Why I Left the Classroom: 3 Questions to Ask Yourself about Your Career
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Now, WHY would I choose to dedicate an entire show to the topic of why I left the classroom when the very purpose of this podcast is to support new teachers?
Well, I realized that it’s really important for me to share with you what my own teaching journey has been so that you can understand why I'm not still in the classroom, and how I’ve made the many different decisions along my path to getting to this point of supporting new teachers in the way I am today.
So, today I’m going to pull back the curtain a little so you can understand what my own experience has been as a teacher both inside and outside of the classroom, and so hopefully you can become a little more reflective about your own experience as a teacher.
Stories are so powerful because we can see ourselves in other people’s experiences, and my hope is that in sharing this with you, you will gain some insight about why you might be feeling some of the things you’re feeling about teaching, and so you can make informed and genuine decisions about where you truly want your career in education to go, because of course, it doesn’t need to be only inside the classroom.
When I first became a teacher, it was because I knew that I loved working with children, I loved to be super creative, and because I had a few incredible teachers who really impacted me as I was growing up myself, and I’ve shared many of these stories about some of the most amazing teachers who made such an impression on me in other episodes.
And, I’m going to be completely honest – if you’ve been listening for awhile now, you also know that one of my main passions is travel, and before I became a teacher, I spent several years backpacking and living in lots of different countries. So, I though teaching would be a perfect fit for me because this way, I could work with children and truly make the impact I wanted to make in the world, I could be creative, AND I could still travel on my summer breaks, which was really important to me.
In many ways, it was the perfect blend. But then some other things happened that I hadn’t quite figured into the equation. I got married to a man who did NOT have his summers off, so suddenly, I wasn’t traveling in the way I had always hoped I could during my summer breaks.
Also, I started to learn more about myself, and I realized that I had never stayed in one place for more than a few years in my entire life. My dad was in the R.C.M.P., so for those of you who aren’t from Canada, that’s the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, and that meant that our family was transferred to a new town every couple of years. (I like to joke that I’ve lived in every crappy little town in Saskatchewan growing up)... and suddenly, I found myself in a permanent teaching position in Lethbridge, Alberta, and I was teaching 4th grade.
My first year of teaching was really hard, but probably no harder than living in Hong Kong or Japan on my own at 20 years old. Believe me, once you’ve done something like that, everything else seems pretty do-able. 😂
I taught elementary school for a few years and loved it, and even taught in 6th grade for awhile and then moved to 2nd grade. But, after a few years, I began to get restless. So, I did my Masters in Education, I wrote and published a book, and I presented at Teachers Conventions across the country to support other new teachers – all while I was still teaching full time in elementary school.
Looking back, I now realize that the question really isn’t “Why did you leave teaching?” but “How did you stay in the classroom for so long?” I taught elementary school in Canada for nearly 10 years, which is longer than I’ve stayed anywhere my entire life. I’m a Gemini, and unlike most people, probably a lot because of my upbringing, what I feel most comfortable with is change.
I finally realized that I wanted to leave the classroom because I literally wanted to leave the classroom – I couldn’t handle being in the same room every day for most of the year anymore. I wanted to explore. I wanted change.
However – and this is an important distinction – I didn’t want to leave teaching. I never have. My entire career since leaving the classroom has been about pursuing excellence in teaching – just using a much broader definition of the word. I’ve taught pre-service educators at the University of Lethbridge, I’ve taught other graduate students, I’ve taught 3500 children through my online literacy program, and I’m teaching here now through this podcast, and I absolutely love it because I’ve realized, since leaving the classroom, just how many teachers and how many lives I’ve been able to impact by teaching in this way.
I’ll never forget doing my very first conference presentation for new teachers – as I looked out at more than 100 new teachers in that room, I realized that I was now impacting and supporting not just the kids in my own classroom – but 100 teachers and 100 classrooms of children. That was a game changer for me.
So, if I could sit down with a younger version of myself and really help her to get honest about her teaching career, here are the three questions I would ask myself, and they are the questions that you might want to ask yourself honestly and really pay attention to the answers to give you some guidance towards what your next steps might be.
There may be a whispering of “I want to keep moving forward” or “I want to do something more,” or “I want to make more money than I do,” and it’s important to pay attention to these thoughts and feelings so that you can remain open to possibilities that come your way and take steps toward them.
This doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re ready to leave the classroom right away – for me it was a process over about five years from when I first started thinking and wondering if maybe I actually didn’t want to stay in the classroom for my entire teaching career until I actually made the shift away from the classroom.
Here are the three questions you might want to consider:
Do I see myself staying in the classroom for my entire career?
If you’re anything like me, I grew up always knowing that I wanted to be a teacher, and I assumed that I would be a teacher for my entire life until I retired and collected my pension.
Many people stay in teaching for 30 years and absolutely love it. Teaching really is the most fun I've ever had at work. I mean really – the things those kids say, the hugs, all the love, and knowing what a difference you are truly making in so many young lives. I’ve done a lot of things in my life, and still, nothing compares to that.
The secret really is getting past your first three years because after that, just like we talked about last week, your learning curve is much easier – you’ve mastered a lot of the classroom management stuff that seems so hard right now, you have your classroom running smoothly (unless you have a particularly challenging student or class one year), you finally feel like you know what you’re doing, and teaching in general typically becomes more and more enjoyable with each year because you feel more and more confident.
Also, you move up the pay scale and make more money, and as you mature you feel more sure of yourself and as a result, hopefully other people’s opinions matter to you less and less, so you really can enjoy teaching more and more with each year as you master your craft. Also, don’t forget about that pension that you will get when you retire – at least in Canada – the U.S. is a different story, depending on where you live – and pensions are becoming increasingly rare, so that’s something not to be taken lightly.
However, especially with the increasing demands on teachers these days, many teachers now only decide to teach for 5 to 10 years and then decide that they want to move on to something else. Because I had completed my Masters in Education, I also had been offered a position at the university to teach pre-service teachers, and then I was offered a full scholarship to start my PhD, so I never went back to the classroom. I realized that I could make a bigger impact doing work outside the classroom, and if that’s your heart’s desire, you should go for it.
However, it’s important to realize that if you do decide to move on to something else, even though sometimes you are fortunate in that your skills are transferable to other professions, you will likely now be a beginner once again. Sometimes the grass seems like it will be greener on the other side, but really, when you need to start all over in something new, your learning curve is steep again. So, depending on what kind of a shift you are considering, also consider the investment of time and learning that will come with something new.
A great exercise is to close your eyes and imagine your life in 30 years. What do you see for yourself? Are you in the classroom? What is your vision for your future? What lights you up? What do you really want?
You also might want to go back and listen to Episode #45 where I talk about how and why to create vision boards for your students and consider creating a vision board for yourself. Getting clear about exactly what you want for your life is the first step to feeling happy and satisfied with your career. I also did a FB live on the topic of how to create a Teacher Vision Board that you can find on my Beginning Teacher Talk FB page.
Does teaching suit my personality?
Now, this might sound like a really strange question at first glance. And I have to say that even with as well as I know myself now, I still wouldn’t change a thing – I still would have gone into teaching, and I still would have chosen elementary school, because I loved so much about that job.
But, one of the other reasons I eventually realized that I chose to leave teaching in the classroom, even though this wasn’t conscious, was because teaching was genuinely bad for my health.
Here’s why: One thing you might not know about me is that I am pretty introverted. Although I love to teach, it began to drain me, and nothing makes me happier than spending the day at home writing, like I did to prepare for this podcast. I love to be creative and to create incredible lessons for kiddos, but physically being in the classroom and needing to constantly be extroverted to keep my kiddos excited and engaged in learning all day, every day, year after year, meant depleting all of my resources – and eventually, I started to get sick a LOT.
I was sick pretty much every holiday, and I had more sinus infections than I care to count. I would get home every single holiday and collapse. And it wasn’t because I was working crazy hours. I had that pretty much dialed in and I left for home with my students every Friday, and rarely went back on weekends. I had my classroom running like clockwork, I had figured out a planning system that worked beautifully – I just finally had to come to the honest realization that perhaps this wasn’t the kind of teaching that I was meant to do. Although I was pretty much addicted to teaching and l loved doing it, it was really hard on me.
Other teachers I knew were very extroverted and they loved being around people all day, every day. It filled them up and charged them up, and if that’s you, you’re probably in the perfect profession.
So, you just might want to ask yourself: Does this position light me up and do I get charged up being around people every day, or would something that allowed me more quiet time and alone time be better suited to my personality?
Do I want to consider a different kind of teaching?
Maybe teaching in the classroom is only a stepping stone for you, and you want to experiment with other kinds of teaching. Maybe you want to teach online courses for your local university or tutor students online. (However, be aware that as little as it feels like you are making right now as a teacher, you are likely making more than you would teaching online or at Sylvan Learning Center.)
Instead, you may want to consider just supplementing your current teaching career with part-time work, or even start your own Teachers Pay Teachers store and put some of your own creative teaching resources online. You could even start your own tutoring business or your own after-school club with specialized programming that you love. Maybe you love music or art or sports and you could start your own after-school club in one of those areas.
The point is that you really do have a lot of different options, both within the school system and outside of it – maybe you want to put your hat in the ring for administration, or maybe you want to continue your education and eventually teach at a university like I did.
However, I do want to warn you – if you think that teaching at a university is any less stressful than teaching elementary school, it’s not. Researchers work harder and are under more pressure to teach, to publish, and to do research than any elementary teacher I know. Again, the grass always looks greener on the other side – or at least it did to me until I was in that world myself.
But, I will say that the most important thing, before you start looking outside your classroom, is to really make a genuine effort to become the very best teacher you can possibly be inside your classroom. The only reason I went on to teach other teachers at the university (and the only reason I was offered that opportunity) was because I finally became truly competent and successful inside my own classroom first.
And, if you’re considering administration, I don’t know about you, but I always admired and respected the administrators most who really “got” what it meant to be a teacher – they hadn’t forgotten what it was like – and because they were great teachers themselves, they knew how to support new teachers on their staff.
So, I guess at the end of the day, what I’m really saying is that I hope you truly give teaching a chance – that you give yourself the gift of persistence, of not giving up even though it’s hard, because I can tell you from the other side of the experience, that the greatest accomplishments of my life came because I didn’t give up when it was hard. I stayed with it and I figured it out.
Teaching elementary school was hard for me in the beginning, but I stuck with it until I felt a personal sense of success. Doing my masters was hard, but I stuck with it and eventually published a book as a result. And don’t even get me started about how hard my PhD was! So, I know a thing or two about persistence, and I know that it’s worth staying in the game and not giving up in teaching too early.
If haven’t listened to last week’s podcast, I highly recommend that you go back and listen to that one now – all about how to stay motivated and focused when it feels hard. At the same time, I wanted to do this show because it was really important to me that you understand my own experience in education and how I came to the decision to leave the classroom, and so you can ask yourself some of the questions we talked about today to get some insight into what your next steps might be, whether that be inside or outside the classroom.
Ratings & Reviews 💛
I hope this was helpful to you – and as always, I’d love your feedback. I produce this show every week just for you, and I take the content that I publish here for you very seriously because I don’t want to waste one second of what I know to be your very precious time. So, if you’re finding this podcast helpful, I would be so grateful if you would be willing to leave a review for this podcast on iTunes. Just click here to leave a review now!
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I hope you have a wonderful week, and remember: just because you're a beginning elementary teacher, there's no need to struggle like one.
Dr. Lori Friesen | Beginning Teacher Mentor
Creator of the R.E.A.D.Y. for School Academy, Dr. Lori Friesen has mentored thousands of beginning teachers across the country through her workshops and courses. Host of the popular podcast, Beginning Teacher Talk, and creator of the innovative literacy program for 1st and 2nd grade, Dogs Help Kids Read and Succeed, Dr. Lori is dedicated to serving educators and inspiring learners. Learn more at drlorifriesen.com and at howdogshelpkids.com.
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