Why I Quit Teaching After 17 Successful Years

This article is the first in a three-part series written by Dan Laird, a teacher of 17 years who quit at the top of his game and found success in private industry. In part one, Dan explains what led to his decision to give up on teaching. In part two, you will read why Dan will never go back now that’s he seen “the other side.” In part three, Dan will offer hard-won advice to any teacher who is looking for a job outside of education. 

Dan Laird

When I first decided to become a teacher back in the 20th century, my parents tried to talk me out of it. It wasn’t because they looked down on the profession. My mom is a retired teacher. My sister is a teacher. And some of my cousins are teachers. It’s in the genes. While I will also certainly make an attempt to talk my children out of becoming teachers, my parents’ reasoning was simple: There were more opportunities for success elsewhere.

Today, however, the reasons for avoiding the teaching profession are more serious. The pay has become a stagnant system of scratching and clawing for an occasional measly half-percent off-schedule “raise.” In many years, not taking a pay cut is considered a success. But there is a bigger issue. Teaching is demoralizing. The strain of unrealistic demands has made it even more exhausting than it already was. Sacrifice is now the expectation and that expectation is typically rewarded with criticism and a demand for more.

The Beatings Will Continue

When Detroit teachers walked out of their classrooms in 2016 to protest the atrocious working conditions that included everything from overcrowded classrooms to mold and mushrooms growing on the walls and floor, I read comments on social media demanding that these teachers be fired and that they “knew what they were getting into when they took the job.” Of course, there were also comments criticizing teachers for hurting kids by denying them an education and arguing that these teachers needed to go through the proper channels to effect change. These conditions were not new in 2016. Where were the commendations for using the “proper channels” in previous years?

The crisis in Detroit and subsequent ones like the lack of heat in Baltimore this winter demonstrate two things: Drastic measures are sometimes needed to draw attention to the most basic of educational needs and drastic measures make it uncomfortably difficult for others to ignore the problem. Education professionals suffer when they don’t advocate for their students, but they suffer even more when they do. A friend of mine has a toy plaque with a pirate skull that says, “The beatings will continue until morale improves.” I can’t think of a more appropriate motto for the teaching profession.

The Height of My Career

I resigned from my teaching position in 2017 after 17 years. To provide some perspective, I spent all 17 years (plus an additional full year as an intern) in the same district. I was invested in the school. I put down roots. Leaving the teaching profession meant leaving much more than just a job. My colleagues were my family. An entire generation of parents in the community sent every one of their children to my classroom at some point. I was even starting to see the children of students from my internship year.

My connection to the community wasn’t the only reason it was difficult. I was at the height of my career. I had just co-authored the book Real Writing: Modernizing the Old School Essay with Rowman & Littlefield Publishing. I was presenting my work at national conferences in cities like Minneapolis, Atlanta, and Washington, D.C. And I was collaborating on educational initiatives with teachers across the country through my work with the National Writing Project. I even earned my administration endorsement the year before I left. I was invested in advancing in my profession all the way to the end.

This isn’t a story about one man hating his job for years until he finally had enough. There was no gradual decline. Quite the contrary. I loved teaching and spent countless hours advocating for it. I spent over half of my career as a building representative, vice-president, or president of my local education association. I marched. I picketed. I protested. I voted!

The Least Trusted Source

While I did love my time in the classroom — the connections, the light bulb moments of discovery — my workplace was becoming a constant reminder of what was happening to the teaching profession. New restrictions, meritless legislation, evaluation tools that hadn’t been properly evaluated themselves, mandated standardized tests that were thrown away or redesigned year after year while their results were nevertheless used to compare one year’s performance to the next, a demand from politicians and parents to “make our kids better, but don’t you dare tell them what to do.”

Somehow, the professional became the least trusted source, and the growing trend for outsiders in showing they cared about education had become to point a finger. I think it’s fair to say that the emotional drain had surpassed the physical one. Something had to change. My change was to become selfish and walk away. I quit.

A New Job

I dipped my toes in the waters of a career outside of teaching when I created my own professional development consulting business. I formed an LLC, created a website, ordered business cards, and even hired a former student to create the logo for me. I sent promotional materials to just about every school in Michigan. It seemed like a logical fit. I’d get to continue in the world of education using all of the knowledge and experience I had gained in almost two decades of teaching. More importantly, I could enjoy focusing on instruction. No more grading papers past midnight, no more parent/teacher conferences, no more battles about sound educational practices with school board members who’d barely earned their high school diplomas, no more spineless administrators who pretended to be uninformed so they could avoid making difficult decisions. The thought of it was exhilarating.

But since making this my primary source of income wasn’t exactly the soundest financial decision, I started looking at job postings that could supplement the venture. Unfortunately for the business, it wasn’t long after all of the momentum started to build that I was offered a job as a Training and Development Specialist for a privately operated company that had nothing to do with education.

I accepted and within one month I discovered every reason why I will never return to teaching again.

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I’ll be publishing Part 2 of this series, Why I Left Teaching and Will Never Go Back, in the coming days and part 3, The Teacher’s Guide to Changing Careers shortly after that.  If you want to be sure not to miss those, the best thing to do is subscribe to the blog. I’ll email you new articles (check your promotions tab, Google hides them there). You can also follow me on Facebook or Twitter, where I link to my articles.

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Have you also walked away from teaching?

Or maybe you left the corporate world to become a teacher?

I’d love to hear from you. Comment on this or subsequent articles in this series and I may get in touch with you for a book I’m writing. Thanks!

22 Replies to “Why I Quit Teaching After 17 Successful Years”

  1. Everything that you mentioned that convinced you to leave the teaching profession is also encouraging me to walk away from teaching. I have been teaching for 20 years, 9 years in a government facility and 11 years in the public schools. At this point, I feel as if children reflect an attitude towards their education that is not positive in preparing them for their futures and the futures of our country. They just don’t care. Period. Your statement, “make our kids better, but don’t dare tell them what to do’” from parents and politicians, is right on. Our teaching profession is indeed demoralizing. My present plan is to “grin and bear it”, and push through the rest of this school year and the next two school years after. I keep looking for other jobs that I hope will encourage me to leave sooner. It is just so sad that our profession has come to this status and it’s even more concerning for our future.

  2. I left. I’m a para-pro now, making pennies, a mere observer in the world I used to fight my way through. I leave every day at 3:30 with no work to do at home and energy left to give to my own children. Getting my retirement but trying to figure my next best move. Every day I fight the feelings of failure, but I also see the stress and fear on the teacher’s faces. It’s so hard to see something else out there for myself.

    1. You’re touching on a few of the topics of my next section. The guilt is real but so is the relief of being able to leave work at work. The third section will offer some advice for looking elsewhere. What is your certification?

  3. Sacrifice is now the expectation and that expectation is typically rewarded with criticism and a demand for more.- Perfectly said. We’ve been told to work longer nights and weekends. There was once the message from administration to get kids to pass the state test. Then it became to get kids to get a pass plus on the test. Now it is about getting kids to pass, pass plus, and show growth. It’s never ending.

  4. Your article resonates completely with me – in the UK, teaching is a career ruled by fear and oppression too, and I’m desperate to get out – I just don’t yet know how. I’m looking forward to your next two articles – I really hope your advice will be applicable for a middle-aged UK teacher, with limited ICT skills, at the end of a tether!

  5. Your sentiments are right on! I accepted an ERI to leave after 34 years of teaching! I was tired of dismal (if any) raises from a well-respected district with increasing student enrollment. While I miss my colleagues, I work part time tutoring math & make as much $ asI did teaching! Sad, but true!

  6. I ready to walk away now. This is my twenty first year. I have been inundated with more paperwork, less administrative support, and poorly behaved children. I want out ASAP! I just need health insurance!

  7. I have taught 40+ years in Catholic school where our pension was frozen last year and if I weren’t the health insurance for my retired husband I would be retired by now.

  8. After 20 years of working hard in the corporate world to give 15 years of great successes teaching middle school math in the same district, which is now growing very fast, I realize it all was at a great price… my mental and physical health. I didn’t realize what was happening to me, until now when I continue putting all my energy (and love) into my students. This culture of entitled parents are setting their own standard for their children, placing blame on teachers for any evidence of lack of social or intellectual growth their child displays. I try hard to empathize with my administrators, however, their needed support is dimishing. Another issue I have is that many, or most, teachers have also fallen to the pressure, and are now giving passing grades to all students, which does not identify weaknesses in student effort. Our students have lost intrinsic motivation to learn, the only thing left for them. My option… If I give true grades, I have more parent contact/conferences than I can handle. It makes me sad to see so many teachers giving in to the pressures, but now I see why. I have 4 more years to retirement.

    1. Our district just rolled out the “no more D/Fs” initiative. Basically…just pass ‘em. Butts in seats and money coming in.

      1. In my state there are no consequences for upper elementary and middle school students who earn F’s. Notice, I said “earn”. I’m referring to students who make no effort despite the variety of strategies and interventions teachers use to try to reach the student. Coincidentally, often those students’ parents also make no effort. They don’t come to conferences, don’t answer their phone, don’t return phone calls, etc. The failing students are just moved on to the next grade. Teachers, however, get blamed when their students earn F’s. I strongly believe the problem is rooted in society. Teachers and education are not valued. In addition, so many children are in unstable home environments where the children, not the parents are in charge either by necessity or poor parenting. In my experience, it is more often the latter.

  9. Thank you for this honest portrait of your experience. I am leaving at the end of this year. I don’t have a job lined up. I have no idea where I’m going to get health insurance. I have no idea how I’m going to support my family. But I no longer care. I will find a way. I will figure it out. All I know is I’m tired of waking up every morning and feeling so much anxiety. I am tired of feeling like I can never do anything right. It is to the point where I feel like I don’t want to try anymore because, what for? To echo Mr. Murphy’s recent post, we’re not trusted anymore so why put in the energy to make them think they can? I am doing my students and myself a disservice by continuing. Again, thank you for making me feel like I’m not crazy. It truly is like having a toxic relationship. You are so used to being treated with such abuse that you don’t even know it’s abnormal until you start to walk away.

  10. I gave my job away to a riffed teacher last Sept and took a year leave of absence. Felt like I broke out of prison! I sub one or two days a week, but wonder what other part-time work I could do to supplement my on-line book business. Thoughts?

  11. I am in the middle of deciding my next professional move.
    Last June I left my teaching position of 17 years at a private high school in Michigan (plus a year at a charter school before that). This came after about 6 years of being very unhappy professionally, but I had not actually gotten up the nerve to leave. Instead, last May, my husband was offered a job in Vermont and we made the decision to move our family. I have spent the last 9 months juggling the logistics of moving across country and the emotional upheaval for my 3 boys. I recently started subbing.
    This whole time, I have been thinking about what comes next.
    I strongly suspect that teaching full time is NOT it – for most of the same reasons you have sited (the difference in experience within private education is surprisingly small).

  12. Great post. I am taking a year off from teaching to venture into some other things. I understand how you feel, and it’s refreshing to hear an honest voice for a change. So many teachers (especially elementary teachers) view teaching from rose-tinted glasses. While there are many positives, especially if you get in the right school, the negatives can’t be missed or downplayed.

  13. Thank you for your article. I am done as well. 24 years in, and I cannot do this anymore. It is as if you looked into my mind and wrote my thoughts. As I look online, I see so many websites, blogs, etc. speaking to the horrors of teaching. This is a profession that is crying out for help, yet no one cares. The profession is just so disrespected on all levels. I am tired of that categorical disrespect, and no one who works as hard as teachers do deserves it. It is very sad, because I am good at it, but I HAVE to go. I feel as if I am being forced out by all the elements that you mentioned. I, too, have no plan, and I feel fear and anxiety on one hand, but jubilation on the other.

  14. I’m in the same boat as well, except I just resigned today, 8/24/2018, 2 weeks into the year in Flori-duh, after 27 years of teaching. Like you, I have no job lined up, but I have a supportive wife, and faith that things will work out as they should. I left today for the same reasons, except mine was a steady decline in my health the last few years before I finally realized the reasons for leaving outweighed the reasons for staying, especially after trying to teach the brutal mix I was assigned to teach 8th grade world history. I pray for the best, and feel scared and that I’m a failure as I was at the top of my game for most of my teaching career. The relief won’t set in until I find my new career, which I have faith won’t take long. I would appreciate any guidance in trying to find what that career is.

  15. Thank you for writing this article. It confirms my reasons for wanting to leave teaching. It has also helped me realize that “gritting and bearing it” for the paycheck and health benefits would prove detrimental to my students, family, colleagues, and myself.

    My students deserve better than what I can or am willing to give. My family dynamic is not conducive to the teaching profession as I am a caregiver to an immediate family member who needs and deserves my attention after hours.

    Like Christian, I have decided to leave teaching two weeks into the school year. To make a long story short, the year got off to a very rocky start. The anxiety I had been feeling came to a head over the weekend and I simply could not bring myself to go back to work on Monday.

    I have no job lined up but will likely go back to substitute teaching or look for a job as a paraprofessional until I find a better fit.

    All the best to you teachers out there who are still in the trenches.

  16. I’ve read (in reverse) the first two parts of your series. I’ve been teaching for 8 years and decided that this year is my last. Because my district is relatively high paying (I bring in about 75G plus retirement and insurance), people tend not to leave. However (for those of you thinking *damn*), I wouldn’t be able to afford a house where I live. Ever. My rent is average at $2,300/month.

    Anyway, it’s been about three years that I’ve been slowly shifting away from teaching internally. During my first 5, I was voted by students as Teacher Of the Year twice and voted as a “favorite” in the county. The kids loved me. Really. And that’s saying a lot considering the population is 95% not my ethnicity. And I loved them! I looked past all the meetings, new rules, new technology, new platforms, new standards, new trainings and assistant principals coming in and out, the five extra kids in each of my classes (a nice round 38 per class), deadlines, grading, and even the fact that the faculty bathroom floor had not been cleaned EVER (year 8: still has never been cleaned). I’ve done everything in my power to overcome “learned helplessness”, both from students and their parents, which I’ve realized is handed to them in part by all the support systems put in place to “help out”.

    For three years I’ve laughed along with all the other overworked teachers at the “countdown to summer” starting day 1. I’ve gone to every sporting event offered-some because many parents don’t show up for their kids (and they’re home, not working). I’ve spent half my teacher life team teaching in a classroom with a full count, half of whom have a variety of special needs-everything from autism to ADD.
    And I’ve cheered myself on for feeling like a badass after “stealing” a ream of copy paper from the workroom so I could make some copies.

    But here’s what did it: I realized that every single good part of myself, of what I had to offer, has been stripped. My creative ideas I’m too tired to implement, my class discussions I can’t have anymore because students are either unwilling, unable (literacy hinges around 4th grade levels even though our DO swears it’s not….I’ve tested on my own on this, which of course isn’t taken seriously because….it’s only the SDRT which is all we have but still….), or I’m too tired to fight them anymore about considering what they think about anything not on Snapchat. Instead, all the things about me – the frustration, the irritation, the impatience – things about ourselves that we all have but prefer to not accentuate, have come barreling to the forefront. These are not things I want on my daily regimen, but rather the stuff that crops up rarely.

    The utter exhaustion is another part. I used to go to the gym, run HALF MARATHONS, do yoga, go hiking, etc., and now I find that it takes a full day every weekend to get right again. And now I don’t want to talk to anyone or do a damn thing. I read an article about teacher exhaustion from the amount of decisions we make every day and it made sense.

    I don’t chalk this up to depression (I feel good about me and life), but sheer devalued discontentment, as well as the previous notion that I was trapped.

    Yes, I’m doing this year. But with plans. I research jobs I can do and how to format my resume to suit them. I’m looking at starting a business and moving someplace affordable where I can buy a house with the savings I have AND make the mortgage payment even working part time if needed. I feel better. My days in the classroom are atrocious and most people I work with (those same countdown to summer folks) either give me a lecture on how good we have it “SUMMERS OFF!” “HEALTH CARE!” with that fearful going in their eye and dismissive judgement, or the sad condescending “aw you couldn’t cut it” look. And me – I just think of every senior who I had as a freshman coming in and saying “It’s my last year”. Me too, buddy. Me too.

  17. My last day of teaching was September 21st. I started teaching in 2008 at the age of 40. I am looking forward to October 11th, which is my first medical evaluation to see if I have had a mental break. No kidding.

    Yesterday, I walked out to my car to finally clean out the trunk and surveyed all of the teacher possessions that I had purchased out of my own pocket. There was the paint that was meant to cover my door, the Snoopy decorations that were never taken out of the box, the curtains, the pedagogy books, the books that I bought to help my students, and office supplies. This does not include all of the materials that I had purchased that are on the loft of an outdoor building. All that heart, all that passion is, now gathering dust. Teaching was my mission. My goal was to change the life of at least one child per year. I believe I accomplished more than that. It’s too bad that success for administration is only measured in test scores.

    Our current superintendent (and his wife – who was hired by him) are hell-bent on having perfect test scores for the perfect resumes for the perfect jobs for the perfectly high salaries. For my area, which was social studies, my scores were not bad. I have scored at least 69.9% proficient and distinguished one year, 65% one year…never below 53% even with the most challenging classes. I never heard about the successes. I only heard about the failure…the comparisons…the favoritism.

    I was tired of all of the above…the entitled parents, and kids. It seemed the students that I had only belonged to the extreme of either side…the incredibly spoiled and entitled or the incredibly neglected or worse. I loved my students. I was there for them. They loved me, too. It is not uncommon for many of them to still want to contact me. I just had supper with one of them on Wednesday. Her mother contacted me and asked me to meet them for dinner because the child missed me so much. While there, the child told me that she loved my class so much. That I was the best teacher that she had ever had and that my class was so interesting. Doesn’t matter. I was not perfect enough, therefore I was no good.

    I deeply resent any insinuation that I was selfish. I had given of myself, my money, and my time…even sacrificing my own family because I felt the pressure to do so or I would be considered unworthy of the position by administration. Since then, I have had family members pass away that I neglected due to school requirements outside of the building and I regret it so bitterly. But if you don’t live it, breathe it, and eat it, then you are not worthy of holding the title, according to administration. Being treated like children and not professionals, the micro-managing – right down to what we put on our walls and how I did my hair. I was tired of it.

    This year, I made the switch from social studies to special education to escape the meddling. I found myself working from 13-20 hours every weekend and 3-4 every weekday evening. Looking at one more weekend that was going to be completely tied-up with paperwork was about all I could do. When a colleague came in and threw down a stack of work for me to “analyze and write goals” (not even my area), I had a complete meltdown. I was inconsolable for hours, hyperventilating, crying, shaking…vomiting. That was it. I was done.

    I’ve sacrificed a lot. I have Lupus SLE, Fibromyalgia. I’ve had Melanoma. I need my health insurance. I’ve given up retirement and you cannot get social security if you are a teacher in the state that I reside. I am up to my eyeballs in debt for a career with which I can no longer cope. I must have been desperate.

    The last 2 weeks have been like a conscious effort to “de-program”. It feels almost breaking through a systematic brainwashing or awakening from the The Matrix. I have to constantly remind myself that “I don’t have anything to do for school. ” Needless to say, when I realize it, I am happy and relieved. I am a different person. I have not been this happy for years. Now I just need to figure out what to do next. Any ideas?

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