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When to Quit - Teacher Life in 2021

teacher resignation         

If anyone has been purposely avoiding the headlines lately to save money on therapy bills and wants a quick summary, there is a lot of energy around what has been dubbed “The Great Resignation.” Whether they can afford to or not, people have been quitting their jobs in record numbers and citing all kinds of reasons for their actions, from physical and/or mental health needs to not earning enough to justify working so hard. Few professions are immune from this trend, and not surprisingly, teaching is among them. In this Washington Post Magazine article, Leslie Gray Streeter shares multiple stories from those who have left education. Clearly, it’s not sudden madness that has driven so many to quit; there are legitimate reasons for such a heavy decision. The question is, how do teachers know when to stay and wait for things to improve, or when it is finally time to leave?

What Can We Change?           

Last night, I exhaled in frustration when I spotted the dish drainer. All the dishes were piled up precariously right on top of one another. I have told my beloved family many times that when there are too many dishes in the drainer, we need to dry some by hand or everything will just stay wet. However, as I pulled out a towel, I knew that I was unlikely to change other people’s habits. Sometimes, there is absolutely nothing we can do to make a dent in what causes us the most external angst. When we apply that thinking to our teaching, it is important to separate what we can fix for ourselves and what is beyond our control. For example, we cannot control that our schedule might have placed our most challenging class at the end of the day, when we are at our most tired and kids are wound up. If the mere fact that the class exists at that time is enough to make us throw up our hands, it might be time to figure out what we want in the grander scheme of things. However, most of us can find some coping strategies to manage our frustrations. Perhaps we plan that last class to include more movement, or design some specific student-centered lessons for all of our students that serve the kids in that last class particularly well. To that end, the elements of our work life that begin as problems often become the best parts of teaching, but only if we have the mindset to exert control over what we can and let go of areas over which we have no influence.

Actions and Reactions           

Whenever my children get angry with one another and take a fight too far, I point out that they have no power to control others, but they are responsible for their own behavior. I always get an eye roll with that, but I persist in repeating myself each time one of my kids has a less than ideal reaction to a situation. As teachers, we feel that many things are done to us, as opposed to with us. We face mandates of all kinds, changes in procedure, students being moved into or out of our classes, quarantine protocols, and many other disruptions both great and small that interfere with our plans. Even something that seems like no big deal, like a stream of interruptions over the school intercom over a period of a few weeks, can really gnaw away at our instructional time. For that reason, it might help to check our reactions and make sure they are proportional to what is happening. Nobody is okay these days, which makes being self-aware even harder. If we’ve gotten to a point where we are letting loose with our thoughts without a filter and feeling constantly like we cannot take even one more bit of foolishness, then it might be time to take a sabbatical, particularly if many months have gone by without improvement (and if we can afford to, which many of us cannot). If we can step back, take a deep breath and put things into some kind of perspective that returns us to a state of relative calm, then sticking with it and monitoring how we react as we forge ahead helps us manage our stress levels with more effective intention.

The Bottom Line           

We all have non-negotiables. One of my silly ones is that no day can go by without chocolate. To go a little deeper, I am not okay with being micromanaged, and I have left work situations in the past for that reason. What can we live with? What will never be okay? These criteria are often undefined, but we know when we have been pushed too far. For example, I recently spoke to a teacher who often has no break in the workday, thanks to new pandemic-era factors. When she is not actively teaching, she is asked to cover the classes of colleagues who are out or monitors rooms full of students who are isolated from their regular classes because of possible disease exposure. Her lunch goes uneaten, and bathroom breaks are difficult to come by. Teachers everywhere are having similar experiences, and everyone knows that these work conditions cannot be sustained. If we hit a bottom line and do not see ourselves surviving, we need to reach out to school leadership and try to get help. They may or may not be able to alleviate our greatest stressors, but it is more than worth it to ask for what we need, especially if we share how close we are to a breaking point.

Most of us do not want to quit for a whole host of good reasons. We need our jobs from a financial standpoint, but current conditions notwithstanding, we also need our jobs from a far deeper place within our spirits. We became teachers because something about the work inspired us, and if we have remained, it is because we want to. However, enough is enough. When I first entered teaching over 20 years ago, I told myself that when I burned out, I would leave. At the time, it seemed like a sensible resolution, but I never realized how much joy teaching could bring even in difficult times. We all must make the best decisions for ourselves, our families, and our students. There is no right answer for what to do with burnout, but it is helpful to know that nobody is alone in the difficulty this year has brought. It is a mutually felt experience, one that puts teachers even deeper into the trenches than ever before. How we emerge from 2021 is a story not yet told, but while we are still in the moment, let’s do everything we can to support one another, no matter what happens.

Written by Miriam Plotinsky, Education World Contributing Writer

Miriam is a Learning and Achievement Specialist with Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland, where she has worked for nearly 20 years as an English teacher, staff developer and department chair. She is a National Board Certified Teacher, and recently earned her certification in Education Administration and Supervision. She can be followed on Twitter: @MirPloMCPS

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