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EP 52 – Breaking Your Teaching Contract

In this episode, I’m going to discuss the consequences around teachers breaking contract, weighing the pros and cons of leaving your teaching contract mid-year, and how to take the next steps. I’ll also share some suggestions about resigning gracefully as well.  

Listen to the episode in the podcast player below, or find it on Apple Podcast or Spotify.

So You’re Thinking of Breaking Your Teaching Contract

Welcome to the Teacher Career Coach Podcast. I’m your host Daphne Gomez.

When I left teacher, I waited until the very end of the school year and started applying right around April. I hung in there. I stayed until the very end and that was a huge challenge for me. While I didn’t personally break my teaching contract, I would be a pretty big liar if I wasn’t honest that I thought about it pretty much every day for that last four months of the entire year.

The truth is I didn’t land a job until late June or else I probably would’ve left sooner. If someone would’ve offered me a job in mid-April, I don’t doubt for a second that I would’ve taken it. Things had gotten so bad with my mental health and it was a toxic work environment. So, I found myself breaking down daily on my commute to school just going there.

One day I remember I had to leave abruptly in the middle of the school day because I started sobbing uncontrollably at recess and I just couldn’t control it. I knew I didn’t want my students to come in and see me. Leaving midyear wouldn’t have been an easy decision for me.

I didn’t want to break a contract. I didn’t want to leave my colleagues scrambling. But honestly, me being in the classroom wasn’t what was best for those students, either, with the state that I was in.

In this episode, I’m going to discuss the consequences around teachers breaking contract, what you need to know about your teaching contract, how to weigh the pro and cons of leaving it midyear, and how to take the next steps if you end up making that difficult decision. At the very end, I’m going to share some suggestions about resigning gracefully as well.

If You Can, Stay in Your Contract

This goes without saying, but staying in your teaching contract is going to be a cleaner and more ideal exit. If you think you can stay until the very end of the school year, it’s always going to be my first recommendation.

I know I’m going to get a lot of pushback from many teachers because of this episode, but we just have to be honest that staying the entire school year is often not realistic. The majority of teachers that I talk to are planning on transitioning and saying that leaving midyear is actually a non-negotiable for them.

If that feels more aligned with your plans please don’t feel like you’re totally alone here, but let’s get into it for those struggling with this right now. Life is often complicated and my philosophy on many of the messier parts of leaving teaching is there is truthfully not a one-size-fits-all answer for so many of these issues.

I wish I could tell you that the stars would align perfectly and fall into place without someone, somewhere being hurt by a change that you made. I wish I could tell you that the timeline would work out perfectly, but often in life we have to make really difficult decisions in order to get to where we need to be.

Teachers who leave midyear for new roles or mental health reasons are often bullied, gossiped about by their peers, or just labeled in general as selfish. The assumption is they left for better opportunities, or they abandoned their responsibilities, or they took the “easy way out.”

But any of you who are listening to this and are in the middle of your career hunt should probably be able to vouch for this not being easy at all. It’s easy for someone else from the outside to say you can’t leave midyear. Think of what that would do to the students and the teachers.

I can’t talk about or speak on behalf of every teacher who has ever left midyear, but I can say with confidence that the vast majority that I have spoken with don’t really need anybody to remind them what happens if they leave midyear.

Everyone has thought of what leaving midyear would do to the students at one time or the other. Everybody has thought about the students every day for the last a hundred days to the point of exhaustion.

Teachers sacrifice their personal life, their family life, their mental health, their physical health, because they love their students and education. No one goes into teaching without thinking of students.

They’ve probably been thinking about how this is going to impact their students for years. You don’t know how many sleepless nights they have probably spent just thinking about how this one act might help them, but how it would impact other people.

It Can Be Tough to Stay the Whole Time

Most likely if they are leaving midyear, this is that person’s absolute breaking point. There are so many tragic stories that I’ve heard where waiting until your teaching contract is up just don’t apply.

Principals who have tried to tell teachers not to take days off to grieve after a loved one passed away because they couldn’t find a sub. Toxic work environment, I’m sure too many stories for me to even do in a single podcast. I’ve had DMs about racism in the workplace and countless stories of unsafe work environments for teachers.

I wouldn’t think twice if any of these teachers left these situations in a heartbeat and I’ve received messages from teachers who are struggling so much that they have actually considered suicide as a way out just because they didn’t think that they could last another four months, but they don’t want to quit “because of the kids.”

I’ve heard horror stories from teachers who are at their lowest and encouraged by their therapists to leave. They reached their rock bottom and they left. Then afterwards their colleagues turned on them and it got even worse.

So first, if you are in this place right now, if you have ever felt yourself struggling, I beg you to please seek help. The national suicide prevention lifeline’s number is 802-273-8255. It’s going to be linked in the show notes for anybody who needs it. For everyone listening, it’s okay for you to choose yourself.

Lastly, if this is not something that you would ever consider, I beg you, please do not be an external voice pushing people who no longer want to stay in a career to stay because of how it impacts you.

Because you do not know what’s going on behind the scenes in anyone else’s life. You don’t know how many years of therapy they’ve gone through discussing this specific change, what they’re going through mentally right now, what’s going on on the other side.

Even if those are not huge factors of why they left, honestly, everything that we went through in the last two years with the pandemic changed my perspective on so many things. I don’t want anyone to take a second of their life for granted because tomorrow is truly never promised.

So, if someone’s dream company offered them a dream position, even if it negatively impacted me, it’s pretty hard for me to ever recommend they turn down that opportunity. As I say in episode seven on battling teacher guilt, at some point our needs are going to directly conflict with the needs of others.

Be Sure You Understand Your Contract

Staying in a teaching contract saves you the hassle of figuring out the consequences you may face, the students from losing a teacher, and from the district or your school from scrambling to find a new person on short notice, but we know that the real world is far more complex sometimes.

Whether it is a health concern, either physical or mental, a new job or something else, sometimes in life you’re just going to have to put your own personal needs above other people’s. Yes, even in your employers. Yes, even fellow teachers. And yes, even your students. To everybody listening, this is an official judgment free zone.

Let’s get into what you need to know, starting off with an important disclaimer. I am not a licensed attorney. I am not a legal expert. I’m not giving you legal advice.

You have to go in and read your own contract. You have to talk to the district who may be able to support you in understanding what rules or policies your specific districts have in place.

If you do have a union representative, they’re going to be the best person to talk to about your specific situation and you also may want to go back to episode 15 of the podcast, where I interview a union representative to talk about how to go through these processes.

What I do know is that you do not need to tell your employer that you’re thinking of applying to other positions. Many teachers don’t even want to start applying to new jobs because they’re afraid that they’re going to have to tell their employer, but you can actually check that box that says do not contact my current employer and it’s not really a red flag.

That’s one of the biggest misconceptions that I know that a lot of teachers have, but every company actually understands that their candidates are working somewhere and they’re searching from other companies that likely don’t know about it.

If you’re applying for other schools or districts, they’re going to commonly call your admin for a reference, but really that’s only common in education and working at school districts. Careers outside of education, with the exception of state and government jobs, usually don’t even ask for references.

The bottom line is the hiring manager knows you’re somewhere else, you’re looking for a new role, and if you’re a great fit for the position, they want you in that role because you’re going to help them fill a need.

Depending on when you’re listening to this episode, there are going to be a couple things that you should know specifically about breaking your teaching contract.

First, I’m going to start with those listening at the end of the school year or breaking kind of around the summertime. If it’s in between school years or close to the end, just know that there’s a huge difference between a letter of intent and your actual school contract.

The intent to return helps your admin count who’s going to be there the following year, assign grade levels, but it’s usually not a legally binding document.

If you are leaving during the summer, even after signing a contract, it usually is a lot easier to get out of. You’re going to want to check your contract for specifics, but often you just need to write a letter stating your intention to break contract and send it to your district by a specific date during the summer.

You also want to research upfront what breaking right then is going to mean, specifically for your health insurance, because I’ve had a couple of teachers reach out to me and told me that they wish that they would’ve postponed breaking until July instead of June, after doing some research and realizing it actually would’ve made a difference for them.

Sometimes You Need to Leave Midyear

Moving on to anyone who’s breaking midyear. There are many districts that actually have “good reasons” to leave teaching midyear. That can be physical health concerns, mental health concerns, and family needs or obligations.

What you aren’t going to see listed as a good reason is a new job. What that means technically is that legal action could be taken by the district if you abandon your contract for another job, unless the district has formally released you from the conditions of the contract, which I’m going to talk about more in detail in just a second.

Circling back to the main reasons that are often deemed good reasons to quit contract midyear. Physical health concerns, we’re going to start there.

If you have a physical health concern, that’s getting in the way of you being able to do your job, you actually might be eligible for some form of medical leave. This type of leave would allow you to break your contract even midyear.

This is something that many schools were giving more leniency for during COVID, even though they were struggling with a teaching shortage. If you have another health condition that makes you want to leave your position, your health condition may actually qualify for FMLA.

For example, employees who are unable to perform their essential job duties because of a serious illness or chronic health condition may request leave to treat the condition or receive prolonged care while under a doctor’s supervision.

Another reason that’s deemed a good reason is a mental health concern. There’s no doubt that teaching can affect your mental health.

Your wellbeing should never come at the cost of any job, but depending on the severity of your situation, your mental health concerns could lead you to approval for a leave of absence or release from your contract.

The last one is family needs. Whether you have to take care of a sick family member or provide your own childcare, your family needs are important and most districts have an understanding of these circumstances. You might even be eligible for or some form of leave here.

On another note, if your spouse has a job relocation requiring you to move out of a reasonable commuting distance, most districts will let you out of your contract without penalty for that as well. If you have immediate need to leave the classroom, and one of these options are applicable to you, you may potentially be able to leave and that can help you.

Once again, this might not always work due to the teacher shortages. Everything is going to be a little bit harder to get approved. I don’t want to discourage anyone from truly trying out these options, but I just want to be honest.

There May Be Penalties If You Leave

If none of these apply to you and the truth of the matter is you’re just leaving because it’s a new job, you may face fines or losing your teaching license.

Yes, these can actually still apply if you took a leave for a mental or physical health reason, but then you broke your contract for a new job while you’re on that leave. The word to pay attention to here while I’m speaking is “may.” These may apply to you.

If you leave midyear to take a new job, your contract may also require you to stay long enough for the school to find a replacement. Then you won’t face any of these consequences. If this is the case, know the specifics ahead of time and wait until it gets asked or brought up with the new role, just to see if they’re able to wait a certain amount of time.

The standard for new roles to wait is between two and four weeks of waiting for that new employee to end things at their past position. So this is worth a shot.

If you cannot wait until the position is filled and you were actually offered a new role that starts tomorrow, this is when you’re going to have to figure out if it’s worth the risk of taking that fine or losing your teaching license.

I suggest for anybody who is thinking of this to just start saving money in your emergency fund, if you think a fine is a possibility at your district. Yes, they can take it from you if it is in your contract.

This can end up being thousands of dollars depending on where you’re at. Losing a teaching license is also not ideal. It’s a big risk, but if you know for a fact that you’re never going to return to teaching again, it doesn’t really matter.

It doesn’t impact how your next role’s going to think about you, buy only you can decide if you can ever really truly say you will never go back into the classroom.

Personally, I’m pretty certain that I would never go into teaching again, but I never like boxing myself into the corner. This might be too much information, but maybe Jonathan and I find out someday we can’t have kids and then I long to be around them so much that my heart changes and I want to go back into the classroom.

Or maybe when I’m 55, I’m bored and I just want to go back into the classroom and teach for a few years.

It doesn’t sound likely, but once again, I never know what the future holds. I also want to add, while we’re talking about it, that many districts actually just use the fine and losing the teaching license more as a scare tactic.

I’ve heard so many stories of, “they threatened me with ‘blank,’ but they actually never followed through with it when I quit, I just had to jump through a lot of hoops.” If no one else at your district has faced the exact same fines that they threaten, it’s less likely that they’re really going to follow through with you.

Former teachers have told me that they still have their licenses even after someone was saying that they were going to take their licenses and they’re still being offered teaching jobs even after they left midyear a few years prior. I highly recommend that you do your own research.

Ask around discretely to people who have left your district what consequences happened to them to help you prepare if you’re unsure, whether or not they’re going to find you or take your teaching license.

Just know if it’s written into your contract, they have the right to do it. I also want to add a huge caveat here that schools and districts are becoming more and more desperate with the teaching shortage. What I’m saying is the last few years have changed everything and I’m not a fortune teller.

So, by the time you’re listening to this episode and it’s getting released, we could be living in an episode of the Handmaid’s Tale where all the teachers are contracted for 25 years or else they’re going to get shipped to an island where they can never see their families again if they leave.

Just please do your research of what the trends are in your district. And as you are listening to this, see what is happening right then so you can be the best prepared.

How to Share the News with Your Colleagues

I also urge you to be very mindful of when you start to tell anyone at your district or school about your potential leave. It is so natural to panic as you’re starting to apply on whether or not you need to start telling people to expect you to be gone in a few weeks or a month.

Your teacher guilt is probably at an all-time high because you might not feel like you’re giving anyone an adequate amount of time to prepare. You want everything to be perfect and everyone to love you when you leave. But it’s probably not the best idea, and I know how bad that hurts to hear it.

I’ve heard so many times from teachers, “I’m on the second round of interviews. I’m going to go ahead and tell my principal that I’m applying because they need to know so they can fill this role.”

You are your own person here. If that is something that you know you have to do, I’ll never be able to stop you from following your heart. But once again, personally, I don’t think it’s a good idea.

Telling your admin or your colleagues preemptively that you’re considering leaving before you actually have officially gotten a contract is such a risky move and it’s going to likely make your working environment that is probably stressful if you’re even considering this move, even more stressful.

Remember the stigma, the bullying, the toxic relationships from colleagues that left the other teachers really low earlier in this episode? You have to anticipate if that’s going to happen to you in your work environment.

If you don’t have a contract in hand, there’s truly no reason to strain those relationships right now. If you don’t know the whats or the whens, and until you finally do figure those out, I would keep that to yourself.

I hope I don’t need to tell you this, but if you are leaving midyear and you don’t have a job lined up, just, I urge you to be cautious and prepared financially and mentally for what that means. Full-time, job seeking outside of the classroom still may take months before you secure that next thing.

You can never control the timeline and while some people find jobs outside of the classroom within weeks, others have gone months and even years, depending on what roles they’re targeting and other factors like how much they’re actually job searching.

When It’s Time to Resign

That leaves us on our last topic of this episode, which is resigning.

When you do get that contract in hand, it is time to schedule a tough conversation with your principal. I want you to try to do it in person. If you have a good relationship with them, they deserve to have this formal conversation.

Ask them to their face how you can support them and what you can do to help the next few weeks of transition go smoothly for them. I also encourage you to schedule the meeting even if you don’t see eye to eye with them, if you feel emotionally capable of doing it.

This is going to be a hard conversation. While you may feel like you want to lay it all out there and air your grievances, I recommend to keeping it professional for a couple of reasons.

First, anytime you can avoid burning bridges, even in this situation, I recommend it. If you cannot keep it polite, just keep it very short and very concise. The best thing that you can do is be the bigger person and maintain your class and professionalism as you move on into your life.

The reason why I’m saying this is because I have had many difficult conversations with managers after I left teaching. I’ve gained confidence and feel like I can professionally articulate concerns better than I ever could before, but this is a skill and not something we’re able to actually practice very often in our teaching career.

So, I want you to use this as practice for the future. For as your career progresses. This is going to be that opportunity to have a very difficult and professional conversation. And remember, teaching was a stepping stone in your career. It changed you.

It shifted you into becoming a better version of yourself. It’s so easy to feel completely jaded, but it’s really important to think of this is something that pushed you to become who you are today. Then when you’re done with that serious conversation, text all of your salty, real thoughts to your best friends the second you walk out of that office.

In addition to having that conversation, you’re also going to want to draft a resignation letter, which is the most formal way to give notice and break contract. It usually specifies a date. Some districts request that you formally submit a resignation letter to the human resources department.

This step actually usually happens after you talk to your principal about your decision. I’ve created a blog all about writing a resignation letter and I’ve created templates that you can use to actually save you time with this process. You can find that resignation letter template linked in this episodes show notes, or also on the frequently asked questions page that is linked at the top of teachercareercoach.com.

One of the most important conversations that you’re probably dreading is how do you tell your students that you’re leaving? I’m going to speak pretty frankly about my own experience, and I don’t want anybody to take this personal, but this needs to be a conversation entirely focused on the students.

When we are in these heightened, stressful situations, it’s natural for us to be defensive, to feel this great need to justify our actions or to tell our side of our story. I know how much you care about the students and you don’t want them to think poorly of you, but I don’t think that this is the appropriate time to talk about it.

This is just my opinion here and my own personal reflection on what I think I did wrong on my last day. So once again, if you have already had this conversation, don’t think I’m bad mouthing you and don’t beat yourself up over it.

I just personally think I messed up and I felt like I was too defensive and I made it too much about me. It was more like I won’t be returning to this school. Don’t worry about me. I’m going to be okay.

But I wish I kept it simple, concise, explained that there will be changes and used this as one last time to tell them how proud I was of them, how much they changed me and made me a better person, what great things are in store for them, and remind them of how I continue to expect them to treat their future teachers.

It just, it was such an emotional time. It felt like a very toxic breakup where I felt like I needed to talk about myself. I wish I did it a different way.

So for all of you who hung into the very end of this episode, I hope it has been helpful for wherever you are in your stage of life, whatever you decide to do, I know that you have a good heart. I know how much that this has been weighing on you for a really, really long time. I know what a difficult situation it is for anybody to be in.

I’m just happy that you’re here. I’m happy that you’re getting the support that you need. I’m happy that you’re starting to think about taking care of yourself and figuring out your next steps. I’m so happy that you found this community if it helps you in any way. I’ll see you on the very next episode of the Teacher Career Coach Podcast.

DON’T MISS THESE RESOURCES

✨ If you are struggling right now, please seek help. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 802-273-8255

✨ Get the template! Writing a Teacher Resignation Letter to a Principal

✨Take the FREE QUIZ: What career outside of the classroom are you qualified for?

✨ If you know it’s time to start your transition and are looking for resources and guidance, check out the Teacher Career Coach course today!

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