May 19

7 Emotional Milestones for Teachers Leaving the Profession

Life can feel extremely hard for teachers leaving the profession. 

We live our work completely .. the job often becomes who we are. This can make leaving your classroom job much harder than in other types of employment. 

Factor in the judgemental nature of the profession in many schools - and even making the decision to leave, is a challenge.

So if you are a teacher considering your next move, please start by recognising that the tangle of thoughts and emotions you might have about doing so, are normal.

In this post I want to examine the emotional stages involved in leaving a teaching job.

Because when you recognise this as a process you make travelling it's journey easier. 

So what are the 7 milestones teachers pass when they decide to leave the classroom?

7 Milestones for Teachers Leaving the Profession

It's important to state at the outset that your specific experience of leaving teaching is likely to be unique to you.

How difficult it might be often depends on your reasons for leaving and the 'push' and 'pull' factors you have for doing so.

For some, enduring an abusive job will complicate the process significantly - while for others, positive reasons for seeking change make the transition out of teaching much easier.

So connect with yourself, take the time to understand why you seek change - and recognise how the process makes you feel.

The desired end point is worth it - a more balanced and happy life where you can discover a new purpose and continue to grow.

But where does this process usually start?

Often teachers are oblivious to the coming storm .. 

1. Innocence

Teachers Leaving the Classroom

Teachers work extremely hard - and are typically unaware of the problems that this stores up inside of them.

Some days are good, giving you the strength to overcome the bad ones - others less so.

But underneath your frantic activity levels, the cold reality is that what you are doing is unsustainable.

You have got so used to stacking one more straw on the camels back - that when workload or pressure increase further, your default response is to try and fit more in. 

Working this way can be likened to a child blowing up a balloon .. unaware that at some point it will pop. 

How Will You Know You Are at This Stage?

Typically - you won't.

You might be feeling some of the symptoms of burnout - but are likely to be unaware of them.

When you look back in future however, the signs you were pushing too hard were there.

Advice for teachers at this stage

Listen to your friends outside the profession when they say ‘you are doing too much’ or that they ‘are worried about you’. 

It is easy to dismiss non-teachers' opinions as 'they just don't understand the job' .. when actually their perspective can be much closer to reality than our own.

2. Awakening 

Teacher leaving School for the last time

Then something changes.

This can happen in two ways.

For some teachers, a crisis event occurs which immediately throws into focus their unhappiness or inability to manage the job any more. 

This might be a moment when you act completely out of character in response to an every day issue, or as a breakdown in your emotional state. 

Teachers often describe this by saying that 'all of sudden things got too much'. 

Other teachers experience more of a slow-creeping awakening event, and describe a growing feeling of dread associated with doing their job.

Their ability to cope slowly decreases, along with the commitment and emotion they feel about a job that they once cared passionately about. 

We are all different, aren't we?

The intense pressure of many modern teaching jobs can provoke a specific breakdown event in some teachers, while for others the constant activation of their 'fight or flight' response becomes so much that they burn out inside, and retreat from their lives emotionally.

Both of these crisis events are a sign that you can no longer cope and you need urgent help. 

Failing to heed the warnings associated with the awakening stage can increase by many times the severity of health issues which might follow it. 

Teacher Burnout Assessment Tool

If you are worried that you are burning the candle at both ends - and are in danger of burning out - please use my online Teacher Burnout Self-Assessment Tool, created with help from my doctor. 

It measures the state of your symptoms and will give you a quick diagnosis. It also creates a Burnout Prevention Report based on your answers advising you what to do next.

You can access the Teacher Burnout Self Assessment Tool here.

Advice for teachers experiencing a crisis event

It is more normal than many people think to experience a shock or crisis event in our lives, but many teachers' instinct is to cover this up and attempt to 'be stronger' instead.

Recognising when you aren't coping - and seeking help - will help to avoid stage 3 .. 

3. Withdrawal

Teachers leaving Education

Many teachers experience a period of painful isolation following a crisis event ..

.. where they cut themselves off from friends, interests, and other meaningful parts of their lives.

This happens as a protection mechanism when the mind realises it can no longer cope.

It can also occur as a response to a situation which appears to have no resolution for the person experiencing it. 

Teachers at the withdrawal stage often describe the pervasive sadness of living a life where the job is all they do. They actively avoid social contact and stop trying to solve the issues they have. 

Doing so compounds the problems they are experiencing and delays solutions which might help them. 

Working like this for any period of time, can have a damaging effect on teachers mental health - and their reputation at work.

How Will You Know You Are at This Stage?

The process of withdrawal can feel like a slow separation of your feelings towards people and the things you previously had passion for. 

Teachers describe feeling a shell of the person they once were - and going through the motions of their job and life, without personality or feeling. 

Advice for teachers at this stage

For teachers who experience isolation, this is often the low point of their experience. 

Please believe me when I say that there is life after withdrawal. 

Sharing how you feel and exploring the reasons why, can help you rediscover your positivity and sense of perspective.

Most often this is achieved by talking to people who have your best interests at heart. 

4. Acknowledgement

Teachers leaving the job

Through discussion and reflection, teachers come out of withdrawal with an understanding of the feelings they are experiencing - and the reasons why.

It is impossible to solve a puzzle without the pieces. Acknowledgement means you have found them and are able to start putting them together.

While at first it is easy to blame everything on the job, often teachers reflect that it was their internal reactions to the difficulties they experienced that caused them the biggest issues.

This is not an indication that you are the problem - quite the opposite ..

The cocktail of unrealistic expectations, a pressure to perform and the harsh judgement typical of many 'modern' teaching jobs, is a uniquely challenging environment .. 

.. one which over time has a negative impact on most people who teach.

Acknowledging that you can't cope in the way that you used to (or that other people appear to), is a difficult realisation to have.

Recognising this is a major milestone on the journey of teachers who want to leave their jobs.

And while it can take time for teachers to feel at peace with their new reality .. ignoring this and staying in 'withdrawal' is likely to increase the chances of suffering long term damage to your health.

Advice for teachers at this stage

The working conditions in many schools are extremely challenging - but this fact is often normalised by managers who insist that those having difficulties are themselves the problem.

It is a major milestone to stop measuring yourself against unrealistic or impossible standards - and a genuine opportunity to begin to take back your life.

5. Grief / Mourning

Teachers leaving their students

The need to grieve or mourn for their loss can come as a complete surprise to teachers leaving their jobs.

It feels logical that once you make the decision to leave - or actually do so ..

.. that you should start feeling better immediately.

But for many teachers this isn't the case, and instead they experience a period of painful mourning for the life they have lost .. even when their classroom working conditions were impossible to bear.

This 'emotional hangover' occurs as a result of the commitment teachers have for the work we do.

Teaching in modern schools requires a huge emotional investment and extreme levels of effort to cope with the pressure and workload involved.

By committing completely we make ourselves vulnerable when change is forced upon us. 

Because we aren't just leaving a job ..

We leave behind the bright hope we had that we would make a positive difference to the most innocent in our society. 

We leave behind a significant part of ourselves .. and this is felt all the more keenly in cases where we feel wronged on our way out of the door. 

How Will You Know You Are at This Stage?

After removing yourself from a damaging job, if you feel confused that you are not feeling any better ..

Or if you feel frustrated at your inability to settle into a life beyond the classroom happily - then you are likely in mourning for the part of you which you left behind.

Advice for teachers at this stage

Recognise your feelings as a bereavement and they become easier to understand and manage.

Be patient with yourself and connect with others who have experienced similar things. 

Knowing that you are not alone will help.

The members my (private) Leave Teaching .. and Smile Facebook Group will understand exactly how you feel. 

Click here to request membership - if you are going through this you don't have to do so alone.

6. Acceptance

Career change for teachers

After a period of grief we are able to regain a sense of balance in our lives and move on.

While the wound might always be sore, you can now look forward without feeling the same level of pain about the past.

With acceptance you regain your positivity and interest in the things which you are passionate about .. and you start to enjoy your life again. 

It is worth noting that it is only at this stage that you would be fully equipped to 'sell yourself' into another job .. 

.. and put the best version of you forward in applications and at interview.

This is a big reason why teachers going through the process of leaving teaching find it hard to apply for and get other jobs. 

Life necessitates that we transition to another income before we are emotionally ready to do so, leaving many teachers adrift for a while, frustratingly trying to find alternative employment ..

.. often feeling awful for their lack of ability to do so happily.

How Will You Know You Have Reached Acceptance?

The thoughts you had which focused on reliving past pain occur much less often. 

Instead your mind serves you more positive thoughts and you feel more future focused.

You feel more like your real self again. 

Advice for teachers at this stage

Now you feel more free of the past, take some time to reassess what you want from your life.

It might be that the job or income you jumped from teaching into, is not what you really want for yourself longer term.

Show yourself some understanding if - now that your mind is clear - you want something different.

This is not a lack of focus or direction or your part - rather, it's a clearing of the fog around you, allowing you to see the path ahead more clearly.

If you are unsure what to do instead of teaching, downloading my eBook will help:

373 Alternative Job Ideas for Teachers

  • Discover just how employable you really are
  • Reveals the jobs best suited to your role, and existing experience level
  • 373 ideas and inspirations for teachers seeking a fresh challenge
373 Alternative Job Ideas for Teachers

7. Self Esteem Returns .. You Reclaim your Voice

Teacher wanting to leave the profession

At this stage you are back in your groove - your confidence has returned and with it your ability to maximise the opportunity of your new life.

You realise the transferability of the skills you developed in teaching, and the level to which you can operate because of them.

You will value the experience - good and bad - and will understand the many lessons you learned from your time in the classroom.

Often teachers will realise meaning in the struggle they went through - recognising how going through the storm has equipped them for the life they have now.

At this stage many teachers find a new mission to commit to.

We often live our lives with purpose - and are happiest when we wake up knowing we are contributing to the world somehow. 

Our best days in the classroom feel like this. 

Finding an alternative mission in life marks a happy end to the process for many teachers who decide to leave classroom .. 

.. a process which is often longer and more emotional than they expect it to be.

How to Make Leaving the Classroom MUCH Easier

Educator leaving the profession

To manage a move out of teaching often needs an emotional understanding of the damage the job has done

An intellectual understanding of the options open to you and practical action to match the two together.

How the process can make you feel is the element which is least understood by many teachers.

Ignoring your need to make emotional progress can prolong the recovery period .. and make decision making difficult, until this has been resolved for you. 

Recognise that your progress to a happier you requires progress emotionally, intellectually and practically. 

In our ruthlessly practical brains, teachers often believe that intellectual understanding and practical action will result in a quick transition to a happier life.

What slows the process of moving on is the emotional attachments we have to the job.

A big misunderstanding for many teachers - is that decisions about what to do instead can be made quickly.

Often this is not the case.

I hope that by understanding the process as I have described it - that you realise this - and stop blaming yourself for any indecision or missteps you might have made along the way.

Good luck in the future, please connect with me or my community if you need help.

If this resonates with you, please share it ...

About the author 

James Anthony

After teaching for 20 years in the UK, I now help Schools, Universities, and Entrepreneurs to create and deliver transformational online learning.
I also work with educators across the world helping them use their skills in new ways - to live happier healthier lives.


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  1. An interesting and helpful read both for recently ex-teachers (like me)and for anyone who has a friend, family member or partner who is thinking of leaving teaching………… it’s not easy and I will admit to not having made it through all 7 steps in this article (and coronavirus hasn’t exact helped) but hopefully the future will be brighter!
    Please keep writing these posts………it’s tough leaving teaching especially when what to do next is far from clear…

    1. Thank you Jennie .. good luck with your own journey – I know I found my own torturous at times.

      What I misunderstood was that finding alternative work wasn’t the answer I was looking for .. but inner peace with my decision.

      I hope you find yours .. xx

  2. Thank you for this article, I’m in a slightly better position as I have experience outside the classroom I can fall back on. I’ve decided to leave and the current situation hasn’t changed that. I’m not quite through all 7 steps but at least I can work out how I’m feeling now.

    1. Good luck Emma – with your future choices, and in finding peace with your decision.

      For me, it was confusing to realise that being sure that I wanted to leave, didn’t end the feelings I had about doing so.

      It can be a longer road than many teachers expect .. much love for your journey.

  3. Thank you for putting into words the process I have been experiencing so well. I was frustrated with my inability to find an alternative way to match my income and my continuing lack of interest in many things that used to interest me, plus my continuing antipathy towards teaching and everything connected to it. Since we’re in lockdown and my department is working from home I commenced a graduated return 3 weeks ago and I’m just not feeling it- yet I’m not actually having to do the frenzied level of work my poor beleaguered colleagues have had to, since i’ve been off for so long I don’t actually have a cohort of learners any more. So I am having to face my demons and get up to speed with everything missed. It’s a weird place to be but in a way gives me some breathing space to continue through the stages and sort my life out. The only thing that I am sure about is that i do not want to go back into the classroom ever again. It has had such a terrible impact on my physical emotional and mental health and I recognise with some sadness I must get out before it completely destroys me. Yet it galls me that I have given so much of myself to others through the profession and am left wondering what exactly has it done for me! Such a mixture of emotions.

    1. A mixture of emotions is right Anita .. it doesn’t help, but what you are feeling is normal – especially in circumstances when the job has turned into a damaging experience.

      Try not to let your feelings about leaving stay with you, you have given yourself freely and you should be proud of that. The kids you taught have all taken something away from their experience with you – it’s the great unknown in teaching, but I think we all dramatically underestimate our long term impact – especially if we’ve done the job for many years. It is likely that young families are currently benefiting from some of the things which you showed the children you taught.

      Realising you need to leave is a positive thing – try and recognise the feelings this gives you without judgment. A happier life on the ‘other side’ is easier without too much baggage 😉

  4. Although I was forced to leave teaching, I almost went through this process. In fact, I was laid off without any explanation and later some family issues forced me to leave tutoring, leaving me hanging in the air and not knowing what to do next. I have been feeling useless and futureless since I left teaching two years ago. This article helped me understand my situation better. Thank you.

    1. I’m glad it helped you Mary. I hope the ‘useless and futureless’ feelings wain and are replaced with something which is happier to live with.

      I found meditation helped me to regain my sense of self. The torrent of negative thoughts and emotions were difficult to stop without it – once I had started meditating I found it easier to separate my thoughts from my sense of self. I will write something about the process of doing so, as it can be transformative.

      Much love on your journey x

  5. James, your posts and articles and resources are a godsend. Truly. Leaving my job of 28 years is so terrifying. I just wish I could climb under the covers and never emerge. Your site is keeping me vertical. From the bottom of my heart, thank you.

    1. I am really glad that what I do helps someone. It means a lot to have been through this experience – and being able to give back.

      Thank you for expressing how you feel here, and good luck with your search for happy alternatives Renee.

      Keep asking questions, and answers reveal themselves in time x

  6. Hi James,

    I have been a highly successful teacher now for 25 years. However, recently because of workplace bullying by senior leaders I have decided to resign. I virtually at retirement age anyway and as I can access the Teacher's Pension I pulled the trigger at October half term.

    It did not end the bullying and in fact it has increased. The senior leaders wanted me gone because I was someone that younger teacher's looked up to and treated as a valuable member of staff in who they could confide and ask for tips to improve their teaching. The Headteacher hated this. Consequently, on a weekly basis now there are 'strange' events occurring. For example last week there was a 'work scrutiny' suddenly organised in which the folders of my Year 13 groups were checked, This passed off reasonably well in the end because they are first rate with lots of marked essays in them which are marked to the highest quality as I am an AQA examiner. Next they organised a lesson observation for next week as part of their school wide agenda and even though I was not supposed to be done until around Easter they have brought this forward. Finally they have brought in an Enrichment programme for students that all staff have to lead on top of all our other duties. Mine as failed to start as students do not turn up to meetings. A senior leader is now asking if I want 'support' with this as it is not functioning.

    What advice can you give me? Can they discipline me for not carrying out Enrichment? I have five weeks of notice left. Can they sack me in those five weeks? What are my options?

    1. The short answer is to speak to your union and read your contract of employment (alongside relevant school policies) very carefully.

      The longer answer – to me, it sounds like they have dug around for reasons to remove you early, and not found the evidence they need to do so.

      I find it very unlikely that they will be able to remove you with 5 weeks until you leave for good – unless you have progressed quite a way through the sickness and absence / capability procedures – or if you are already the subject of disciplinary action.

      Teaching contracts often mention making a ‘wider commitment’ to the school – and the vague nature of this kind of wording can be applied to almost anything.

      You could refuse – and potentially annoy them into further annoying ‘checks and support’ – although it is likely that any disciplinary process starting from scratch, would take longer than that to complete.

      It is essential to check carefully – as in schools every process is written down. You have a right to access all policies etc so you can do that – I would be doing so with a union rep.

      The other thing you could do (if you want to make a point) is to drag your feet over the process of resolving this. Things like, requiring a union rep to accompany you in meetings, taking time to reply to requests for information etc – to run the clock down.

      In my experience – particularly if you only have 5 weeks left – it isn’t worth doing this however.

      Leaving on your terms at Christmas will feel better if you have finished your career in the manner which it sounds like you have worked for years … self respect intact, despite attempts to fluster you in your final weeks.

      It is not unusual for soon to be ex school employers to act like jealous ex partners when we make a decision to leave them. It sounds like you are experiencing this.

      Whatever decision you make, good luck – don’t let their ‘last minute’ mucking about affect you – rise above it and smile 🙂

  7. This is, without a doubt, the most helpful article I have read since beginning to think about leaving teaching. This outlined so clearly what I have felt since I made the leap and helped me understand why I am where I am now (grief/mourning). I have more hope for the future now that I know others are going through this too. Thank you so much.

    1. I wrote the post above with tears in my eyes, as I realised that I had described things the way I experienced them.

      Knowing that the work I did then helps people now, makes the journey and all it’s bumps, worthwhile.

      Thank you for taking the time to comment. It means a lot to me that you did.

      Good luck finding your next step. If I can help please send me something, or comment here.

    1. I am glad these resonated with you – they do with many teachers I talk to.

      They are a product of my own experience too.

      Good luck progressing through your own transition into other things.

      Be patient with yourself as you do x

  8. Giving my notice on Friday after 11 years in an urban setting as a classroom teacher. Has taken a huge emotional toll on me. I have a great new job lined up doing instructional design, something I should be so proud and happy to have an opportunity to do…yet I feel scared and not excited about the new opportunity. Thank you for putting into words why I’m feeling the way I’ve been feeling these past few days. It truly has been a grieving process.

    1. I’m glad to be able to help. This was my experience too.

      Give yourself time to adjust to your new life, and have patience with the feelings you don’t expect.

      Your experience is shared by many … but is temporary. Happier times are coming x

  9. I've hit them all and I am working on a plan to make an exit into something more sustainable for my life. It's time. I will miss my students, but I value my health and family much more than keeping going at this terrible pace. Great post!

    1. Hi John, yes – I have results of a burnout survey I have had live on the site for 4 years. Contact me at James at NotWaitingForSuperman dot org and I can send you something – or we can have a chat on zoom sometime.

  10. This article, and others I have read here so far, are different from most. You really understand the heavy feelings of stressed teachers and the reasons why it can be so difficult to move forward. Glad I discovered your website.

  11. On year 30. Need to finish 31. I feel like teachers are treated like those little pieces of trash that never make it into the can underneath the sink: not qualifying for the trash can, yet still garbage and still something kept around but not worth picking up. I am actively looking for a new career, because I'm not sure I can make it 20 more months. Thanks for what you do.

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