Should you leave teaching?
It’s been four and a half months since I put in my resignation and left my teaching job for a Communications position in the corporate world. Of course, it wasn’t easy saying goodbye to my teaching dream, a dream I’d had since a little girl and thought would be my forever. Still, I knew it was time to leave education for a variety of reasons which I wrote about in my article about quitting teaching.
Over the past few months, I’ve had so many teachers reach out to me about my experience. I think like many in the education field, they’re ready for a change but terrified to leave. It’s hard to leave any job you invested so much time and effort into. However, with teaching, there’s a whole other level of guilt and stigma. People assume you’re a bad person for not wanting to fight the good fight anymore. I’m here to tell you that’s simply not true.
Perhaps more worrisome for those thinking of exiting education is the propaganda we are told as teachers—that we have the best jobs because of the time we have off and our pensions. We worry that it would be a fool’s errand to try to find something better. We’re made to believe that the struggle in our job is normal, to the point that we sacrifice our mental health and physical well-being sometimes.
Four and a half months into my new job and I can tell you I don’t regret leaving for one minute. Are there moments when I’m like, “Holy shit! I left!”? Yes. All the time. Are there moments where imposter syndrome kicks in and I wonder if I can actually do something different with my career? You bet. Are there times I miss my friends from the school I taught at for ten years? All the time.
Leaving teaching hasn’t been a walk in the park in the sense it has taken a lot of courage. Change is never easy. However, I can also tell you that when former co-workers see me around town now, they inevitably say the same thing: “You look so happy.”
And I am. I am happy in ways I didn’t realize were possible. I am calm and collected in ways I haven’t ever known in my adult working career. I am a different person in ways that make me so thankful I found the guts to leave.
I’m here to tell you the truth about leaving teaching, the truth that perhaps don’t want you to hear. I’m here to warn you about what it might feel like if you do make that choice, good and bad. Mostly, I hope I’m here to inspire change—if you feel the need to leave, I hope you can find the strength to do it here.
It won’t be easy—but from where I’m standing, I wish more teachers knew how worth it the change would be.
Here are the seven major things I’ve learned since leaving teaching.
Now, in my new job, I walk into the building and feel energized. Truly. Physically, my health is so much better, probably partially from the fact I’m not walking around stressed every second of the day. Most of all, I actually feel like I enjoy my evenings again because I’m not sleeping every spare moment I have. I come home and have energy to exercise, to run errands, and even to pursue different hobbies I’d abandoned.
It's easy when you’re in the middle of it all to think that how you feel—sapped of energy, half sick all the time, and just run-down—is normal. I’m here to tell you that it’s not. Sure, there are days I’m tired or days I wish I could just stay home all day. But I don’t feel that same kind of illness I felt from being burnt out in the education field.
2. Your weekends should be just that …weekends.
During my ten years of teaching, I thought I enjoyed my weekends. I’ve now realized I didn’t. I understand now how free I feel when I clock out on Fridays. I don’t think about my job again until Monday morning. I don’t stress about the upcoming week or replay all the scenarios that happened in my head all weekend. I simply step away from work and enjoy my time off.
More than that, I enjoy my Sundays now, too. I no longer wake up on Sunday morning fretting about the return to work. I truly enjoy every moment I’m away from work because there is a distinct, clear boundary between my personal life and my work life like there never was during teaching. In fact, in education, it’s often seen as selfish and shameful when you put up that boundary. Ignoring student and parent emails all weekend? But what if they need help with something? Not preparing your lessons for the next week? That’s unacceptable. And what about that stack of papers you didn’t have time to grade? The students need that feedback.
Having weekends off again, really having them off, has reminded me that work life balance can exist, truly. And it’s been a freeing feeling to enjoy them once more.
3. It can be lonely starting over.
I’m not going to lie to you and tell you that starting over is a walk in the park. There will be moments of self-doubt, moments when you wonder if you can really pull it off. For me, teaching in the same district for ten years meant I had really close friends and knew everyone in the school really well. Going somewhere knew wasn’t easy—it’s never fun being the new girl. Having to build new relationships and friendships at work has been difficult. I went from knowing everyone to really knowing no one, and that’s been lonely at times.
Still, I keep pushing on. I know in the long-run, those relationships will be built. I remind myself that my relationships at the school didn’t happen in a few months. It’s really about managing your expectations and understanding that starting over isn’t a bad thing. Scary? Sometimes. Still, starting over, especially in the right place, can lead you to even better relationships that stem from a healthier place. Plus, I still stay in touch with my closest friends from the school. A new job doesn’t mean you have to abandon your past relationships. It just takes a little more effort to keep them strong.
4. You don’t need summers off when you have a job that energizes you.
This is perhaps the biggest question I get about leaving teaching: Don’t you miss summers off? I started my new job at the beginning of August and got a taste of what it was like to work during the summer. The thing is, it’s hard to explain to those in the education field. We live for our summers, don’t we? Even though we certainly aren’t lounging all summer long—some of us have other jobs, curriculum writing, classrooms to design, etc. Still, having those few months off are essential to our well-being. By summer, I would be dragging myself out of bed in the morning and barely getting by. Summer was the only way I could power through.
Now, though, because I am enjoying my evenings and weekends in ways I never did before, I can honestly say I don’t miss all of my breaks I had. I have worked almost five straight months without taking a vacation day—and I don’t feel the need to. When you are working at a job with reasonable expectations and work life balance, those long vacations aren’t necessary. Plus, my schedule has been way more flexible than the school. If I need to go to the dentist, I can switch my hours around to make that happen without taking a sick day like I used to have to do.
5. It’s not normal to be treated like anything less than a professional.
In my new job, I’m treated like a professional, plain and simple. No one swears at me daily or throws things. No one threatens me or questions my professional opinions. No one is out to get me every single day or looking for ways I could potentially mess up.
I’m trusted to do the work I was hired to do. I don’t have to prove my worth every single day. I don’t have to defend my worth, either. I am treated with respect and appreciation.
This has been the biggest lesson learned since leaving the classroom. I think so many of us are taught to just accept being sworn at, degraded, lied to and about, and put on the defensive. I liken teaching to being in the courtroom—you always had to be ready to prove your innocence and defend your value. I didn’t realize what a mental toll that was taking on me until I left.
You are worthy. You are skilled. You deserve to be treated with respect. When I think about all of the comments students made to me and about me without consequence, it makes me frustrated. Excuses like “they’re just kids” or “well, you need to be the adult and not provoke those comments,” are told to us as means of defending behavior that just isn’t acceptable. What’s really worrying to me is that many of the teachers I saw verbally abused were females; it’s sending a message to our youth that females in charge don’t have to be respected, which is a terrifying premise in my opinion.
Kids aren’t perfect, certainly. We all know that going into the job. But the fact that in many classrooms, kids saying inappropriate things has turned into daily verbal abuse that has little consequence is more than worrisome. It’s wrong. You don’t deserve to be berated daily. You deserve to be treated with respect and professionally—by students, by administrators, and by parents. Don’t let anyone make you believe otherwise.
6. Making your job your life is not a badge of honor. It’s a warning sign.
I realize now that I’m gone how much it is encouraged to live and breath your job in teaching. You leave at 3 p.m.? You must not be committed. You don’t get the papers back in a day? You aren’t taking enough work home. You don’t volunteer after school? You must not really like kids.
There are so many lies told to educators. We’re told that nothing matters more than the students. I’m here to say something controversial—you also matter. Your mental health, well-being, family, and personal life matters, too. You should not be a human sacrifice for your job. You should not be guilt-tripped into working 70 and 80 hours for no extra pay. You deserve to be compensated for your time.
Outside of education, I have found a position that promised work life balance—and it delivers. I am not expected to work for free off the clock. I am not expected to work 24/7. I am not expected to have no life outside of work.
7. It takes courage to leave …but it also is how you grow.
Saying goodbye to a career always will be difficult, but leaving teaching seems like an extra heavy burden sometimes. It feels like a very public decision. Sometimes, the fear of judgement weighs heavily. Other times, it’s the terror around making the big decision to leave because we’re told we have the best jobs.
Maybe for you, staying put in teaching is what you feel is right. But, if like me, you’re starting to see that most days, you are unhappy, maybe it’s time to find the courage to take a step in a new direction.
I think as teachers, we’re made to believe we get one career choice and that’s it. I’m here to tell you that’s a lie. It’s a big, wide world out there. You have more skills than you even realize. Companies would be thrilled to have your organization, communication skills, presentation skills, technology skills, and multi-tasking skills. Truly. And maybe you won’t get it right the first try. Maybe you’ll start in a job that doesn’t feel like the best fit. You know what? That’s okay.
Because after leaving teaching, I now understand that change is growth. It’s okay to change your mind, and it’s okay to explore. It’s okay to do some searching for what makes you happy.
You might fall down a few times. You might struggle. And that’s okay. You’ll be okay.
The only thing that isn’t okay? Spending your life going to a job that doesn’t fulfill you, a job that makes you sick, and a job that just isn’t your passion anymore. Life is way too short to stay in a job that isn’t right for you.
I hope teacher or not, you find the courage to soul-search for what you really want and, if that’s leaving teaching, I hope you find the bravery to do just that.
L.A. Detwiler is a former high school English teacher of ten years and a USA Today Bestselling thriller author. Her novel The Widow Next Door was published with HarperCollins UK and is an international bestseller. Her articles have appeared in numerous magazines and websites, including Huffpost, Chicken Soup for the Soul, and Thought Catalog. Follow her writing journey on Instagram or Facebook.
I'm an ex-teacher. Here's what you need to know if you're thinking of leaving education.
I left teaching.
That was the word that had started to come to mind when I thought about my days. Not the kind of lifeless that stems from a day or two of being tired or from a tragic time. It was the kind of lifeless that broiled up daily from a deep-rooted, all-encompassing emptiness. I had stopped feeling passion about anything anymore. I had stopped feeling joy. More importantly, I had stopped feeling like myself.
It was my husband who helped me come to my full awakening that the deep despondency I was feeling about my job wasn’t normal. He noticed how it had become an unspoken rarity for me to tell him I had a good day at work. More often than not, I would come home crying from the stress, anxiety, and frustrations from my job. And sure, I had summer vacation—but I found myself living only for those months. Nine months of the year, I had become an overwhelmed, angry shell of who I really was. So, after many job applications, rejections, self-doubts, and months, I did the unthinkable. I left teaching.
I'm an ex-teacher.
I am an ex-teacher. It’s a title I never in a million years thought I would possess. Ever since I was a little girl teaching stuffed animals on the stairs with my tiny chalkboard, teaching was my dream. Mostly, I wanted to teach because I’ve always believed in the power of education. I love the doors and possibilities that open up with education, and I wanted to incite that spark in others. For about seven years, I did just that—and that light inspired me, too. I felt passion for my work and built connections with my students that still stand today. I created engaging activities, graded papers, taught about Shakespeare, and did all the teaching things. I felt alive.
But, for those of you in education, you know there was a shift even before the COVID word began to leak into our daily existence. About seven years into my career, it became apparent that education had changed. The students had changed. And with those transformations, something broke in the education system—and in me.
Why the education system is failing.
I could go on and on about what I think is wrong in the system that is, in many ways, collapsing around so many. I could talk about the lack of respect and the move from encouraging intrinsic motivation in students to extrinsic and sometimes non-existent motivation. I could talk about how our grading systems are diluting all the true purposes of learning. I could go on and on about how we are failing our teachers, but we are also failing our students by not preparing them for the fact that life is hard. I could talk about how the school system has become a giant excuse factory that allows unacceptable, unsafe behaviors to be harbored in our classrooms and how teachers are held responsible for every hostile facet of an environment that surfaces from such naïve philosophies.
I could talk about the scary moments I’ve had and the even scarier fact that so many moments had no consequences for the students. I, like so many educators, could also give you too many stories of times I felt completely de-humanized, disrespected, and even unsafe in the classroom to the point I felt constantly sick to my stomach. I could tell you about how I felt stuck, trapped in a profession with little upward mobility or recognition for hard work. I could tell you things that would make you afraid for the future of the education system.
But if you’re a teacher thinking of leaving, you know all this already, and I’m not here to write a dissertation for a public that already is ready to crucify educators for every misstep, misspoken word, or claim about the faultiness of student behavior. I’m here to tell you about the other side of things—the side so many of us dream of but are afraid to go and explore.
In truth, I made the decision to leave teaching years ago when my heart started to die a little bit each time I walked into that classroom and saw a total sense of apathy growing in the students. It was the final school year when my decision was made. I was trying to inspire students to chase dreams and live their best lives, but at my core, I wasn’t living mine. I didn’t recognize the person I had become—anxiety-filled, tearful, depressed, and often ill. I finally decided to listen to my inner voice and my favorite mantra:
“You are not a tree.” I made the change.
Making the choice to leave teaching
On the other side of the teaching wall, I want to tell you this—I’m happy. Truly, unrecognizably happy. I no longer dread going to work. In fact, I enjoy what I’m doing. I’ve found a job related to my ultimate passion, writing, and it feels like a dream to get to do this work every single day. I no longer find myself napping for hours after work from exhaustion and sadness. I no longer feel sick to my stomach when I walk in the front doors, and I no longer feel disrespected or blamed for things out of my control. I now have opportunities for growth and learning that excite me.
I want to share with you some things I’ve learned from my shift from teaching. I’m sharing these things because I know there are a lot more out there like me—feeling broken-down, despondent, and tired but too afraid to say something. I know there is a hero-complex in teaching where it makes you feel like a bad person to even suggest you want to leave or that things aren’t perfect. I also know there is a deep curiosity about what it really is like on the other side of the education system.
I also want to make it clear that I came from a school with great administrators. The issues I experienced weren’t because of them. They were supportive and kind. It’s just that they, too, are encompassed by a broken system. They can’t be expected to singlehandedly change an entire educational structure, either.
I hope that these insights I’ve had help someone else who is trying to make the difficult decision to leave. I’m not saying leaving is right for everyone. Certainly, we need dedicated educators to stay, to fight the fight, and to make changes. However, I also don’t think that’s the path for all of us. I don’t think it’s selfish to want something different for yourself. So, here are the things I’ve learned these past few months since leaving my classroom for the last time.
1. It isn't selfish to have a new dream.
In education more than any other job, there is a feeling of guilt for leaving the profession. I think it’s because during our careers, we’re constantly reminded that we’re there for the kids. Every new task, every insurmountable hurdle, every exhausting week, we’re reminded that we’ll do anything “for the betterment of the kids.” We’re told often that you can’t pour from an empty cup—but that’s exactly what we’re encouraged to do. If you’re not sacrificing your health, sleep, and social life for the kids, you’re not doing enough. This “never enough” mentality rules us, plagues us, and preys on us. Because here’s the thing—we go into teaching because we do care and we do want to make a difference. And that’s what makes leaving feel that much harder.
We’re made to feel sometimes like we’ve abandoned the great cause. We’re made to feel like we’re lazy or uncaring for wanting a job where we’re respected and recognized for our efforts. We’re made to feel like we’re terrible teachers for leaving.
I struggled with that for a while when I first left. If I was really such a good teacher, why didn’t I stay and fight the good fight? Shouldn’t I raise my voice and try to make changes? But here’s the thing I’ve come to understand now—the good fight is rigged. That’s not to say it’s hopeless, but I’m here to tell you that if your mental health and well-being is suffering, fighting the good fight isn’t fighting any good fight at all.
The kids are important, certainly. But I’m going to say something controversial in education—you’re important, too. You matter, too. Your well-being, your motivation, your passions, and your dreams all matter. It isn’t selfish to want a new dream.
2. Disrespect shouldn't be a normal part of work life.
When I became a teacher, I knew the kids would be disrespectful. We had entire chapters in our college textbooks devoted to how to deal with students with behavior issues. Still, in the past few years, things have taken a dark turn.
I think we come to a point as teachers where we are inundated with such a toxic, verbally abusive environment that we begin to believe that’s how it is everywhere. We begin to think we aren’t worthy of respect or that somehow, it’s just part of the job. We’re sworn at, accused falsely, told we’re worthless, challenged, and disrespected all in the name of “that’s kids for you.” We’re told that we have no power, told that we have no say in our own classrooms, and told that we’re not even worthy of human decency. This is no longer a rare occurrence, either. This is something that happens multiple times a day in classrooms, to the point that it has become the norm.
The scary part looking back? We start to believe it. We believe it’s normal to be called a bitch or told because we’re women, we aren’t respected. We believe it’s normal to be afraid of being cussed out, having violence in our classrooms, or being told we don’t know what we’re doing despite numerous degrees and years of experience. We take it with a smile because that’s what we should do.
Certainly, when working with teenagers or younger, you know there’s going to be disrespect. But when day in and day out, you’re verbally abused, told you don’t matter, and talked to in ways that would never be acceptable anywhere else, all without consequences at times, it takes a mental toll.
Now that I’m in a professional corporate environment, I want to say this—it’s not normal. Not even close. And now that I’m somewhere with professional standards, I’ve come to walk with my head a little higher. I’ve come to be appreciated for my talents, my skills, and my experience. I’ve come to understand that teenagers or not, it’s never okay to be talked to the way I was on a daily basis.
3. You shouldn't be miserable every single day at work.
This is another eye-opening find I’ve had since leaving the classroom. I no longer dread Mondays. I no longer feel that sickness in the pit of my stomach when I walk through the door. I no longer count the hours until my next day off.
I’m just steadily happy. Every day, I feel like there’s something to look forward to. And most of all, even when I have a hard day at work, I’m not wiped out completely to the point I need to sleep the night away. I leave work, go home, and have the energy and passion to pursue what I love. I’m working on my hobbies again. I’m exercising more. I’m sleeping better. The quality of my life when I’m not at work has exponentially improved. I’m just plain happy—both at home and at work.
Should YOU leave teaching?
It’s still crazy to me sometimes to think I left teaching, the only thing I ever dreamed of doing. But the thing I’ve learned these past few months is that dreams change sometimes, and that’s okay. I know this article might sound like teaching is hopeless or that I think everyone should leave education. Let me be clear—I don’t. If you still love teaching, if you think it’s still worth the negatives, then by all means, keep teaching. We need passionate educators to continue moving the education system forward. We need educators to light a fire for learning in our students. I still am thankful we live in a country that believes in free education for all.
However, if you’re connecting with some of the negatives I mentioned, then I hope this article gives you pause. There are all sorts of reasons we tell ourselves we need to stay in education or in any job, really, that we’re no longer happy in. We think about the wise choice, the less risky choice, the comfortable choice. Was leaving teaching easy? Not at all. I sacrificed some things like my summers, my pension, and the stable comfort of knowing exactly what I was doing. Change is always slightly uncomfortable and terrifying, and this was no exception. It was hard starting over and learning a new job. It was hard leaving my friends. It was hard leaving behind the students I had connected with.
Still, do you know what’s harder? Going to a job every day where you feel dead inside. Going to a job where you don’t remember your worth anymore or where you feel sick to your stomach every day. Going to a job you no longer fully believe is right for you.
Leaving teaching will never be easy. There will be internal and external struggles. But, standing here on the other side of my choice, I can tell you I made the best one for me. I’m now in a job I love, a job that lights me up again. I’m in a job where I walk through the door and feel respected, heard, and appreciated. I’m in a job where I feel like I am empowered to make a difference without swimming upstream all the time. I’m in a job where I feel energized and not exhausted.
Teachers do have career options.
There will be some who will read this and be angry. There will some who will read this and think I’m a bad teacher for leaving. There will be some who will be rooting for me to fail. But that’s okay.
I’ve learned from leaving teaching that especially when you’re an educator, everyone will have an opinion about your choices. The only important one, though, is your own. So, to the educators who are thinking of leaving teaching—I hope you learn to dismiss everyone else’s opinion and listen to yourself. And, if that inner voice tells you it’s time to go—I hope you go with your head held high and excitement for what’s to come. Because the greatest lesson I’ve learned since leaving the classroom? It’s a great big, wide world out there beyond the classroom, and when it feels like it’s time to go, it’s okay to head out into the great unknown and explore. As the Walt Whitman poster that was hanging in my classroom said, “Now voyager sail thou forth to seek and find.”
Sail thou forth, dear teacher. There’s a wide horizon waiting for you.
Lindsay (L.A.) Detwiler is a USA Today Bestselling thriller author, former English teacher, and a Communications Specialist from Pennsylvania. Her novel The Widow Next Door, published with HarperCollins UK, hit the USA Today Bestseller's list. She has numerous other bestselling published novels, including The Diary of a Serial Killer's Daughter and Remember When.
*If you are looking for help and courage to make the change, I highly recommend checking out the Teacher Career Coach (This isn't an ad at all...I just followed her on IG and loved her content). She really helped me find the courage to chase my new dream. Check her out on Instagram @teachercareercoach
USA TODAY Bestselling Thriller author with Avon Books (HarperCollins), The Widow Next Door, The Diary of a Serial Killer's Daughter, and other creepy thriller books