Why I Really Left Teaching
I left teaching for myself. To become a whole person. To heal.
My anxiety and my work in education had a symbiotic relationship. My anxiety grew stronger the longer I was a teacher. I remained a teacher for so long because my anxiety of change was overwhelming. I was a teacher for thirteen years. Some would say a good teacher. I was highly trained, worked with all levels of students and even won teacher of the year once. But anxiety got the best of me. Yes, I am a millennial but this isn’t millennial burnout. This is a case of anxiety becoming all consuming until I was no longer doing my best job. My health was failing, tragic events in my life happened and then I walked away from a tenured successful job. And from what I can see, I was not the only teacher dealing or not dealing with anxiety from the job.
I have not done a professional survey but I can tell you with certainty that many teachers suffer from anxiety. I see the teachers who take on every and all after school duty for anxiety of losing their job. I see teachers who have become so buried in the anxiety that they shut down and no longer do their best job. Tenure keeps them in the job but their spirit is no longer in it. I see the super successful teacher who is the best at what she or he does but has moments of complete breakdowns over the stress of doing their best. I fit in somewhere in the middle of all of these teachers. As a young teacher, the anxiety of losing my job drove me to perfection, as a tenured teacher I never wanted to disappoint my students and the last year of teaching my anxiety consumed me making me not the best of my career.
As far back as I can remember, I wanted to be a teacher but also as far back as I can remember I had anxiety. It wasn’t labeled but I was extremely shy and worried all the time as a child. School was comforting to me. It was what I knew, it was predictable, safe and structured. But then Kip Kinkel happened. I was a junior in high school, when I read the story of an Oregon football player killing his parents, some classmates and wiring his home to explode. It shook me. School had always been a safe place. Now it wasn’t. Then the news of more and more school shootings continued. I still wanted to be a teacher but now the worry of being murdered on the job was always in the back of mind.
I went through college and credentialing school to be an English teacher but what I really wanted to be was a loving force for the kids who felt unloved. I wanted to be an adult that kids turned to and felt safe with. I became that person. Students always came to me for advice or a hug. I will never forget the time a former student came back to visit me. He was then in high school. When he was my middle school student he was a real challenge, but I always loved all of my students. Well, he stayed after to give me a hug and he started to cry, he told me he really messed up. I didn’t ask questions. A few days later, he was arrested for a gang stabbing. My anxiety never came from my students. I was not afraid of this young man or any of my other students.
When I was a new teacher, I had the fear of failure. Here I had invested time and money into an education for a career (the first in my family to do so). To fail would be devastating, not because of pride, but because of money. I grew up poor and didn’t plan to return there. This anxiety pushed me to sign up for extra duties and trainings. I wanted to be the best I could be so as to keep my job. But also because I really did love the students.
After the birth of my daughter, I had to take extra time off from teaching to help us both heal from her traumatic birth and accident at the hospital. Instead of support, many of the other female teachers at my school sent judgement my way. They talked about how I wasn’t a good teacher for taking so much time off. They gossiped about not only about me but my fellow teacher friend who had taken time off to deal with her daughter’s cancer battle. It was an ugly time and made me not want to return to my job. Now I didn’t have an anxiety of failure but an anxiety of not being good enough. I felt like when I was at work, I wasn’t a good mom but if I said no to extra duties I wasn’t a good teacher.
Further into my career, the anxiety came from the institution and the other staff who didn’t care. I have known teachers to yell in students’ faces, to come from a place of authority instead of compassion and to belittle students. When I was working at a middle school, I received word that one of my sweetest, brightest former students was missing. Days later his body was found in an aqueduct. This news made me sick. I blamed the adults in his life for failing him; in my anxious mind they let him become invisible. This news drove me to work at the high school. I thought they needed more compassion there. But once there, I had to come to terms with the fact that I couldn’t save every student and it wasn’t my job to do so. My job was to teach English. But I couldn’t just do that. I couldn’t let it go. The anxiety was now based in a mentality of saving people. I felt responsible for all the students on my roster.
At the high school, I felt isolated. It was a big place and we were not encouraged to be a united staff. The other staff was not always nice and there was a lot of distrust. I loved my students but one student crossed some lines. He began to stalk me and make inappropriate comments to me. I let an administrator know but he just brushed it off. He acted as if I was being dramatic. That same year another administrator commented on my looks. I didn’t feel supported or comfortable. Then this student got in my face and yelled at me. I finally found an administrator and counselor to help me remove the boy from my class. I had to work so hard to gain support and that uphill battle continued for the next four years, fueling my anxiety. My anxiety was based on isolation, distrust and powerlessness I felt.
I moved onto an alternative school that was a complete mess. I was later told by someone that our district disposed of teachers who were tenured but no longer good at their job at this school. I volunteered to transfer to this school without this knowledge. The curriculum was outdated and not worthy of real credits. I spent time creating new up to standard curriculum. Half of the staff was so anxious they had shut down. Unable to really do their job. The other half was high strung and busy bodies; keeping their anxiety at bay with their busyness. To add to the toxicity of the school, we were all in one room together: 8 teachers in one place. We also had an administrator who would be absent for long periods of time and at other times yell at teachers in staff meetings. He was unstable. One day, we had a code red drill and training. Code red is when a person comes on campus with a gun. I had two police officers tell me that if there really was someone with a gun on campus there was no hiding and nothing to be done, the only way to live was to run out. This comment preyed on the biggest anxiety that was always in the back of mind--being murdered on the job.
The school sort of imploded after that. Staff started to turn on one another and I couldn’t concentrate or focus to help the students. I didn’t want to be at a school that was unsafe, full of unhappy teachers and staff. It was miserable. Then someone turned on me and I had no choice but to stand up and tell the truth. I had previously gone to two other higher ups about issues at the school but my concerns fell on deaf ears. I finally found someone interested in hearing what was really going on at the school and who seemed to want to help make it better. He launched a real investigation and I explained everything to him and our union president. Now the secret dealings, gossip, and in-fighting was out in the open. Staff members turned against me and started questioning my motives and professionalism. One went as far as to put in a formal complaint and accused me of conspiring. Another went to a board meeting to question my absence (I was written off of work for anxiety) and say that I wasn’t a professional. Here my anxiety stopped making me over perform and I became so overwhelmed by it that I started to underperform, which is when I saw a therapist and was removed from work.
In my leave of absence, I realized the only way to end my anxiety and heal was to quit my job. I resigned in the middle of the school year because the thought of returning to finish out the year made me feel sick. I have spent the last year working through some issues and healing myself. I can honestly say I no longer live in a state of anxiety. I am happier, my health has taken a turn for the better and I look forward to each and every day.
Teachers have tough jobs. The school system is outdated and teachers don’t have much freedom within the structure. Teachers are expected to do it all and also be liked. If they are liked too much parents and staff question their professionalism. If a teacher only does their job without any extras they are judged harshly by many. Many teachers have the fear of a school shooting in the back of their minds. True teachers are in the job for the love of kids but having a big heart can come with a side of anxiety. I do not think my story is unique. Now that I am no longer teaching, I can honestly say I don’t have anxiety. I have had time to properly deal with it and realized how my anxiety was heightened by my job. I chose teaching out of an anxiety. I knew I could be successful. There was no risk in choosing such a stable career. But I was wrong. The career appeared stable on the outside but it was only feeding my anxiety.