“I Quit Teaching and Won’t Go Back” is the second of a three-part series written by Dan Laird, a teacher of 17 years who left education to work in private industry. Part one, “Why I Quit Teaching After 17 Successful Years” can be read here. Part three, “The Teacher’s Guide to Changing Careers,” can be found here.
It has been almost ten months since I started my new career giving me a chance to see the world from a set of non-teacher eyes. Each day, I’m happier I left. Each day, I want to lead everyone I left in the classroom on a revolt. The grass on the other side is greener. I’ve seen it.
Let’s “yada yada yada” our way through the obvious reasons why: the pay is better, the benefits are better, my retirement savings now grow three times as fast, I have an hour for lunch which gives me enough time to eat at home if I’d like, I can use the bathroom at any time without needing to find someone to sit at my desk while I’m gone, and my office building is modern and doesn’t smell like a gym locker. But you already expected that.
The real reason I will never go back to education is the culture. I discovered that teachers have been conditioned to believe that everything must be harder than it actually has to be. We are trained to think that the reasonable is unreasonable, that anything we are afforded should be considered a favor, that guilt should accompany permission for the most basic accommodations.
As it turns out, the professional world does not operate like it does inside the walls of a school. In the first month of my new job, three events solidified my departure from education as one of the best events that ever happened to me:
1. Part of my job description includes the creation of digital interactive tutorials and the monitoring of the company’s learning management system. As if being paid to be creative every day isn’t monumental enough, that isn’t the most incredible part. When I asked my manager if I would have access to the designing software at home to continue working when needed, her response was, “The short answer is ‘yes,’ but we don’t expect you to take work home.” She went on to tell me that the company feels family is important and that an employee shouldn’t have to sacrifice one for the other. Now this doesn’t mean that I don’t have deadlines or that I still haven’t brought my laptop home from time to time. But I find that I accomplish more at work because I’m allowed to do my job uninterrupted, unlike teaching, where classroom instruction is the least respected part of the job.
As teachers, there is an expectation that large parts of your required duties are to be performed on your own personal time. Not only are you expected to teach during classroom hours, you are expected to give up your lunch and planning hour if a student requests it. The request never seems unreasonable to anyone other than the teacher. Saying “no” is a guaranteed PR nightmare because, once again, not being willing to sacrifice on command clearly means you don’t care about kids.
As teachers lose their planning time, their 25 minutes to shovel down a microwave meal, and their early mornings and afternoons in order to spend more time working with students, the other half of the job awaits them during their personal time, their time with family, their time to unwind. There is no such thing as “off duty” when you are a teacher. What you do to go above and beyond as a teacher quickly becomes the norm, which means you then have to figure out a new way to go above and beyond.
First, it was important to have your grades prepared for report cards at the end of the trimester, then it was important to have your grades prepared for progress reports in the middle of the trimester, then we were required to send grade notices home to give parents a heads up regarding what they will be seeing on the progress report. Now all of a sudden, you’re unable to work on long-term projects because you won’t have a grade in time for the next update and we all know that if you don’t have grades, then clearly it’s because you’re lazy.
The same thing happens with parent communication. You update a website regularly with daily class information and downloadable materials? How am I supposed to know when it’s updated each day? Oh, you’ve added a class Twitter account to announce updates to the website? But I prefer text messages. Oh, you have a website, a Twitter account, and a Remind texting account? Well, we didn’t have time to check it. Can you just send home everything my child is missing?
My work hours are a little longer now. Instead of 8 to 3, I work 8 to 5. But I wouldn’t say that my work day is longer. As a teacher, 8 am was the time work started but it wasn’t the time I started working. I was usually at school by 7 am at the latest (earlier if I didn’t have to take my kids to school or daycare) in order to get everything ready. And when 3 pm rolled around, I was packing multiple hours worth of work into my bag to take to my other office, also known as my dining room table.
At my new job, an 8 am start means I leave my house at 7:40. And at 5 pm, my bag returns home as light as it left. Again, this doesn’t mean that my new colleagues and I aren’t working hard, or that we don’t bust our asses to go above and beyond expectations, or that we don’t still take work home with us. In fact, right now my work hours are a blur because of the extra time being put in to plan the company’s annual national conference in Orlando. (Did I mention my job includes an all-expenses-paid trip to Florida?) But in the world outside education, we sacrifice our time when needed as opposed to being expected to sacrifice our time as a matter of course.
2. In the year before I left teaching, my daughter started pre-school, so I enrolled her in the district where I taught. Of course, this meant that I dropped her off and picked her up from school. This created a problem when I had a staff meeting after school. The problem wasn’t picking her up. It was where to take her during my meeting. I asked if she could just sit at my desk since the meeting was in my room fully expecting a “no problem.” Instead, I was made to feel like the request was unreasonable, that an institution for teaching children was no place for a child. Instead, I had to find a student to babysit her in another room. Perhaps it was for the best. Who knows what could have happened had my 4-year-old daughter been privy to Homecoming planning details and SAT data.
When I started my new job, I was faced with a similarly difficult situation when our after-school care provider called in sick. My now five-year-old daughter couldn’t just stay at school for another two hours and she certainly wasn’t going to walk home by herself. I expected an awkward conversation with my manager. Instead, my manager and my team were practically giddy with excitement. They told me that I could work from home for the rest of the afternoon but that they would love it if I brought my daughter back to work with me.
“Are you serious?” I asked cautiously, as if this were a setup for being so gullible. I assumed the answer was “yes” since they immediately began planning activities for her. When I returned with my daughter, she was greeted by everyone with coloring pages, candy, and even a toy car with the company logo on it from the president of the company. Now my daughter always wants to know when she can come back to work with me. In that moment, I learned that respect for people’s lives outside of work exists. Way too often in teaching, teachers are treated as if caring for their own families means they are neglecting their students and that their job is putting everyone else’s children ahead of their own. It doesn’t have to be like that.
3. I’m not going to lie and tell you that a part of me doesn’t feel guilty about leaving. Public education is currently waging a huge battle for its survival and I walked away. Despite the way teachers are perceived and disrespected in a social context, it’s a little bit easier to stand up tall and declare you are a teacher when someone asks what you do for a living than it is with a job title that requires explaining. However, I don’t regret leaving for a single moment and I have the rest of my teaching colleagues to thank for it.
When I made my departure official and announced it to the world, I was humbled by the response of kind words and expressions of sadness for losing what I had to offer the classroom. But I was also alarmed by the number of responses I received from teachers asking how I managed to do it. I received texts, emails, and phone calls from teachers all over the national network I had been a part of declaring that they wanted out, too. These messages weren’t coming from young teachers who decided they couldn’t hack it for the long haul. These were established teachers, leaders in their field, authors of respected educational research. Many, like me, could even see the finish line of a retirement from education within the next decade but decided that it wasn’t worth it. The requests for information started spreading. I began receiving messages from friends of friends and even a few strangers. I had somehow become the exodus guru. I still receive these messages, with the most recent just last week from a woman I once met at a conference who found me on LinkedIn and wondered if I could give her friend some advice.
With so many wanting out, my guilty feelings quickly subsided. However, I’m left with a fear for our education system. In my state of Michigan alone, enrollment in college teacher programs has declined drastically to the point where schools are hard pressed to find someone who will even be a substitute. For the last decade, teachers in my state have seen repeated attacks on their paychecks, their credibility, their voice, and the profession in general. We’ve reached an era where parents don’t have to dissuade their children from becoming teachers. Their kids no longer see any appeal. Pretty soon, the fight for public education might have to come from the outside because there will be no one left to throw punches on the inside.
I will continue to be one of those fighters on the outside, but I will also enjoy a well-deserved life outside of the trenches. Instead of phone calls to parents or stacks of papers to grade, my evenings are filled with time to play with my daughters. I use some of my new extra income to pay for those subscription home meal delivery kits and I’m learning to cook. I take a Florida vacation in the middle of winter at a time of my own choosing. I go to bed at a decent hour and have time to read a book before I go to sleep. It truly is amazing how stress-free my life has become. Part of me is pretty sure that my grey hair is getting its color back. While that might be a slight exaggeration, I do truly believe that I have drastically increased my odds of seeing my future grandkids grow up.
Whatever you decide to do with your future, whether it is holding strong in the trenches or seeking a more peaceful life, remember the most important point that I’ve gathered through this whole experience: You have worth outside of the classroom. In my case, I found a job that respects my professional accomplishments as a teacher more than those who employed me as one. You have not locked yourself into a career you can’t get out of. There are options. You just have to discover what they are. You may use this discovery to begin planning your exit. Or you may use this discovery to strengthen your resolve to fight for what is right in your school because now you know your school needs you more than you need it. For the sake of my children, one of which started kindergarten this year, I hope there are enough of you that choose the latter. But if you choose the former, I seriously doubt you’ll regret it.
In part three of this series, Dan shares the lessons he learned when he quit teaching and started searching for a new job. You can read it here.