You Can Quit Teaching: Imagining Life Beyond the Classroom

By Maggie Glennon, M.Ed

When I was a teacher the center drawer of my desk was brimming with notes from students expressing how much of an impact I made on their lives. I was confident in my teaching abilities, and frankly, I knew I excelled at my job. I got to work alongside some of my closest friends and taught in Massachusetts—a state where education is well funded. There were even aspects of teaching during the pandemic that I found enjoyable. So, shouldn't that have been enough? Why did I go home feeling so empty? Why did it seem like I was stuck in a never-ending cycle? Why did I end up quitting?

My Journey to Leave Education

This won't be a five-step how-to guide or a promise of a new job and endless happiness—because, guess what, I don't have a crystal ball, and each of us has our own unique circumstances and journeys. Fear had me bound to education and paralyzed at the thought of doing anything else with my life. I’m guessing if you’re reading this you might feel similarly.

I’m sharing snippets of my story, and some tools and mindsets that not only helped me, but have also been beneficial for my clients. I’m doing this because I want you to know that you have a choice and that it’s okay to want more. It’s also okay to decide to stay. The important part is finding a sense of empowerment and living intentionally.

Self-Awareness Transformed Teaching

In my early twenties, I found myself sitting across from a therapist for the first time. I had always dealt with anxiety, but the ways I coped were taking a toll on my relationships, leaving me feeling angry, misunderstood, and deeply hurt. Although I walked through the door with the intention of fixing myself and kicking anxiety to the curb, as quickly as possible, I soon became genuinely curious about the tools and the process. As I started seeing changes in my own life, I was hooked.

Therapy made me a better teacher, not only because I was less anxious and more confident, but because I learned how to ask better questions, listen more attentively, and, crucially, meet my students where they were at. The skills and tools that I learned to help myself, I soon passed onto my students. The investment in my student’s social-emotional health quickly paid off. Behavioral challenges diminished and on a whole I had a classroom where students felt safe and enjoyed being. The only problem—it made me intensely aware of the disparity between how my classroom functioned and the priorities of my school district and the education system as a whole. We were failing our students—they needed and deserved more.

Another revelation also surfaced, I hadn't consciously chosen my career. I simply did what I thought was expected of me. It wasn’t a total disaster, I was good at my job and there were moments that I enjoyed—but the truth remained: I became a teacher before I truly knew myself.

Journal Prompt: What’s Your Why?

  • Why did you become a teacher? Be honest. This isn’t some professional development team building activity.

Focusing on What’s In Your Control

Despite grappling with the bureaucracy and challenges of teaching, I wasn't immediately ready to throw in the towel. I took on leadership roles within my school and got clear on what was in my control and what wasn’t (as the poster on my classroom wall advised). I prioritized the needs of my students over the curriculum, and surprisingly, we still managed to cover most of what was necessary. Outside of the classroom, I continued to take psychology courses and self-study. I didn’t know where my new found passion would take me, but it bought me a few more years—so did my fear. If I wasn't a teacher, then what was I? My mind told me that I was too deeply invested now and I’d be foolish to walk away from this.

Tool: Control T-Chart

  1. Identify Concerns: Take a moment to reflect on various aspects of your current situation that may be causing stress, frustration, or dissatisfaction.
  2. Create Chart: Create a simple chart by drawing a vertical line down the center of a piece of paper or using a digital spreadsheet. Label one column "Controllable" and the other "Uncontrollable."
  3. List Factors: Transfer each of your identified concerns into the appropriate column on the chart based on whether they are controllable or uncontrollable.
  4. Reflect and Analyze: With your chart now filled out, take a step back and reflect on the factors listed in each column. Consider how you feel about each concern and the level of impact it has on your overall well-being and satisfaction.
  5. Focus on Controllables: Shift your focus to the factors listed under the "Controllable" column. These are the areas where you have the ability to make changes or take action. Think about specific steps you can take to address or improve these factors, and consider setting goals or creating action plans to guide your efforts.
  6. Accept Uncontrollables: While it's important to prioritize action on controllable factors, it's also essential to acknowledge the factors listed under the "Uncontrollable" column. These are aspects of your situation that you may not be able to change directly. Practice acceptance of these factors and focus instead on how you can adapt your mindset or approach to better cope with or mitigate their effects.
  7. Plan of Action: Based on your analysis, develop a plan of action that prioritizes addressing the controllable factors while also developing strategies for managing the impact of the uncontrollable factors. Break down your action steps into manageable tasks and set deadlines or milestones to keep yourself accountable.

Who Do You Want to Be? The Role of Values

Although my evaluations were flawless and my students were content and learning, things weren’t getting better for me. Approaching a decade in the classroom, I was settling into a pattern of eye-rolling, frustration and resentment. As someone who typically believes in the goodness of humans and is a realist, walking through the world with these new glasses was uncomfortable. There hadn’t been any massive changes or events that spurred this new attitude. On the whole things weren’t better, but they also weren’t any worse. So where did this shift come from? It dawned on me that this shift stemmed from finally grasping and comprehending my values. For the first time in my life, I had the language to articulate what truly mattered to me, and it became evident that the majority of my existence was unfolding in an environment that as in direct conflict with most of them.

Tool: Values Exploration

  1. Reflect on Personal Experiences: Take a moment to think about past experiences in your life where you felt truly fulfilled, satisfied, or deeply engaged. These could be moments of joy, accomplishment, connection, or purpose.
  2. Identify Core Themes: Look for common themes or values that were present in these memorable experiences. Consider what underlying principles or beliefs were at play during these moments of fulfillment.
  3. List Potential Values: Begin brainstorming a list of values that resonate with you based on the themes you identified. These could include values such as authenticity, compassion, growth, creativity, independence, integrity, or contribution, among others.
  4. Rank Your Values: Once you have a list of potential values, prioritize them based on their importance to you. Consider which values you hold most dear and which ones you feel are essential for leading a fulfilling and meaningful life. Try to limit your list to 5-6.
  5. Assess Alignment: Evaluate how well your current circumstances, including your job, relationships, and daily activities, align with your core values. Consider whether you feel a sense of fulfillment and alignment with your values in these areas, or if there are areas where there is a disconnect or conflict.
  6. Explore Impact: Reflect on how living in alignment with your values impacts your overall well-being, satisfaction, and sense of purpose. Consider moments in your life when you have felt most fulfilled and alive, and identify how your values were present in those experiences.
  7. Identify Discrepancies: Take note of any areas where there is a mismatch between your values and your current circumstances. These discrepancies may be contributing to feelings of dissatisfaction, frustration, or resentment in your life.

Understanding Roles: You’re More Than An Educator

Teacher wasn’t just my job title; it was my identity. Even with all the new data points about my values and realizing my job was moving me further away from the person that I wanted to be, for a while, the thought of leaving the classroom was still terrifying. There were so many qualities I loved about teaching, and a lot of it came naturally to me. In my heart, I knew that I was an educator. How could I just shut that part of myself completely off? When I was at this point in my journey, I was grateful to be working with a coach because I needed someone to help fact-check me. My fear was real, and I know that when I get into the mindset, I tend to default into “all or nothing” thinking. I had a story in my head that being in a classroom was the only way to be a teacher. And although teaching was a large part of my identity, I had also lost sight of all the other important roles I played, like daughter and friend. My coach helped me realize that being a teacher takes many different shapes and forms, and to get curious about how living in a more aligned way might allow me to play the other roles in my life in a way that was more fulfilling.

Journal Prompts: Roles

  • Think about how you act differently depending on who you're with—your roles in different groups or places. Do you change a lot or stay the same? How does this affect your relationships and how you grow?
  • Look at how society expects you to act in different roles. How do these expectations affect you? Have you ever gone against them? How did it feel?
  • Consider if you're giving enough attention to all the things you do in life. Are there roles you're neglecting? Why? How might balancing them better improve your life?
  • Imagine who you want to be in the future—your dream roles or jobs. What can you do now to get there? What challenges might you face?

Embracing Change: Navigating Uncertainty

Despite the comfort of familiarity and the security of routine, I eventually reached a tipping point where staying in the classroom felt more stifling than empowering. It was a daunting decision to step away from a career that had defined so much of my identity and purpose. However, I realized that staying stagnant out of fear was no longer an option for me. I had to confront the uncertainty of the unknown and embrace the potential for growth and fulfillment beyond the classroom. This choice involved careful reflection, soul-searching conversations, and a willingness to trust in myself. There were many moments leading up to and after I left that I relied heavily on my self-compassion practices. I learned to be gentle and patient with myself. I’ve met many teachers who have done similar exercises and decided to stay, but they are armed with self-awareness and can now navigate the ups and downs from a place of empowerment.

You Have the Power

Despite the initial uncertainty and fear, stepping into the unknown allowed me to rediscover myself and align my actions with my values. I share my story not as a blueprint for everyone to follow, but as a reminder that change is possible, and it's okay to want more from life. Whether you're considering a similar path or simply seeking guidance in navigating your own journey, know that you're not alone. Sometimes, having someone to walk alongside you can make all the difference. If you're ready to explore what lies beyond the classroom and embark on a journey of self-discovery, working with a coach could be the next step toward finding clarity and empowerment. So, as you reflect on your own aspirations and desires, remember that the power to create the life you envision lies within you.

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