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EP 07 How to Battle Your Teacher Guilt

In this episode, I discuss two ways teacher guilt might be holding you back from being happy, and how you can battle the guilt by changing your mindset.

Listen to the episode using the podcast player or subscribe on Apple Podcasts or Spotify! The episode transcript is available below.

Welcome to the Teacher Career Coach podcast. I’m your host, Daphne Williams.

As we get started in this episode, I want you to picture this. Your best friend calls you, and she’s telling you a story about her day. She feels absolutely terrible. You ask her what happened.

She says, “Well, I went to the mall and I bought a really nice dress. I went to a winery. I went wine tasting. I watched a movie with my husband and my kids.”

Basically, picture her saying whatever would be your idea of a perfect weekend. She’s describing it, and she feels terrible. Naturally, you’re confused and you ask her why she feels so bad. Your best friend explains to you she should have been working all weekend. It’s Saturday, and on Monday she should be even more prepared for the meeting that she’s having. You personally know that your best friend is a really hard worker, and she’s doing a great job at her work. So what would you tell her in this particular situation?

Now, what about this? Scenario two: Your best friend calls you crying. She’s really upset. She’s been interested in a new position for years. She’s been pursuing it. She’s learned all of its skills. She’s networked in that new industry. You know, the whole shebang.

Now, her dream company offered her a position, and she feels terrible about it. She should probably just stay put at the career that she’s at and just be stagnant for the next few years because she owes it to them to stay, right? Wouldn’t you tell your best friend that she owes it to that company to stay there forever, and she shouldn’t pursue the new opportunity?

No! That’s not what you’re going to tell her. So, why is it that you probably don’t talk to yourself in the same fashion as you would with someone else? I really honestly believe that it’s your teacher guilt.

I believe that teachers face guilt at a heightened capacity because [in order] to get into this industry, you [have to] have an enormous heart. You’re empathetic by nature.

Another thing that happens to teachers is they have so much on their plates, and they work in this culture where they’re expected to never stop giving. It starts to mess with their mindset that they’re never doing enough or that they always owe other people.

In this really important episode, I’m going to talk to you about two ways that teacher guilt might be holding you back from being happy and mindset shifts that you can make to battle it.

The first type of teacher guilt that I’m going to talk about is when we needlessly feel guilty about not doing enough in our positions.

I want to start off with acknowledging that there’s a really big difference between feeling guilty for something that is rational [versus] irrational. I know that feeling of real guilt.

A few years ago, I lost my best friend of 20 years. We spoke on a Thursday, we planed to see one another on a Saturday, and I have never been able to speak to him again. I was planning on having an intervention because I knew he wasn’t doing well, but I kept putting it off. The guilt of having someone pass away is very real and blaming yourself for not doing enough is something that a lot of people have to process.

If you have, in your past, done something unethical, if you’ve really hurt someone, or if you’re grieving, feeling guilty is normal. That is not what we’re going to be discussing in this episode. In this episode, we’re going to be talking about how teacher guilt is needlessly self-punishing, and it just sets teachers up for burnout.

There are so many things that I felt guilty about when I was teaching that really shouldn’t have kept me up at night. At the time, they felt huge. They felt so powerful and so overbearing, but honestly they were so small in comparison to everything going on in my life.

For example, if I didn’t create enough extension activities for my gifted students, if I didn’t make extra effort with parents who are difficult to get ahold of, if I didn’t decorate my class well, or if my activities didn’t go as planned because I didn’t prepare for hours to set them up. While I was worrying about all of this, at the same time, I was at my stress limit. I wasn’t [unable to do] all of that extra work because I was too busy spending time at a winery, but I probably should have been.

I really needed to focus on myself during that time and my own self-care needed to be prioritized. When I was feeling guilty about not creating enough extension activities for my gifted students, I never stopped to give myself the credit for all the other activities that I had created. If my room wasn’t decorated as well as the teacher across the hall, I never stopped to give myself credit for having a really great engaging lesson that particular day.

I just kept pushing myself to my absolute limit, and it was never enough. I was never really a good enough teacher in my own mind.

In my last year of teaching, my future parents-in-law offered to pay to take me to Hawaii, but it fell on the weekend before parent-teacher conference, and I decided to stay home because I wanted to make sure I was overly prepared and everything was perfect. I was so burned out, and a vacation would have been so great for me mentally. But, at the time, I really felt like I had no other option but to say no. We still talk about how sad it was that I wasn’t there with them while they were celebrating a big milestone birthday in Hawaii.

Me saying “no” to drinking chichis on the Big Island was not a decision that was forced on me. It was an unrealistic expectation that I put on myself. I’m not telling you all of this because I want you to give yourself permission to be selfish and self-centered and stop working or grading papers altogether.

Your needs need to matter as much as everyone else’s needs matter.

There are times that are going to happen that it’s going to be unavoidable that your own self-interests are gonna conflict with other people’s self-interests.

The guilt of not doing enough is often where burnout comes from.

If you constantly have a feeling in your gut that you’re not doing enough, just try to keep a list of all of the things that you did do for that week for your students.

Like I said, I wasn’t focusing on the activities that I did create or the engaging lessons that I did present. I only focused on the negative and what I didn’t do.

Think about the past week. Did you have a breakthrough with a student that week? That’s great. That’s wonderful news. What about all the lessons that you did prepare for? Are your students still making progress? All of these things should be celebrated, and you can’t constantly focus or dwell on what you’re not doing because you don’t have all of the time in the day to do everything.

You also need to start to consider why it is that this is so important for you to be a perfect teacher who is selflessly sacrificing all of their free time to the point of burnout. Are you only lovable or a good teacher if you do everything perfectly?

Start to dig into that feeling, and think about what it is that you’re afraid of if you slack off and give yourself a couple of days of self-care and rest.

Are you afraid of what people would think? Are you afraid of what the parents would say or your admin would say if something wasn’t overly prepared next week? Start to think how high you’ve set your particular standards and whether or not you would set these same standards for everybody else.

If you knew that the teacher down the hall was struggling at home and struggling mentally, would you still set her classroom expectations to the expectations you’ve set for yourself?

When you strive to be perfect at all time, you’re just setting yourself up to feel like a failure in the end.

If how much you are working is impacting your family life, you have to start to prioritize your self-interests.

I’m gonna repeat it. This is gonna happen. Your self-interests will conflict with other people self-interests.

If you are mentally not present with your family, think to yourself who is going to be more hurt by your absence? Your students or your family? Your family and you are best served by a healthy happy you. Whatever it takes.

If this feeling of teacher guilt is coming from a school district or a work environment, you need to start considering making a change.

[What’s] the real reason that I opted out of that trip to Hawaii? The school that I was working for at the time was a really negative environment, and it triggered me to needlessly punish myself. It gave me really low self-esteem. I felt like everybody had eyes on me and were looking for me to mess up in any way. I didn’t want to take that chance to not overly prepare for everything.

If you feel like that is where you’re at, too, then that honestly might be the factor that you should consider changing first. While that was the last school or district I’ve worked at, and I left teaching ultimately.

Your story may have a happier ending as far as staying in education goes.

I’ve heard from many teachers who change districts because a district was completely wrecking their mental health. These are teachers who hated their jobs. Their heart and their head was not in it anymore. They felt like it was best for the students if they weren’t there at all because they presented their positions so much. After those teachers went to a new district, they fell in love with teaching again. Their students were better served with whoever replaced them in that district. Their new students were better served by them because they were healthier, and they were happier.

If your guilt is for how you ended your last school year or how you performed as a teacher, you need to start acknowledging that feeling right now.

If you know that you dropped the ball in some capacity in your role as a teacher, be compassionate in the way that you would be with your best friend. Have empathy for yourself and grace.

You went into this job with the best of intentions and with a huge heart. At the time, you were too broken. You were too burned out to do any more than you did. That’s okay, too. At the time, you did the best that you could, and you still have a great heart.

Start to forgive yourself. Move forward.

If you’re so burned out that you’re at your absolute breaking point, it’s okay to leave a career that you once loved—even one that you are very good at. It is okay to make a change from any career even if it’s teaching.

The second type of teacher guilt that we’re going to discuss in today’s episode is the teacher guilt of leaving for a new career.

You might not know if it’s teacher guilt or your gut actually telling you not to leave. I recommend, at first, you weigh the pros and cons. If you haven’t listened to episode two of the Teacher Career Coach Podcast on getting started with a career change from teaching, I would make sure that you go back and listen to that episode after this.

This is going to be a really personal situation, and only you are going to be able to make that call. The guilt of transitioning into a new role is something that so many members of the Teacher Career Coach Course talk about on a regular basis in our private community. Any of the stages that you could be at throughout a career transition: whether you’re thinking of leaving teaching, you recently left teaching, or you’re starting to interview. It’s normal to start feeling guilty about your decision during that particular phase.

You’re going to feel a lot of emotions. You’ll feel scared, excited, confused, and we’re going to get into all of those emotions in other episodes. “Guilty” is a really common feeling among teachers.

Why do I think that is? I think it’s because we signed an invisible agreement that this was going to be our forever career. We’re passionate about education. We want our students to do really well. We have huge hearts, and we don’t want to hurt anyone. We know how hard this is gonna be for our co-workers and, if we leave, we might be giving them a heavier workload. This is one of those really tough times that, I’ll repeat, our self-interests will conflict with other people’s self-interests.

The first thing that’s going to happen when you start to tell people [you are leaving] is they’re going to say,

“Wait! You can’t leave. You’re so good at teaching.”

This is going to come from your family, your friends, and your co-workers. Everybody says the same thing. Prepare yourself mentally for it because that makes you feel really guilty. These people don’t mean any harm. They don’t mean to confuse you. Society has just established teaching as a forever career, and they’re just paying you a compliment.

It’s okay for you to leave something that you’re good at. It’s okay for you to grow. It’s okay for you to change.

You’re going to be really good at other things, too. So, they’re giving you this compliment.

Why does that make you feel so guilty? Well, it makes you feel guilty because you’re a good teacher, and a good teacher is what’s best for the students. It implies that if you leave, it takes away a resource from the students.

But the universe is creating a new path with new doors and new opportunities for you. It’s okay to explore them even if you’re the happiest teacher in the world. You didn’t know what you know now.

If you’re completely burned out, you might have not gotten into this position if you knew it would make you feel this way. It’s okay for you to remove yourself from this particular environment.

You are never obligated to be the same person that you were five years ago.

While you’re feeling guilty about making this decision just start to write a list of all the positive things that you’ve done throughout your career as a teacher. Feel proud of that list. Wear it like a badge of honor and know that it’s okay for you to move on. You’ll continue to have a good heart after you leave. You can volunteer in nonprofits. You can support education in other ways. You can advocate for teachers’ right, but you’re not intended to stay in any particular career just because you’ve signed an invisible lifelong contract. Jobs are not supposed to make you feel guilty if you want to grow or advance. Period.

When I started working in new industries, I finally realized this. At one point in my life after teaching, I left an educational consulting position for the opportunity to work as an instructional designer. It was a really great chance for me to fine-tune my graphic design and course creation skills—something I was really interested in doing—and I was excited to have the opportunity to get paid well to do something I was passionate about. No one in my educational consulting position made me feel guilty when I put in my two weeks notice. They all celebrated me moving to a new company and pursuing my dreams.

People leave their positions all of the time in other industries in ways that are inconvenient to their employees or co-workers in pursuit of their own self-interests. For one last time, I’m going to repeat this, your self-interests will conflict with others’ self-interests.

What would you tell your best friend in this situation if the company was making her feel guilty about her decision to pursue a new path?

I want to point out that if you end up bending to other people’s guilt trips, you are likely to regret it in your lifetime.

You are going to be more likely to regret not trying to change careers than you would be if you tried to change careers. You’re more likely to regret giving up on yourself than [you would] fighting for your own self-interests.

Whether you are planning on enjoying yourself over the holidays without doing any schoolwork or you’ve made the tough decision to start a new path, have the same kindness with yourself that you’d have with your best friend. Have the same empathy for your decisions that you have with others. I also highly recommend you consider talking to a therapist if you have the means to do so and you’re struggling with all of these emotions.

If you’re enjoying the Teacher Career Coach Podcast, make sure you click subscribe, and please leave a review. When you leave a rating and review, it helps other teachers find this support and this community and many have no idea that it even exists. I’m wishing you the best this holiday break and I’ll see you on the next episode of the Teacher Career Coach Podcast.

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