A few years ago, I came to a significant crossroads in my life. I was faced with the reality of needing to discard a major part of my life, something that drove the way I thought and how I centered a big part of my personal identity. Confronting this change would fill me with regret and guilt, as I felt like I was letting down a number of people who I cared about deeply.
I’m talking, of course, about my decision to end my career as a teacher.
As far as decisions go, there are few I’ve ever made that were more difficult than moving on from teaching. To say that I had invested a great deal in becoming a teacher would be a gross understatement; other than perhaps my prior identity as a Christian, I don’t think there was a self-identification that had more of an impact on my thinking and priorities in the last decade than “educator.” And I think I can safely say that I had a harder time coping with leaving education than I did leaving religion.
That might surprise some people. After all, religion was basically part of my understanding of the world for all of my conscious life. It was part of my daily life from childhood into my adult life. But my falling away from teaching was very unlike falling away from religion. I left religion like a gentle slide; I left teaching like being pushed off a cliff.
This excerpt from my final reflection on my teaching blog speaks to how far this got into my head:
I still get choked up, in no small part because I am filled with overwhelming feelings of guilt. People don’t enter education because it’s a job (even while that might be why some people stay); teaching is such an underappreciated job (both in terms of respect and of pay) that there is this palpable feeling of purpose and intentionality in deciding to be one. Not everyone can be a teacher, you tell yourself. It takes a certain kind of person to be a teacher. It’s a calling, not a career. And I entirely understand that impulse. Society says, “Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach.” And so the response is, You don’t know teaching. You step into the shoes of a teacher and see if you can.
The flip side of that, however, is what happens if you try and fail, if you invest so much in your identity as “that kind of person” that you feel like that part of you has been ripped away when you are forced to pack it in. You think, What about the students I taught but who I didn’t really help or influence? What about the students I could help if I weren’t quitting now? What about the students who need me? And you can’t help but feel like a complete failure even if your departure is a way of limiting the effects of that failure.
Then there’s the guilt of abandoning the “noble profession.” Education has been to me a driving factor in my life, both in terms of my own education and of educating others (although mostly that has been the story of me trying to educate people when it wasn’t my place). I have sought to teach and to model a wide-ranging idea of education, one that doesn’t compartmentalize subjects into neat boxes but pulls from disparate and seemingly foreign ones. In my English class, we talk history and math and foreign language and music and science and geography and ethics and philosophy, and I love that. But now I’m bailing on education altogether, and that feels like a betrayal of a deeply rooted value. (I know that this feeling is intensely irrational, but that doesn’t make it less pronounced.)
When I read these words, I can’t help but feel that same flood of emotion, that same lump in my throat.
The disassociation that went with leaving teaching was in many ways much worse than what I experienced in my deconversion because when I stopped being a Christian and a theist, I had another familiar identity to slip into: the nonbeliever. (I initially didn’t self-identify as an atheist, but it didn’t take me long to adopt that label, and I haven’t looked back from it since.)
With teaching, I didn’t have that. I had spent years dedicating myself first to the pursuit of teaching credentials and then to the craft of pedagogy and the understanding of my content area, and because teaching requires so much of a time investment with planning (lessons, units, and whole curricula), grading, reviewing material, tracking student progress, searching for materials and resources (especially ones you can afford), reflecting on how to deal with student apathy or differentiated instruction or classroom management or any of the innumerable things that teachers deal with routinely, and so on, it was something that consumed so much of my thoughts for the five years (and some time both before and after) that I was employed as a teacher.
I went to work and taught. I came home and thought about what I would do tomorrow or the day after. I went to sleep and dreamed about teaching. It never stopped, not even during summer.
Not only did I have to cope with losing such a pervasive part of my thinking, but I didn’t even have a career path to fall back on. I briefly considered going back to school for a master’s degree — maybe I could teach at the college level! — but I didn’t think I could justify doing that, and I wasn’t sure about doing more teaching just at a different level. I felt stuck, like I had jumped off that cliff without a parachute.
I was, to be perfectly blunt, scared shitless.
And I cried. Granted, I cried after I deconverted, but they weren’t tears shed for my lost faith — they were shed for the relationships now inexorably changed because of it. I grieved over teaching in a way I never grieved religion.
Then I got really lucky. In college, I had essentially taught myself web development (in large part due to the encouragement of the amazing advisers of the university’s student newspaper, for which I was the online editor for a few years), and when I was pleading with friends and acquaintances to look out for possible leads about jobs, one old friend asked me about my background in web development, and a door I hadn’t anticipated opened for me.
One of the best insights that came out of the long process — before and after I resigned my teaching position — of determining why I would want to leave was when I explained to students in typical teacher fashion that my decision was sort of like Thoreau’s rationalization for why he left Walden Pond: He had many more lives to live and couldn’t spend any more time on that one. But ultimately, I admitted to myself that I really just didn’t want to engage in regret avoidance, trying to stay in the hopes that I would keep making a difference even though teaching was sucking the life out of me and I wasn’t being effective anyway.
I can’t emphasize how positive this decision has been for me. It was deeply difficult for me at first, and I spent that next August thinking a lot about the fact that it was the first August since I was four years old that I wasn’t in school either as a pupil or a teacher. But in letting go of the teaching profession, I sort of found…myself.
I know, that’s so damned cliché. Guilty as charged. It’s true nonetheless. Teaching had forced me into this weird existence of virtual self-abnegation, where I had disciplined myself to think more about how to be the best teacher I was capable of being rather than the best me that I could be. This may not be true for all teachers, but it certainly was with me, and the ongoing struggles that I experienced felt less like adversity and more like proof of my inadequacy.
Instead, I exchanged the time I spent thinking about teaching for time spent in deeper conversations with friends, in deeper thought about my own beliefs and views, in closer experience with my dearest loved ones, in exploration of my experiences, in outreach to others who had gone through similar things. I returned to writing, which I had mostly stopped doing because I just didn’t have the time, and that inexplicably led me to this incredible opportunity to share a platform with so many talented writers and thinkers.
It would be difficult for me to express how much more satisfied I am with my life now that I’ve left teaching, but I never would have imagined at the time how much happier I would be. If anything, I think it might have amplified the guilt I felt then. I would have felt even more selfish trying to put my own happiness above the noble cause that was the ideal for which I entered the profession.
But here I am, not without regrets but certainly without any doubts about my decision.
I don’t know, Dear Readers, if you have something you need to let go of — your religious faith, a relationship, a job, a dream — and I can’t promise you what will result from letting go. As I said, I was lucky.
I have to say, though, that while letting go can be so terrifying, it can, under the right circumstances, lead you to a more satisfying life.
Be wise and be diligent, but don’t be afraid.