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