Emotional Stages of Leaving the Classroom (not a scientific post)

I haven’t been out of the classroom for very long – 4ish months to be exact, but I have been trying to be really cognizant of my emotions, my mood, my temperament during the transition out. I have wished I kept better track of my first years of teaching, so I could look back and really notice the shift or be a better mentor to new teachers so they wouldn’t feel so alone in their feelings. I have noticed there’s not a ton out there about leaving the classroom and the “why” behind it for many people. But there’s definitely not a lot out there about what happens when one leaves the classroom – the cycle, the stages, the feelings – and how to find support in this. So what I am sharing today is imperfect since I have certainly not experienced the fullness of each of these and also because I imagine there will be more emotions and experiences as I remain out of the classroom.

My initial thoughts were that there are emotional “stages” of leaving the classroom like with grief. Except as I began to really dig into my reflections and ask other people it seems as if it’s more like cycles – moving in and out of these emotions, revisiting them, leaving them behind. I am sure there is more to add and to deepen but for now here’s my thinking behind this cycling with some of my own stories of this process so far. You might be asking yourself, why the heck did you leave the classroom if you feel all these things? Well, some days I can’t answer that question. I am also not complaining here, just surfacing the emotions that have arisen for me and for others (I asked on twitter – check out the thread).

Guilt

I’m not sure if this is where I begin or end but I think this feeling is my foundation at this point. I feel so much guilt in leaving the classroom. Explaining to students why I have left feels shaking at best, especially with students who have signed up specifically for the course because they thought I would be teaching it. Is guilt the foundation because the basis for much of education is around guilt? That we must be working for students and if we aren’t directly with them 110% of the time we aren’t actually working for students?

Longing

I miss being in the classroom. I long for the predictability of students late to class with their predictable excuses; I long for the frustration with students on not getting work in on time; I long for the ah-has that occur when a student figures out how to do the hard thing; I long for the structure of teaching. And since this longing is so overwhelming most days I know that I am actually in the right place – that I haven’t lost the hunger of the work. I haven’t lost the desire to get back into the classroom to be with kids, to teach, to learn alongside young people. I feel like this longing may be my biggest strength as a coach right now. I long to hear about teachers’ days with kids. I long to hear about the struggles kids are undergoing and the supports and solutions educators are finding. This longing is also encouraging me to be a better listener, a better problem solver, a better resource finder – so that the teachers I work with can have a slightly lighter burden to bear.

Judgment

This is the worst. This is the negative effects of longing. This is the part where I can say in my head “I can do that way better.” This is the part where I want to gossip and say horrible things about the folks I work with or folks I see on social media – but this is connected to my longing. These people are doing the work with kids and judging them doesn’t bring me closer to kids or closer to supporting them in an authentic way. This judgment doesn’t’ make me feel good about my work or my rationale of leaving the classroom in the first place. This judgment creates a huge chasm in the relationship work I so desperately need to make real change in the places I’m working in.

Jealousy

I am jealous. Period. Full stop. The end. I am jealous of the relationships folks get to have with students. I am jealous of the daily minutia folks get to have with students. I am jealous. I am working to shift my jealousy (and all the other feelings) into action with adults. I can have those deep, transformative relationships with adults as well. I can see the work in action with adults. My jealousy is certainly related to the ease I found in the classroom, and that ease came from hard work and time and honing my craft. I know that new things are hard and I want to skip the hard part, because I’m human and I crave ease.

Anger

I feel like anger is tied to many of these other emotions but when teased out, anger lives at the heart many times. I feel angry that other educators don’t have the tools or the skills (yet). I feel angry that the system is constantly blaming and shaming both educators and students. I feel angry that I am now closer to the “system” than the work it feels and I haven’t yet figured out how to navigate that space in a way that feels good in my soul. Anger is hard because I don’t look like an angry person or act like an angry person. But this anger might the a helpful emotion as long as I don’t allow it to eat me alive.

Inadequacy

I was asked to leave the classroom because I was good in the classroom. This feels like a mistake right? That one could also be good at something else as well. This is something that floats in my head so often, especially when people ask me if I am enjoying my new gig. I don’t really know how to answer that because it’s not as natural an answer to me as when I moved from elementary to high school, that answer was a resounding YES! I love working with high schoolers. This answer is shaky because I honestly have no idea what I’m even doing. There’s no guide to being a coach in my district, in my school. Which is both absolutely beautiful and freeing but also terrifying. When I started teaching I felt I knew nothing and would often joke that I must’ve missed all the important days of college. But I had a general idea of what was supposed to occur during my day – there was a schedule and during those time periods I was to teach some kind of art to an age group or course of kids. This job doesn’t have that. So I’m constantly in a state of “am I even doing this right?” Am I the right person to do this?

Irrelevance

This is something my friend Lee often spoke about after she retired and I would chuckle and tell her to dismiss that idea…until two weeks ago when I literally realized I felt the same way. I know that the longer I’m out of the classroom, the less legitimacy I have with teachers, that’s just a fact. So how do I even deal with this feeling? Is it by being in classrooms with teachers? Is it by teaching or co-teaching a course along with coaching? Is it by staying close to work by attending conferences and continuing to learn? Is it by listening well to teachers so I can actually support them? This piece of the cycle is still hazy and difficult and will continue to move in that foggy direction.

Apathy

I haven’t felt much of this but I do think it can be a key element of this process. I think apathy is complicated by adult relationships and our judgements and expectations. I think this is something that is easy to fall into as a coach when other adults’ need so much. I imagine it’s easy to not be in classrooms or listening to teachers, instead doing the other things that we are so often asked to do. This is where I feel like communication with folks is key. When I am noticing that I am doing the minutia too much, I need a nudge or tap to get myself back into classrooms, back with the important people (teachers). I think apathy arises when I’m not in tune to my feelings and becoming overwhelmed by it all. Apathy might not even be the right word but numb might be closer. When I don’t know what to do and am feeling like I don’t have the tools to help folks, it’s easy to just tune out and not care.  I have been trying to lean in to that feeling, dig into my values, and listen hard. Not tune out, but care more. This is something that’s certainly a work in progress and something I need to pay careful attention to. My friend Cornelius Minor speaks about his dad saying often, “We aren’t what we proclaim to be, we are what we repeatedly do.” (or something like that) So if I say that I’m about kids or teachers, I damn well better be with kids or teachers more often than I am in meetings. I was deep in the apathy world in my second week (along with the apathy, I was living in judgement and jealousy) and I knew that I couldn’t sustain the job if this was where I was living. I also noticed where my time was being used. I drew a pie chart on my white board in my office with students and teachers being the largest part of that pie. And I started scheduling that important time into my days. I return to that pie chart when I’m feeling out of it – numb, apathetic, whatever it is.

Denial

Denial came up on that twitter thread and although I sort of understand it, right now I’m still not completely wrapping my head around it. I’m still processing it. My immediate reaction to the word denial was more denial and shame. It was as if Tyler could see that when I signed up for a few webinars I clicked the box “K-12 teacher” or when I introduced myself on a twitter chat I wrote “art teacher”. I think denial is a hard part of this process as well. I mean, I can’t explain what my job is at all. My parents think I “teach teachers” and other folks think I’m coaching a sport now full time. How does one separate their identity as an educator into something that is so nebulus and unclear? It was easy to tell folks what I did before.

Loneliness

I have spent the majority of my career pretty lonely. I was the only art teacher in the building for 9 years. My colleague Jason and I were the “only” art teachers but our schedules didn’t coincide to eat lunch or have a prep together. I was prepared for loneliness I thought. Except as a teacher, you still have other teachers. You can commiserate around grades being due or celebrate the success of a student together. There is an easy thread of community and connection when folks are in the classroom. Being a coach is lonely. I’m not in the classroom doing the work, but I’m also not administration where there’s another community. I’m stuck in the middle of those two spaces. I can’t surface my feelings with either group – teachers or administration – because then I’d be betraying both. There’s another coach in the building which is so helpful but it’s also navigating another relationship which is complicated. There’s a group of coaches who gather about every month district wide but since I started in the middle of the year, there wasn’t time or energy put into making those connections with folks in an intentional way. Loneliness is hard. I am very grateful for the people in my life who I do call community and family. They know how lonely it is and how lonely transitions and newness can be – and they show up.

I think these are the large emotions that I’ve cycled through and will continue to cycle through. As I was thinking about writing this and was creating an outline, I wrote acceptance. Which initially might seem like the end goal, the place I want to get to. But I don’t feel like that’s where I want to be. Acceptance feels like the space of no longer remembering my why, like giving up. Like I’ve accepted my fate of irrelevance and not being in the work with kids. Maybe that’s part of denial or not a healthy response. Acceptance in my head feels so peacefilled and lovely – but it also feels separate or passive. Maybe it is, maybe it’s not. I’ve always said that the moment I don’t want to teach anymore or the moment I complain more than enjoy being with kids, I should leave teaching. And I still believe that. I think the moment I’ve accepted not being in the classroom, I should leave teaching/education. The longing, as much as it hurts, as hard as it is, it keeps me honest. All of these feelings and emotions do. They are important at keeping me working for teachers, for kids.

There are a few things that came up from the twitter chat from others that are important to note – perspective; agonizing over the decision; and emotional toll from students. I believe that perspective is important and has helped me communicate better with both teachers and administration. Understanding the bigger picture and being able to communicate that to teachers as well as the reverse understanding the nitty-gritty and being able to communicate that to administration has been incredibly helpful for me as well as all parties. This is something I don’t feel like I can totally share in a transparent way publicly because of the process of perspective and a variety of other factors. Agonizing over the decision wasn’t something I had to do. My experience occurred very quickly and I didn’t have much time to think – which is probably why I have so much guilt now. The emotional toll from students and how it affects our lives as teachers is something I feel like I also can’t speak too much about just yet. I feel like my direct work with teachers hasn’t created the separation from that emotional toll. I am a fairly empathic person so I feel what others feel pretty regularly and the emotional toll from students on educators continues to affect me.

I am sure that this might be rambling and slightly vague in places. This is something I will continue to clarify and revisit. I feel like each of these could be their own blogpost which might be something I do later on. What else should I add to this? How do these emotions show up in your practice? If you’re still in the classroom, does this shift your thinking about folks who have left the classroom?

1 thought on “Emotional Stages of Leaving the Classroom (not a scientific post)

  1. Whatever you do, whomever you work with, you will be a source of light and inspiration simply because you are you…

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