Why You Aren’t a Failure Because You Quit Teaching

Helping people learn is a passion of mine whose flame has never gone out. However, as you may have noticed, I am no longer a teacher. I don’t work in a school anymore, but my love of learning is still strong and my desire to educate people- children and adults alike- is still a big part of who I am.

For years after I served as a teacher in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, I was laden with guilt and the fear that I had somehow failed. That I was somehow lesser than teachers who stuck it out for twenty years or more. That I didn’t manage to make any sort of impact on the children that I taught.

The fact of the matter is this: I didn’t fail. I did the best I could in a difficult situation and I may not have served as long as other teachers, but I made an impact in the lives of the children I worked with. It’s hard to believe that some days, even now.

Many of us go into teaching optimistic, believing that even though it’s going to be really hard, somehow it’s going to be easier because we know that it’s supposed to be hard. Okay, so the logic may not be very sound, but I know that I was confident. I was certain that I had what it took to be a teacher for the rest of my life and I just knew that no matter what was thrown at me, I would be just fine, because I was prepared.

Fresh out of college, I was naive. Many teachers come out of college thinking that they’re going to change the system. They think they’re going to make a real, noticeable impact on the lives of the children they work with. And when they don’t change the system or make a real, noticeable impact, they are discouraged.

Consider for a moment why you became a teacher. I wanted to do it for a couple of reasons- and some of them weren’t the best reasons:

  • I wanted to help kids, especially from low-income families, because I was raised in a low-income family and public education gave me a chance to have a happy, successful career. I didn’t want to work in a factory like my father, grandfather, uncles, and cousins. I wanted to give other kids like me a chance to learn and make a bright future for themselves.
  • I loved learning and I honestly wanted to spend the rest of my life in school, because it was more or less all I had ever known.
  • I was good in school and my teachers often commented on how good of a teacher I would be. I wanted to do something that I had a natural flair for, which would give me a steady income but wouldn’t be hours of grueling work in the fields or a factory.
  • I was raised to believe that there were only certain jobs that were “acceptable” and secure enough to sustain me financially. My choices, according to my father, were being a doctor or working as some sort of secretary or administrative assistant. I rebelled, but only a little, because I chose teaching instead.

Obviously a lot of these motivating reasons weren’t really healthy ways of thinking. I based my value on how I could make myself “useful” and helpful to others. I based my value on the kind of work I did being something that my father could understand and be proud of. I was afraid to take risks and do something that I hadn’t been told over and over again that I would be great at it. In short, I was afraid to do what I’m doing now: being self employed as a writer and blogger.

I loved teaching, even if my original reasons to pursue it weren’t the best. Simply distilling information and concepts to children and watching them gobble it up and learn and grow as people was wonderful. Supporting kids who had rough home lives, breaking down content into more manageable chunks for children who were struggling with the content, and encouraging them to work hard and follow their dreams were some of my favorite things about teaching.

But I didn’t last. 

I am honestly still a little ashamed of how little time it took for me to crash and burn. I’m still healing from my experience and my guilt and it’s going to take time before that process is complete so I can look back at that period in my life without guilt.

The first quarter of the school year went pretty great. I was teaching and I was doing well. The kids were showing growth in the content areas I taught and I was getting positive remarks and reviews from the administration. But I was running myself into the ground the whole time and eventually that grinding wore me down. I became depressed, stressed, and overwhelmed. I couldn’t keep up because I couldn’t rest at night. I couldn’t come up with ways to reach the kids that were struggling the most while also creating challenging content for the kids who were performing especially well. I wanted to help the kids whose misbehavior was a call for help, but I didn’t know what to do or how I could do anything to help or even if there was anything I could do to help them. And all of that kept me awake at night. That gave me nightmares about working and I couldn’t rest. I struggled to keep up with lesson and unit planning and grading papers and my social life suffered (read: I had no social life whatsoever).

Obviously, teaching was not the right profession for me. Whether your experience as a teacher was similar to mine or not, you still weren’t a failure. Here are the reasons why:

You Did Your Best.

Did you use your education and skills to the best of your ability to teach the kids in your care? Did you try to stick it out the whole school year? Did you help even one kid learn something about any topic at all? It could even have been some sort of social skill that your student learned from you. That means you tried your best and the job just wasn’t a good fit for you, whatever the reason may have been that you left it behind.

Teaching is HARD.

Harder even than what your college professors told you. When you are a teacher, there is so much that is expected from you. You must be teacher, parent, nurse, counselor, disciplinarian, planner, mediator, tutor, curriculum designer, cheerleader, and librarian all at the same time. While you perform all of these roles, you also have to balance responsibilities passed down to you from a government that doesn’t know the first thing about teaching with the responsibilities inherent in your job. It’s a hard juggling act to perform and choosing to walk away doesn’t mean that you were bad or incompetent as a teacher. It just means that this job wasn’t the right fit for you and that’s okay.

It wasn’t a good fit for you.

You have talents and skills that you have honed and that you are just better at. Teaching may not have tapped into the skills you excel at or perhaps your interests lie elsewhere. Maybe this career wasn’t what you were destined to do for the rest of your life. Maybe you would be better off working as a teacher assistant or as a curriculum specialist or a tutor working with small groups. Either way, you didn’t enjoy this job or it wasn’t something that you could continue to do because it was bad for your mental health and that doesn’t mean that you were a failure or that you’re defective or broken. It just means this wasn’t the right job for you and your life. The world is full of endless possibilities for you and life is ready for you to take it by the horns.

You went into teaching for the wrong reasons.

Perhaps, like me, you went into teaching because it was a secure career. The world always needs teachers, after all. Maybe you went into teaching because you wanted to “save” all the children from misery and that’s just impractical. You can’t save everyone and your impact is much more limited than all of those professional development workshops might lead you to believe. You may have gone into teaching out of a need to be approved of and to prove to yourself that you have value.

None of these reasons for going into teaching are inherently bad, but some of them are unhealthy. But none of those reasons mean you’re a failure or that you aren’t an intelligent person.

Hopefully, this post has helped you come to terms with your departure from your career as a classroom teacher. It’s been a long, bumpy road since I left teaching, but my passion for learning and for teaching others has never died. If education and teaching others is something you’re passionate about and you know you’re good at it, then look into other careers related to education.

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5 comments

  1. I was a happy middle school teacher when we moved from one city to another due to my ex-husband’s job. It is sad to think about having to leave at the end of my first happy year. We moved into a town which had 60 teachers laid off. I worked in social services as a child advocate. Then, when we started to go in different directions, I moved to a new beginning. I substitute taught middle school. When offered a full-time job in preschool special education I was thrilled. But it only asked for a bachelor’s degree. Once the Bush administration asked every teacher to get a Master’s in what they taught, 2004 until 2008, I did as much as I could. The last three courses we’re not offered in 2008. No Child Left Behind kicked me out of my nine years of teaching this.
    I really wish I could say I got another good job but for ten years I have worked in a warehouse. Oh well, I’m alive and there’s my sad story, I try to keep my mind busy! Smiles, Robin

    1. I’m sorry to hear about your experience, Robin! I hope that you have been able to find some peace in spite of it. There is no shame in working in a warehouse or any other field, but it is utterly heartbreaking to find yourself unable to work in the field you have dedicated so much time and effort to. Best wishes for you!

      1. Thank you, Alice! It is comforting that some of my preschool lesson plans have helped to expand the learning of my own grandchildren. Since 1999, when I started teaching children with learning disabilities and developmental delays, I was recording on the state of Ohio’s content standards how my 3,4, 5 and 6 year olds were doing. Many of my grown children’s friends didn’t know that there has been increased indicators of younger children’s learning. So, it helps ease my pain. I appreciate those nine years rather than the years of middle school. I joke, “If I were to have to listen to someone yelling at me, stomping their feet and possibly saying a swear word, I would have rather had them smaller than I am!” 😊 Best wishes to you, too.
        Thank you sincerely for your caring words, Alice.

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