When I started to teach it was the early 90s and I was 22. As most new young teachers are I arrived at my first job with a large dose of idealism. At my school, there were a handful of teachers just marking time until retirement. You would not see these teachers doing extras like being a club advisor or chaperoning a school dance. Sometimes you wouldn’t even see them doing certain functions of their job, like showing up for extra help after school. Maybe you know some teachers who are phoning it in until retirement? You know the teachers I mean, the ones complaining bitterly about the students, the parents, the administration in the teacher’s room?  

I took a vow, if I became bitter I would leave. Well, flash forward many years. At this point, I had two kids, a husband with a demanding job, and I was the department chair. That year I became involved in a tussle with my principal over the numerous obligations my department faced leading up to graduation. In addition to the many events at school, I also wanted to attend the Congressional Art Show award ceremony that week because my art program both participates and had students being recognized with awards. My music and theater department members had similar obligations. I pitched to the principal a plan that would allow us to represent the school at all our events but require some of us to be released from participating in graduation. Her answer was NO, and a reminder that graduation was CONTRACTUAL. So, we rejiggered things and I then planned to pass on attending a senior banquet. Oh! The complaints from the principal that I was not attending! I reminded her of the extra events being covered and the fact that someone else from my department would be there to give out awards. I reminded her the banquet was a NONCONTRACTUAL evening event. The principal was not pacified and the next year I found she had it written into the contract that all department heads must attend the Senior Banquet. 

I was bitter. I was bitter over that and about a million other little petty things this principal did. I was tired of my job sucking more out of me and robbing more time from my family than my husband’s job. Meanwhile, his salary made mine look paltry. I could feel my younger idealistic self tap me on the shoulder and say, “Remember, you said if you became bitter, you would leave.” And that is when I hatched my exit plan. 

Let’s stop there. I share my story because I know many teachers are at that tipping point. It’s been a rough couple of years for teachers ON TOP of problems that are intrinsic to education in general. Each school, district, department, and teacher has some unique issues to add to the mix. But, how do you know it’s time to leave teaching? Here are some signs. 

You have become a chronic complainer. You don’t have anything good to say about your job. Your family is tired of hearing it. You find yourself resenting your job. You wonder, who is this person I have become? 

You don’t feel supported at work. Students are giving you a hard time. Parents are giving you a hard time. The administration is giving you a hard time. You don’t even feel you can take a sick day and your prep period is inadequate or, worse, spent covering for colleagues. You feel there is no one in the system looking out for the people in the trenches, the teachers. This is stress and burnout. Maybe all this is in addition to feeling like a second-class teacher because you are in the arts. 

Teaching is impacting your health. Your body absorbs a lot of workplace stress and you need to listen to the ways your body talks to you. You may feel anxious and depressed. Maybe you are getting headaches or migraines. Maybe your blood pressure is creeping up. You’re not sleeping well. And maybe you’re oversleeping on the weekends. Sunday night fills you with dread. You’ve gained or lost weight. Or you are drinking too much. Whatever it is, you just don’t feel yourself.  

Daydreaming about other jobs. Maybe you even fantasize about quitting. You browse through the want ads. You check out a book at the local library and the librarian looks calm and happy. Next thing you know, you are googling what you need to be a librarian and the salaries. 

Your job is affecting your personal life. For me, the constant night and weekend events at my school were shaving time and energy for the people who mattered most, my family. I also found I wasn’t mentally all there for my husband and kids because I was responding to emails and pulling lessons together when I was home.

You don’t feel like you’re making an impact. Teaching is sapping your energy rather than exciting you. You don’t feel you are making meaningful connections with your students. You are overwhelmed with busy work (reporting grades, emailing parents, cleaning, etc). You don’t feel your students are learning and growing and you feel you aren’t learning and growing

Do you recognize yourself? For me, I was a yes for 4 out of 5 of the above signs and two of the signs had grown to be unbearable. One thing to ask before you throw in the towel is, are some of your job concerns solvable? At one point in my career, I was teaching two half-year intro art classes and that became boring and rote. So, I took a new job where the art teachers rotated the classes they taught. At another pivotal time in my career, I moved from public to private school and that change was energizing for me. So, ask yourself, is it the school or is it the profession?  

Teaching guilt is another factor that keeps people hanging on. Let’s admit it, teaching has cornered the market on guilt. Remember, the kids need you! We all have to remind ourselves that we have a right to be selfish in our careers and the right to work-life balance. Don’t be impulsive but make careful and thoughtful decisions. Consider the pros and the cons. When I left teaching, I worried about summers. Would I miss it? How would my kids manage? You know what? I was in a blissfully air-conditioned office. (I also wore shoes I would never have been able to teach in. But I digress!). My oldest stayed at college that summer and my younger child grabbed public transport to her summer program. The bottom line, we all have a right to be selfish in our careers decisions.

I visited the idea of leaving teaching repeatedly. That moment of annoyance with my principal I described earlier was only the straw that broke the camel’s back. Leaving is a concept that needs to ferment for most people. So, sit with the idea and look for my future post where I will share how I formed and implemented my exit strategy.

Read Part II, How does an art educator make a career change?