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I Can't Tell You How To Leave Teaching

But I can tell you what to expect.

By Chelsea DelaneyPublished 3 years ago 6 min read
I Can't Tell You How To Leave Teaching
Photo by Feliphe Schiarolli on Unsplash

"How did you do it?" It's all I heard my first year out of the classroom. Colleagues, friends, family--all of them baffled by how you abandon a thirteen year career at which you are amazing, seemingly overnight.

It is a legitimate question. It's one I get a lot during our last year of distance learning. It is also the wrong question.

I had no plan. Many of my fellow expatriots from public education tell me the same thing about their journeys. If you're considering leaving, maybe you'll be more savvy than us--plenty of savings, a job already lined up, emotional transition resources firmly in place. But most of us were too busy teaching, to plan our exit from teaching.

Thus the question you should really be asking is: "What can I expect that first one to three years after leaving?" I wish I could have listened to someone talk through this, so that I felt less alone when it was happening to me. Experiences differ, but if you're thinking of turning your keys in for the last time, I see you. You're not crazy, you're not alone, and if this is the decision for you, you can make it through the ups and downs of this transition.

Mood Swings

I was in the supermarket one morning, the September after I left teaching. It was 10 am on a Tuesday. As I shopped, I looked around and thought, "Where is everyone?" Then I realized, I couldn't remember the last time I'd grocery shopped on a weekday. "That can't be right, you did it all summer," I said confused, under my breath. My inner teacher voice answered, "But that was not a school day." I teared up. I quickly looked around to make sure I wasn't being too weird in public. Then I started to giggle. There were no more school days. I could stay up till midnight, wake up at 8am, plan my whole weekend with fun, and nothing would get in the way.

The euphoria will be intense the first year out. Unfortunately, sometimes it will be followed by, "Stupid, stupid, stupid. What am I doing with my life? Who leaves a stable career?" This may require a few hours in a blanket fort, eating your feelings, watching Netflix, till you can cope again. See the aforementioned not aloneness referenced above, and remember, emotions are temporary. Staying in work that imperils your mental, emotional, and these days, physical health, is not.

Get to Know Your Ego

I would've considered myself a fairly humble person before leaving teaching, but I soon realized that my ego is just as robust as the next person. After dealing with alternating bouts of panic and euphoria those first few months, I soon started to wade through the guilt of leaving. "I was the only teacher so-and-so connected with. No one will run the Creative Writing Club after school when I'm gone. Our Language Arts Department will devolve into squabbling chaos." The chatter was damning and non-stop.

And so one day, I had to finally say stop, in no uncertain terms. I had to confront one simple truth: I am not that important. This in no way belittles or undermines my contributions through the years. Rather, it is a way to break the insidious conditioning of the martyrdom culture that teachers so rarely discuss. The harder we work, the more clubs we run, the more tired we are, the more strokes our ego gets. No wonder we leave and think the Universe has collapsed. We will be missed, but it hasn't collapsed, I promise.

You'll also get up close and personal with your ego as you encounter less than supportive reactions from friends and family. I worked as a nanny for four years after leaving the classroom. My mom still introduced me as her "teacher daughter," during every single one of them. When I called her on it one day she replied, "Well honey, it's just that you're doing it backwards. You're supposed to be a babysitter at 16, not at 36." That did more than just sting--it hurt. Who are you apart from unceasing service in the classroom? You'll have to figure that out if you leave, and it's hard, gorgeous, non-linear, worthwhile work.

They're Not Your Friends Anymore

As teachers and former teachers, we've all been through it. A colleague leaves the profession or the school, and suddenly, the space that they once took up in your daily life just seems to evaporate, along with their memory. Occasionally, we get really fortunate and transition a "work friend" into a "real friend," but that is the exception to the rule. When you're still at school, surrounded by your people, these departures aren't that bad.

When you're the one leaving, it can be brutal.

Those with spouses and children may feel this a little less keenly, but a lot of teachers spend the majority of their social time with other teachers. When I realized that I no longer had many people I could call for a weekend lunch or trip to the movies, it was a huge shock. It felt like I was missing a limb. I started to wonder what the Inuit elders, set adrift on ice floes, must have felt like. If it weren't for the community of dance friends I had been developing as I started to diversify my life, I may have considered going back to the classroom, just to avoid the loneliness.


As a result of the Martyr Games, as I so affectionately refer to them, most teachers who leave have some level of embarrassment about the fact that they're burnt out. In fact, I flat out refused to admit to my burnout those first six months. I didn't want to give people the satisfaction of an easy answer to the question, "Why did you leave?" Unfortunately, this denial makes the burnout harder to heal.

It shows up in surprising ways. For me it was the lack of memory and concentration all of a sudden, after years of managing hundreds of details a day with ease. I also developed a total inability to get anywhere on time that first year. It's like I no longer understood the nature of time that was governed without bells or holiday calendars. In short, I felt sloppy.

Once I accepted my burnout, not as a moral failing but a byproduct of an ill-constructed system, the layers of exhaustion started to rejuvenate. I started to rejoin the world bit by bit, but it took much longer than I would've imagined to refill my cup completely. It wasn't till about three years in, when I finally got bored of playing with Leggos and having pretend tea parties all day, that I realized that my system was just about reset. I wanted it to go faster than it was going so many times, but these big life transitions seem to keep their own schedule.

You Are More Than One Thing

At this point, I may have talked people out of leaving teaching for generations. Whether you've been in one year, or twenty, it's a a big change. You age much more quickly when you're not around kids all day, and that restructuring process can feel like a lack of hope. But there's more than enough good to make up for the challenges.

Logically, we all know that we are complex, multi-faceted beings, but it is easy for a teacher's life to shrink down to the point where they forget that. The first few years away from the classroom however, I was flooded with the most delightful remembering of this fact: I am more than one thing.

My immediate response to that fact was, "But what else am I?" And instead of inspiring more panic or doubt, something else happened. My curiosity rushed back--not just my curiosity towards my subject matter or my students, but my curiosity about myself. I felt intrigued by me for the first time in years, and since I had just effectively taken back my calendar, I now had time to follow that curiosity instead of squelching it.

I followed it into traveling, painting, singing, Taiko drumming, Ayurveda, expressive arts therapy, and heaps more. I tried my education skills in other industries--editing, publishing, social work. I started to dream of what I might do completely apart from education--I spent six months as a florist, though it wasn't for me. I didn't call anything a failure, but rather, an experiment. I started to hear myself speaking, and am happy to say that I can now hear my whispers before I have to scream.

I don't know who you are as you read this, but I don't regret my choice. If you decide to stay, thank you for the tireless work you put in, especially during this COVID year. My brain shorts out just thinking about what this year must be like for you all. If you decide to leave, know that there is life after teaching, and that the work it takes to get there is worth it.

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About the Creator

Chelsea Delaney

Life is weird, write about it, paint about it, dance about it, and sing about it too. Use every language in your arsenal to sculpt the world you want to live in. Writer, educator, artist, and creative midwife--this is what I do.

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