers is a base way to manage dissatisfaction with your job. Get another one.

Is my health suffering?

When I left my last full-time classroom position, I weighed almost 400 pounds, and I had aggressive breast cancer. Both school #2 and the central office position had sent me to the hospital with anxiety attacks. I was a freakin’ good teacher who was widely respected across the state, but I couldn’t walk around the zoo with my kid. DONE.

If you’re too exhausted to exercise, pumping yourself full of coffee and soda to function, and falling asleep in your dinner plate at night, consider some re-prioritizing.

Here’s what you’re thinking:

But Angie, I have a really good pension, and I only have _____ more years to go to get full retirement.

It’s hard for me to speak to this one, honestly. North Carolina teacher pay is abysmal, so what I walked away from is probably not what you’re walking away from. I will, however, say this:

YOU HAVE ONE LIFE. ONE. Please don’t spend _____ more years of it miserable.

Is staying the right thing for you to do right now? Yes? Then stay healthy and HAVE A LIFE.

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Angie

I’m a recovering high school English teacher and curriculum specialist with a passion for helping teachers leave school at school. I create engaging, rigorous curriculum resources for secondary ELA professionals, and I facilitate workshops to help those teachers implement the materials effectively.