One of the overriding emotions many teachers feel when they consider moving on from a classroom job, is guilt.
Leaving our students is an obvious reason why we might feel this, but often this feeling runs much deeper ...
... and comes as a surprise to teachers seeking a happy life outside education.
In this post, I want to identify six reasons why teachers might feel guilt when they leave jobs in school.
I also want to identify 5 ways to make peace with the feelings of guilt you might have - and move on happily into a life outside the classroom.
Why Do Teachers feel Guilty When Leaving the Classroom?
1. We Are Leaving Our Students
The most obvious reason why many teachers feel guilty at leaving their classroom jobs ...
... is leaving their students behind.
This is hard because we take on a parental role in our classrooms ...
... and it requires a level of commitment well beyond that needed in most other forms of employment.
It's natural for teachers to worry about how your students will get on with a new teacher, especially those who have connected most strongly with who you are.
It is normal to feel guilt as we leave students behind - but this is rarely where feelings of teacher guilt end ...
2. Leaving Colleagues Still Stuck in the Storm
I talk to many teachers whose underlying feelings of guilt are complicated by the relationships they form with those working alongside them.
Often our colleagues find things hard too ...
... and the camaraderie we build up working in such a high-pressure environment can be hard to leave behind.
We provide each other with the emotional support we need to make it through tough moments - in an environment where many schools no longer seem to care.
Knowing you are 'checking out' and will be unable to support others still working there, is a source of guilt for many teachers who leave a difficult job behind.
Many educators also find colleagues they were previously great friends with, choose not to connect with them when they leave the classroom.
We wonder what we might have done and ruminate on the reasons why.
The complex emotions created by working in an all-consuming job - alongside others doing the same - can easily manifest in feelings of guilt when we leave.
3. 'Letting Down' the People Close To Us
Many teachers carry feelings of guilt which are associated with their family and friends too.
People who might have supported your decision to become a teacher, for example ...
... or others who define you as someone who makes a positive impact in your job.
It can be difficult to explain why we want to make the move out of teaching, to those who don't experience its' reality.
Family, friends or our partner, often see teaching as a 'safe job' with 'a good pension', and rarely understand the reality of working in school.
They might have to carry the weight of our decision to leave too - emotionally, or financially.
Our feelings can easily get tangled, when we consider our decision to leave in the context of the most important relationships we have.
4. Doing an Alternative Job ... 'Just for the Money'
The biggest reason why many teachers enter the profession is because we want to help young people and make a positive impact on the world.
The salary we take from our jobs becomes secondary to the purpose we feel doing them.
When teachers move into jobs outside of education, where the majority of people working today do so for the salary they receive …
… there is potential for teachers to feel guilty that they aren't connected with their new non-teaching jobs in the same way.
For a while it can feel wrong to do a job without committing everything you have - or go to work simply to earn the money you need to enjoy life outside of employment.
Teachers can feel guilty adjusting to a new balance of their life outside of the classroom.
5. Leaving a Part of Ourselves Behind
Often when we decide to teach - we do so with a bright hope for the future of ourselves and the students we teach.
We take pride that our everyday work makes a genuine difference to those around us ...
... and that our beliefs and values are lived through the work we do.
When we leave the classroom - particularly under negative circumstances - we mourn for the person who entered the profession with bright hopes of changing the world.
The investments we made - both in time and money - to get to the point where we were able to teach, might feel like a waste.
We can feel guilty that we are leaving that person behind ... a part of ourselves we invested so much in - and believed in so deeply.
6. It is the Nature of an Abusive Relationship
For teachers who have endured an abusive relationship with their classroom job, feelings of guilt are much more common.
When we find alternative work which treats us like human beings - giving us time off when we need it ...
... valuing our well-being, and asking us not to take work home.
Internally, the ex-teacher questions whether it's ok to work this way
- Is it really okay to turn off at the end of the working day?
- How do I stop feeling like I need to work at home?
- Do moments during the working day spent simply talking with colleagues, mean I am not doing my job?
- Do I deserve to be treated well?
Significant feelings of guilt can hide here too, even for educators that leave school jobs happily.
So how should teachers approach moving on from feelings like this?
What Can You Do About This Kind of Teacher Guilt?
Before I identify ways to better understand your own feelings, and move on from them …
… it's useful to understand how damaging feelings of guilt can be.
Because on the surface, feeling guilty doesn't appear to be as damaging as feeling angry or upset, for example.
But guilt is damaging because when we feel guilty we are often overwhelmed and paralysed by it.
In that state it's hard to make positive decisions, see the wood for the trees, or help others (or yourself).
Anger often subsides with time, moments when we are upset also fade leaving us remembering things through a much happier filter.
Guilt however, often remains within us far longer than many other negative emotional states ...
... and therefore can have much longer lasting effects.
The Buddha explained suffering in terms of being hit by two arrows ...
He said that when we experience pain (from injury, health problems, when someone we love has died, or when we are the subject of mistreatment at work etc) ...
... it's as if the world has shot an arrow into us.
The pain of this first arrow is normal - and a part of life we can't avoid.
But all too often, we react to the pain we feel by shooting a second arrow into ourselves.
We might blame ourselves for the painful situation, become angry with someone else, start focusing on what we believe we lack, or spinning a story of what might happen in the future …
These reactions to the pain of the first arrow can be significant, and last a lifetime.
Guilt is one of these second arrows.
The Buddhist approach to feelings of guilt is to 1st recognise the feelings you have as a reaction - a second arrow.
This gives you the chance to fully understand the first arrow which created it - and the origins of the feelings you have.
Let me explain some tools teachers can use to do this ...
Tools to Better Understand Your Guilt
1. Realise that you are not alone in feeling this
Often when teachers make a decision to leave the classroom they do so alone.
There's rarely any support from their school (and sometimes quite the opposite).
Family and friends outside the profession don't understand what we have to live through - and teaching colleagues can distance themselves from us when we make the decision to leave.
Realising that you are not alone in feelings of guilt, is a good first step to understanding what created them - and reducing the impact they have on you.
If you feel alone with your decision to leave teaching, or if you're aware that you have conflicting emotions about doing so ...
... please join my Facebook group and realise that you are not alone.
2. View Your 'Leaving Guilt' In Context
Many teachers work in an atmosphere of excessive accountability, where we often feel guilt at not being able to keep up with unrealistic workload expectations.
At the same time, many teachers feel incredibly guilty that we let our work encroach so much on our family lives.
This is particularly the case if you are a parent.
If you feel guilty about leaving your classroom job, it's helpful to balance this against the guilt your job makes you feel in other ways.
When we do this, it forces us to make a choice about what's actually most important to us, and can help put the guilt associated with leaving teaching in its proper context.
Being clear about your own reasons for leaving is a powerful way to combat the guilt you might feel.
3. Realise the positive difference you can make outside your classroom
When I joined teaching I didn't ever imagine that I would leave. This is the case for most teachers I've met over the years.
Many educators leaving their classroom jobs, initially experience difficulty replacing the sense of purpose they felt when teaching.
It can feel like you haven't moved on until you find a renewed purpose - making feelings of guilt or regret much more likely.
It is only when teachers start to recognise the many ways their skills can make a difference outside of the classroom, that their feelings start to change.
If you can't find this kind of purpose in a job outside the classroom, consider charity work or projects you could take on which give your life that same sense of meaning.
4. Recognise the emotional journey of leaving teaching
Many teachers don't understand the complex emotions associated with leaving a classroom job - until they feel them for the first time.
When we are surprised by feelings we don't expect, it can be difficult to understand and make peace with them.
A good example is the sense of grief which surprises many teachers upon leaving their classroom jobs ... which can arise even when we leave jobs which have become impossible to bear.
To better understand the emotional milestones associated with leaving a classroom job, read the blog post below:
5. Recognise that Guilt is a Great Teacher
In our feelings of guilt we have an opportunity to learn new things - and recognise how we react to problems in our lives.
Guilt is often the product of a misunderstanding of past situations - or things which we feel have not been resolved.
Practise nonjudgemental reflection and be kind to yourself when you feel guilty, or think about the past.
Over time, we can separate what happens to us from the feelings we have as a result ... and we learn to react in a different way.
Through developing an understanding of the effects of the 'first arrows' that hit us, we can reduce the impact of the second.
If you are struggling with feelings of guilt at leaving your classroom - I hope that this has helped.
Drop a comment below and let me know what you think.
Much love from here,
Thank you James. This helped me understand why I'm going through such a difficult time, Lockdown leaves me alone with my thoughts of guilt. Reading this helped me to realise that I'm not alone.
Bless you Karen – it’s certainly a time of enforced reflection isn’t it!
You aren’t alone x
You are not Karen. I strongly believe that if one day a serious and honest study is made to find how the teaching profession affects teachers, everyone will be shocked by the results.
Excellent article about feeling guilt after leaving the teaching profession. Spot on!
In simple words, it's explained how damaging this feeling can be.
The comparison made with the guilt many people feel after leaving an abusive relationship is perfect. Personally, it never happened to me but I have several friends that have left abusive relations and it works like that in fact.
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I use Siteground hosting – and pay for Go Geek plan. I also use Cloudflare and a website caching plugin to aid speed of page delivery. I hope that helps!
Wow! 33 years teaching. Left and today was the kid’s day back, without me. Nightmares last night and tears in my husbands arms at 7 am!!! This cane at the perfect moment. I only know me as an educator. Making the world a better place bus teaching kids to read!!! Who am I low?!?! This article is terrific. Thank you very much💜
I found this in an act of desperation. I left teaching high school mid-year due to its strain on my mental and physical health. It was such a difficult decision and one I've now made twice. I LOVE teaching but it put a strain on every other part of my life both times in multiple ways. I am lucky enough to be an engineer as well and have returned to engineering, a far more relaxed atmosphere. This article captures how I feel right now perfectly. Only 2 weeks into my new job and I keep having nightmares about teaching and the guilt of leaving. You helped me regain my perspective. Thank you!