Have you ever thought about quitting? I have, and the times I wanted to quit always snuck up on me. Tracing back the preceding months prior to my feeling the need to jump ship was littered with a trail of loose ends, a sense of being overwhelmed with little direction. This surprised me. It’s easy to notice other people’s behavior, but my patterns were hiding from me in plain sight.
When I thought about leaving teaching, I surmised that quitting would fix all my problems. In one situation, I did apply to another school and found a better fit. However, in most instances, teaching usually becomes the scapegoat. For some, leaving teaching may be a good move. After all, no one would fault us for doing what is best for ourselves. But what if you’re avoiding the real problems?
First, a disclaimer: I do not want to be insensitive to anyone who is in a tough situation caused by external factors. There are difficult parts to every job, but some work environments are near impossible to navigate. Broken systems, ineffective administrators and lack of support are just the tip of the iceberg of potential reasons to leave. I don’t think any amount of self-reflection or self-improvement is a long-term fix in some of these lose-lose situations. Take a good look at your situation, and ultimately, do what is best for you, even if it means massive change that people close to you may not understand.
I experienced a cycle of things being fine … until they weren’t. I decided to dig into the patterns that led me to these places. If I followed the breadcrumbs, what would I find? While I did discover some specific categories in need of attention, I also encountered many blurred lines.
Long Hours and Few Boundaries: I noticed that my energy levels varied. On Mondays and Tuesdays, I usually arrived to the office early, skipped lunch and stayed late. I justified this by seeking the reward later in the week for not having to work as much. On Wednesday, I started the day with the same schedule, but by 11 a.m., I was drained.
As music teachers, our work can multiply in a few months. For example, an ensemble has a guest soloist, and the kids get excited. “Can we do that again, or better yet, can we prepare solos?” “You got it. I’ll get going on that.”
Or unscheduled meetings come up. “Mr. Stinson: we’d like to have a student leadership meeting this week. We have some new ideas for a social event.” “Yes. Let’s get it on the calendar.”
Or requests from higher ups. Administrator: “Hey, Don — no is an OK answer, but can you have the band at our social event next week?” Although it’s on my personal time, my answer is: “Of course!”
Ignoring My Health and Taking Shortcuts: Long hours impacted my health. My caffeine intake went way up. I used to meal plan, but now, I had to find the fastest option. And if you’ve eaten fast food three days in a row in your car, you might as well finish the week the same way.
I still managed an exercise routine, but what was once a positive part of my day turned out to be a struggle. I never like having to talk myself into doing something that I used to enjoy.
I was taking shortcuts, and shortcuts always show. Teach some shortcuts in music, and it will sound like a shortcut. Cook with some shortcuts? It will taste like shortcuts. How many times have you stayed up late, woke up late, and didn’t have enough time in the morning? You can dress well and comb your hair, but if you don’t have enough time to shave, you look like a shortcut.
Too Many Projects/Not Finishing a Job: About once every three months I realize that I have too many projects. I bounced around from task list to task list: teaching and program direction, recreational promises to my friends and family, writings I share with you and volunteer work. I wasn’t making headway on any one item.
I know that I often approach the finish line of a project and then have to convince myself to actually finish. But these situations were different. I felt like I was not keeping pace, which would then loop back to long hours and very few boundaries.
Just focus on the positive, calm down, and stop worrying!
Once you read that sentence, did you just want to skip the rest of this article? Because I wanted to stop listening when someone told me that.
Yes, we should strive to get to a mindset of handling items productively and healthily. But I simply couldn’t do that every day. A pick-me-up was the last thing I wanted.
Then eat well, sleep and exercise!
Did you want to stop reading again? We all know it’s not bad advice. But we just don’t want that information now.
If we took a morning to look back on those times before we realized our life was tough, what would we find? What were our patterns of behavior, and how could we use this information to address the situation and act accordingly? What advice would we give others if we noticed their patterns?
Consider Blunt Realism: Sometimes sudden events throw you into a deep hole. Other times, you dig for a long time without realizing how deep you are. I needed to understand that sometimes things go wrong all at once, while other times we don’t realize that we’ve been digging for a long time.
We can only fix one thing at a time. It’s not fair, but it’s reality.
I realized that I was waiting for motivation, which often tricks you into thinking that you can handle more than is possible in the long term. However, motivation is unreliable. Right when you need it most, it abandons you.
I needed a huge change, but I couldn’t handle it. I had to swallow my pride and accept that smaller actions would be sustainable.
Small Actions: We often rush into trying to “fix” our lives. For example, I had goals of eating better and exercising, which are both significant life changes. On Sunday evening, I envision the discipline to work out every day and eat nothing but salad and salmon … for the rest of my life. I was successful for a week.
The side effects of these two goals often convinced me that the juice wasn’t worth the squeeze. It’s too much to expect to give up an hour a day for exercise, do more laundry to wash those workout clothes, spend more money on better food, spend more time cooking, cleaning dishes and so on. These excuses often convinced me to quit.
So instead of huge, lofty, unattainable goals, I found that monotonous discipline was the key. I’m still going to eat like garbage this week, but I’m adding in a five-minute walk every day. Next week? I’m walking five minutes a day, and I’m going to clean up my breakfast. In a year, will I be running marathons and juggling guest spots on a morning talk show cooking up some healthy recipes? Probably not. But with small changes, I’ll be walking longer and feeling better from the food choices I make. I’ll plan to fail and reserve Saturdays for some fun foods.
How can you apply this in the classroom? I found that a small addition to rehearsals can provide dividends. My groups have routinely struggled with consistent articulation. Attacking the problem with a variety of methods wasn’t paying off. However, adding one articulation exercise that took four minutes the first day and 60 seconds on subsequent days was the key. It was monotonous, but it was a small addition that was achievable every day. We didn’t have to completely revamp our routine.
What’s the bad news? Small changes take time. But that time is going to pass either way. Let’s not underestimate the importance of inching along.
Don’t expect perfection because you’ll certainly be disappointed. Besides, do you want to be perfect? When we sit around a restaurant table, do we bond over the perfect concert performance, where everyone showed up and nothing went wrong? Sometimes. But those times when an entire section forgot their music, or the band started on the wrong piece, or whatever craziness happened are what we laugh about afterward. Those times are etched in our memories.
Teaching may not be for everyone. And if it’s not, please do what is best for you. However, I urge anyone considering a change to follow their trail of breadcrumbs. Will that new profession make things better? Or will it run the chance of being a semi-permanent solution to a temporary problem?
If you do decide to leave teaching, there is a bright spot. You may find exactly what you’re looking for. Or you may have simply needed a break, and after a while decide to come back to teaching. The positive aspect of a teaching shortage is that educators who opt out for a year or two can come back … if they want to.
It is on us to do the work to make ourselves better. Often we are unable to identify what the problem is and how to fix it. Other times, we reject the solution that’s staring us in the face. If a change is necessary and you’re ready for it, take the chance. But don’t vow to make yourself better so that you can be a better teacher or a better employee. Work on being a better you.
I didn’t need to leave teaching. I needed to answer some tough questions and put in consistent work. I understood that some gray days would never go away completely. But answering those tough questions and enacting small changes started to lift the fog for me.
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