Why Leaving Teaching One Year Ago Was the Best Decision

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Photo by Taylor Wilcox on Unsplash

One year ago, I made a courageous choice to leave my comfortable, tenured teaching position to start a new career.

And it wasn’t because of the students, like most would assume. No, the students were the best part of my eight years in the classroom and I miss them every day in my new job as a business consultant (adults are pretty boring compared to teenagers).

I made the choice to leave teaching not because I didn’t want to be a teacher. I loved my job.

I left teaching because personal health reasons made me realize how much I was sacrificing my own well-being to do what I loved.

And it shouldn’t have to be that way.

Schools as organizations and education as a career pathway simply haven’t kept pace with the modern lifestyle. While most employers are providing more and more perks to take care of their people, schools continue taking advantage of their most valuable asset.

So, one year after I left the classroom, I can look back and honestly say it was the best decision I’ve made.

And when reflecting about it now, I honestly feel bad for teachers about to go back to school.

Here are four reasons why they are probably considering a career change too:

Schools were wholly unprepared to close due to a global health pandemic. It’s an unusual circumstance, no doubt, but the transition for teachers was particularly tough.

I know this from talking with my former colleagues and seeing stories in the news about school districts’ COVID-19 response. Most schools lagged behind the private sector in their response efforts and in many ways created more chaos and confusion along the way.

But, in my opinion, schools should have been prepared for such an event. After all, students have grown up with technology and these skills are increasingly necessary to enter the workforce. Most schools by now have the technology and resources, but most still don’t know how to use them effectively for independent learning purposes.

So in the spring, many students were stuck at home without a good way to continue learning and many parents quickly realized how hard a teacher’s day-to-day job is when they had to take over as teachers for their children at home.

Of course there were teachers who excelled during this time. When school leaders were unprepared, the best teachers went above and beyond to stay connected with their students and support their emotional and learning needs, even though the extra efforts wouldn’t change their pay or recognition (but I’ll get to this point later).

And now some schools are asking teachers to return to the classroom to continue doing their best and giving their all, despite the on-going global health pandemic.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s an extremely difficult decision to make with many factors to consider. But the debate further highlights the fact that schools aren’t just places of learning and teachers aren’t just people who impart knowledge to their students.

So the saddest part of the whole reopening discussion, in my opinion, is how most schools as well as both state and federal governments haven’t asked for teacher input on how to proceed safely.

Instead, leaders spout off their opinions and try to gaslight teachers into going back to school.

Take my own governor, Mike Parsons, as an example of the terrible rhetoric about schools reopening,

“These kids have got to get back to school. They’re at the lowest risk possible. And if they do get Covid-19, which they will — and they will when they go to school — they’re not going to the hospitals. They’re not going to have to sit in doctor’s offices. They’re going to go home and they’re going to get over it.”

Yikes. And notice how he doesn’t mention teachers.

A recent Washington Post article reveals that the recent COVID debate is just another example of teachers being left out of the discussion and given no autonomy in their work. The author makes a critical point that:

“Reopening schools won’t succeed without teachers leading the conversations about what is workable and what isn’t. Their professional expertise and experience is crucial for creating a viable plan — one that safeguards the lives, health and educational needs of students.”

Yet instead of this approach, many schools will try to force teachers to either sacrifice their health and the health of their families or quit their jobs.

In fact, there have already been stories about teachers taking early retirement and I do not blame them.

I’m happy I’m no longer a teacher who has to face this terrible choice and feel powerless about voicing what I know is best for me and my students.

And that brings me to the next point…

Even before COVID-19 there were so many problems with education reform efforts and school leadership.

I won’t say every school leader is bad, but in my experience many school leaders aren’t leading with education and, most importantly, students and teachers, in mind.

From what I experienced, school leaders tend to be top-down managers who keep themselves and school policy away from the teachers on the front lines.

In a lot of ways, the education system is built to reinforce this disconnect between the “leaders” and the “teachers”.

For this reason, teachers never get to be part of the solution. They’re forced to do as their told either by their administrators or by the state government and then they take all the blame when the policy fails.

This inability to be both a teacher and leader was a major deciding factor for why I left the profession.

My resume more than qualified me to be a teacher leader who could influence positive reforms at my school.

I got my Master’s degree in education from Stanford University.

I worked multiple jobs within the school the entire time I was a full-time teacher, supervising clubs, sports and extra-curricular activities.

I got involved in every school committee and supported every new education trend that leaders rolled out (which was every week, it seemed).

I went to multiple teaching conferences a year, participated in additional professional development, and volunteered sharing what I learned with teachers at my school.

And all of this work to no avail.

It didn’t help me progress up the career ladder, earn me more clout within my district, or afford me a seat at the decision-making table to drive the direction of the school I worked so hard to support.

As Robert Bruno writes in a the Harvard Business Review,

“This, it seems, is the tipping point and brings me to what I believe is at the heart of what is really happening here: Teachers are seeing their own experience be devalued by policymakers and other officials with little experience in the education field, and it’s not improving the education of their students.”

And I completely agree.

Teachers want to be heard and feel like valuable contributors to the success of their school. They want opportunities for growth and recognition beyond test results. They want the right forms of accountability and incentives to reward them for excelling at their job and encourage development for those who need it.

After eight years of not being able to share my expertise as a classroom teacher and influence the direction of the school as an education leader, I had to find a new career.

I left teaching during a particularly rough period in my life. I didn’t know my diagnosis at the time when I was dealing with a multitude of debilitating symptoms, but I knew that I couldn’t manage them while being a teacher.

I didn’t have energy, my joints hurt, I lost my voice constantly, and I struggled to put on a happy face every day in front of my students just to survive.

It wasn’t until after I switched careers that I found out I have psoriatic arthritis and got the necessary medicine to feel normal again.

But when I started my new job, taking care of my health was so much easier.

I had time to get off work and go to the doctor. I could actually take a day off work and no one cared. I didn’t have to make a lesson plan and try to recover from the lost learning time. Nor did I have to exhaust myself to “put on a show” in order to hold the attention of students.

Now, when I’m having a bad day, I can sleep in or leave work early. In fact, my bosses encourage it and recognize how important health and well-being are in the workplace.

As a teacher, I felt guilty that I couldn’t do the best job.

The reality, however, is that teachers get older every year while their students stay the same age. It becomes increasingly difficult to produce the same outcomes, however hard a teacher may try.

The added stress and guilt that teachers feel is self-induced, no doubt, but harmful nonetheless.

At my new job, I can take care of myself and still do an amazing job at work. I can be happy and have better work-life balance, which is a huge benefit.

I finally have freedom to take care of myself and that, in turn, has relieved so much stress that being a teacher caused.

It’s no secret that teachers don’t earn enough salary to begin with.

However, many teachers cite the teacher pension (at least in the United States) as one of the biggest benefits to staying in the profession.

But I believe this is a big misconception and why some teachers won’t leave the profession, because they fear they would lose their retirement or have to start over if they switched careers.

But this simply isn’t true.

I realized this when I took over saving for my own retirement at my new job.

After only one year, I can say the financial benefits are enormous. Not only am I making way more money, I also have great benefits and retirement.

Think about it: teachers are earning 20% less than professions of the same education level over the course of their 30 year career. I’m no math wizard, but I’d say that is a large sum of money that teachers forfeit with the current system.

Even worse, in many cases teachers cannot afford to live off of their pensions alone once they retire.

In fact, according to an Education Week article,

“In several states, retired teachers and other state workers haven’t gotten a cost-of-living adjustment to their pension checks in years. And with the cost of health care continuing to rise, retirees say they’re reaching a breaking point.”

This has lead to many protests and younger teachers either leaving the profession or avoiding it altogether.

A teacher shortage might be the only way to bring the kind of salary reform that should be a no-brainer for attracting the highest quality teachers to one of the most complex and rewarding jobs there is.

Ultimately, the peace of mind that having financial security brings is priceless and definitely worth switching careers for.

I loved teaching and I hope that changes come that will make it a prestigious and sustainable profession.

But until then, I’m happy I left to explore another career. It’s benefited me immensely both personally and professionally and I think other teachers deserve the same benefits too.

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Stories of a former high school teacher, now business consultant. Husband. Travel fanatic. Obsessed coffee drinker. And all-around nerd.

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