In this week’s episode, we’re diving into the emotions you may experience when leaving education and how these relate to the stages of grief.
Coping with the Grief of Leaving Education
Welcome to The Teacher Career Coach Podcast. I’m your host Daphne Gomez. One of the hardest days in my life was my final day of employment as a teacher. As I’ve mentioned on past episodes, I was in an extremely toxic work environment, and I already felt really isolated.
The uncertainty of my next move was really scary. I knew that what I was doing was making the right decision, but I was also flooded with emotions that I did not expect to feel on that very last day. While I wish I could tell you I confidently strutted through the halls like Peggy leaving the office in Mad Men, my exit scene was the exact opposite.
One of my last memories of that day was me running into a room, bawling, after I turned in my keys. I mean, ugly, uncontrollable tears, barely able to even form words. Just having a hard time, even breathing; I was crying so hard. And hugging one of my colleagues and begging her to open the side gate to help me leave so that nobody could see me in that way. I was so pissed about everything that had happened to me that year, and it was not fair.
I was so burned out from all the unrealistic expectations that were thrown at me nonstop. But the big, hard feelings of leaving teaching altogether hit me like a ton of bricks that day. I was devastated to leave. I grieved the loss of my profession that day. It definitely got easier as days passed. And eventually, the feelings of grief disappeared altogether. But this is not a story that is unique to me. And this can be a pretty confusing feeling to navigate.
Even after you land a new role that you love, you may struggle with big feelings about the fact that you left the profession. I’ve heard from so many teachers who love their new job, even teachers like me that used to get those intense summer scaries, who said that they found themselves crying out of nowhere when they saw other people’s back-to-school photos, because they missed it.
No matter what phase you are in, whether you’re salty and counting down the days until you’re done, or you’re already completely happy in your new career, it’s so normal to get caught off guard by the grief of leaving teaching behind. That’s why, in this episode, I’m going to talk all about coping with the grief of leaving education.
I’ll tell you the different ways that grief may show up during your career transition and steps that you can take to help you work past it. You may be afraid to describe the feelings that you are having by using the word “grief,” for fear of being called “over-dramatic.”
This doesn’t trivialize the feelings of grief you feel when you experience the death of someone that you love dearly. Grief is loss. And yes, we usually associate this word specifically with the loss of a life. But Grief Recovery Houston actually reports that there are less well-known causes of grief, like dismissal from work, retirement, pregnancy, changes to finances, and yes, even changing to a different line of work. Grieving does not just have to be about death or tragedy. It is common to feel grief during big changes in our life.
You may also be curious, how is the feeling of grief different than the feeling of teacher guilt that we may have? Well, it is very common for you to feel both of these during your career transition. Guilt is an emotion that brings negative feelings due to actions we take, such as not wanting to leave teaching at all due to the guilt of how it impacts others. And I do a deep-dive into teacher guilt back in episode seven of the podcast and talk about how it impacts our decision-making processes.
But grief is a response to loss. Losing your career, losing your identity, your relationships with students, or even just grieving the years that you felt like you wasted working in a career choice that didn’t work out. You are simply grieving the end of a chapter of your life. You’re grieving your perception of yourself, questioning your ability to even be able to call yourself a teacher in the future, and feeling like you’ve lost yourself together.
Teaching was supposed to bring you purpose and connection. And shutting this door and closing this chapter feels like you have no purpose or no connection in the future. The feelings of grief you have may vary, whether the situation is your own choosing or whether it happened against your will.
And while many of you are making this choice to leave teaching, you are also being forced out of a career that you truly cared about due to what the profession and the expectations have become. You also may grieving the feeling that teaching, as a profession, will never be the same as it was when you truly loved it. And you may be feeling a sense of grieving for the state of education in general.
Like I said, you are simply grieving the end of a chapter in your life. And probably a chapter that you really, really wanted to work out differently than it did. You may be grieving the years that you put in, that you feel like you wasted, or the energy that you put into this career and that may make you feel like a failure; that you put X amount of years into this career that ultimately may have not done anything for you.
You also might be losing a lot of close relationships with your colleagues and students. These are all completely normal for you to be struggling with right now. I’ve found that many teachers actually go through five stages of grief when they’re changing careers: denial and isolation, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Now, I’ve found that many teachers actually go through the five stages of grief when changing careers: denial and isolation, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. First, starting with denial and isolation.
Denial is your way of your brain protecting yourself from pain or just dealing with the shock of what has happened to you. It may feel like you’re gaslighting yourself or just mindlessly moving through the tasks, avoiding the problem. This phase feels isolating. It feels like you’re on your own. This stage is usually those years that we spend in the profession when we truly know that we need to start making our plan B. It’s when we downplay or minimize the situation that we’re in. It’s all those teachers who are crying on the way to work, but saying, “I’m fine,” when, in their gut, they know they will never be happy if something drastic does not change.
Denial makes your brain feel numb sometimes, and you can actually become more forgetful during this phase. It’s also common in this phase to continue to try and just make it work, even when you don’t really just enjoy it anymore. It’s common to stay in an unhealthy or toxic work environment and tell yourself that everything else out there is probably just as bad.
Sometimes, during this denial phase, we can actually even engage in mindless behaviors that we don’t feel like we are even in control of, like benching or addiction. The second phase of grief is anger, and this can be taking it out on strangers or loved ones, on social media threads or on your students. During this phase, you are filled with negativity, pessimism, sometimes embarrassment, and oftentimes rage.
I know that I was doing things entirely out of anger, my last year teaching. I remember I called in sick on a really important date just to make things really difficult for my admin, after all of the stress that she had put me through. If you feel totally out of control and angry, it’s often not the best time for you to make decisions. The pessimist in you may be looking for red flags in every opportunity that’s presented to you. It could mean that you’re lashing out on people who are genuinely trying to help you. And it can make you struggle to see things clearly.
But there’s also a different type of anger. Those of you who might use your anger to say, “Screw you. I am not going through this again. I’m putting in the work, and I’m going to make my exit plan because I’m so pissed at how I have been treated in this situation.” I personally used the anger that I felt to push me to try things that I never thought possible; things that scared the crap out of me. And just, I needed to prove to myself that I was more capable than everyone was treating me when I was a teacher. So, sometimes anger can be productive as well.
The third phase is bargaining, and this is often the, “What if” phase of grief. When we think of deaths, it’s often the phase where we blame ourselves. “What if I only did this thing differently? Would this person still be alive?” In our careers, it may be more like, “What if I never wrote the union that letter about my admin’s behavior? Would my working environment have been better that last year?” “What if I never went into teaching at all? And what if I got a MBA instead, like my mom had suggested? Would I have been happier? And would I be better off now than I am?” Personally, when I am grieving, the bargaining phase is where I find myself stuck a lot. It’s where we’re just stuck in the past, trying to retrace our footsteps to see if we could have done something to prevent the loss from happening. And we’re so focused on this that we aren’t moving forward to move past the loss.
This is the phase where we try to predict the future and only assume that the worst is going to happen as well. We worry and overthink, and we never expect anything good to happen to us. We put all the blame on ourselves. “If only I had tried harder. If only I had done everything a different way, it would be different.”
Then there’s the fourth stage, which is depression. And this could start before you leave and last even after you get your new job. There is no timeframe for grief, and this hits everybody differently. I have felt depression in my life, and it felt for me like my entire body was just filled. It wasn’t throbbing with pain, and it wasn’t numb. It was just filled. That sadness was in every part of my body, and it was constant, and it was too much for me to bear to even get out of bed.
This is going to be a different experience for everyone. Now, I have been really, really sad before and really, really, really sad after that. But this was the only time that I truly felt that. During the depression phase, you may find yourself feeling helpless, disappointed, overwhelmed. You will probably have reduced motivation and energy. It’s also important to note that you might find yourself increasing alcohol or drug use during this phase.
After the depression phase, we now have reached the “How to work past it” phase, which is acceptance. Unfortunately, even in the acceptance phase, you aren’t magically going to be healed from the pain of loss that you are experiencing. Your daily life and your future career goals were turned upside down. And even in this phase, it is going to be normal to feel anxious and uncertain about your future.
So, give yourself some grace and empathy, even if you are in this phase. You may want to write in a journal to just lay out what happened to you in the past: why that happened to you and what all of these things mean for you and your future.
Psychologists call this “sense-making.” This is the time for you to take to understand what happened to you, to acknowledge the pain that you went through, and to begin to do the work to work past it.
Acceptance doesn’t mean that you’re going to feel great overnight. But it does mean that you are going to stop dwelling on the what if—”this was a perfect career?” or what ifs of you making other life choices and just start putting a plan into place to get yourself out of the situation, one way or the other.
Once you do get to this stage, it means you’re starting to actually make the moves into your next career. We externalize that everyone is going to judge us for the decisions that we make. And I can’t lie to you. Some people will judge you for leaving teaching. Some people are going to judge you. Some people are going to try and shield you from leaving together.
We externalize that everyone will judge us for our decisions, and that’s not going to stop during this phase. And truthfully, some people will judge you. Or some people might try and shield you from uncomfortable situations, by telling you that you should never leave this career at all. So, know that this acceptance phase is not going to be a magic place where you make a plan and stop dwelling on the what ifs. But the only way that you can really truly move past these feelings is to get through the process and to the other side of this really uncomfortable stage.
During this phase, you are just going to do the work to stop internalizing rejections and other people’s perceptions of you or other people’s perceptions of teachers in general. Acceptance during this phase may also be realizing that you will not be a teacher or are no longer classified as a teacher, not in a traditional setting at least. And if losing your identity, your ability to be able to identify yourself as a teacher, is still part of your grief, it’s completely normal. Whether you served two months or 20 years, you can still identify as a teacher and remind yourself that you will continue to teach in other ways.
No one can take this title from you if it is important for you to keep it. It’s just up to you how you want to identify or categorize yourself. Acceptance is all about the possibilities that are out there in front of you. And it’s a lot about learning about yourself. There’s a reason why I ask all the former teachers, that I interview on this show, what they learned about themselves in the process. Because you just learn so much about what you are capable of overcoming during this entire transition experience.
When you are writing out the plans of what all of this is going to mean for your future, use it as an opportunity to address what you know you’re going to miss the most about the profession to see if you can still work that into your plan. If you’re going to miss your coworkers, make a date to see them. And even see if you can help them with their classroom duties, if you have the bandwidth to do so. We received this really great DM from a former teacher about how sad she was to lose these colleague relationships. But those bonds shouldn’t just die because you’re physically not in the classroom anymore. And if they do, then how great were those friendships really anyway?
If you know that you’re going to miss children, volunteer somewhere with children. I’ve volunteered at a creative writing nonprofit in Los Angeles in the past, and I’ve loved it.
One former teacher that I talked to says that even though her current new role does not work with children, she’s created a long-term goal to get back into a position where she does. And writing out these really clear goals of how to get there, helped her. If you know that you’re going to miss making an impact on education in general, please run for school board. Your former teachers and fellow teachers need you. And if you don’t feel like your new role is purposeful, well, can you make your life purposeful instead of whatever you do during the nine to five?
Write a list of 10 things that you would love to do if you didn’t have a job, and do one of those this week. Feelings of grief can vary whether a situation is our choosing or if it happens against our will. You are being forced out of a career that you truly cared about. Som know that this grief is not going to go away, and you are not going to feel better overnight. It takes time to process, like grieving a really great relationship that you’ve lost.
But once you start to see yourself getting better, it will start going away. Realizing the little changes and improvements, the things that you’re grateful for on the day to day, the parts of your children’s life that you’re more present for, or just the positive change in your mental health is going to help you. Don’t downplay the big feelings that you are feeling right now, because it is natural to have them.
Grief isn’t bad. And it’s not a signal that you made the wrong choice either. Crying just because your coworkers are going back to school does not mean that you chose the wrong new career. But if these feelings linger for a while, while you’re outside of the classroom, you might want to reevaluate your relationship with the profession.
Yes, I have heard from people who have gone back into the classroom after they realized that they truly missed and loved it. This is not very common, but I know that it does happen. And I always like to remind you that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer for this situation.
My hope is that listening to this podcast episode helped you to understand that the big, complicated emotions, that you are probably feeling about leaving teaching right now, are totally normal. I hope that you can use the suggestions that I’ve given to create a plan to help you work through any of the pain that you’re feeling right now.
But I have to really emphasize this next point. Listening to this podcast episode is not a substitute for professional help. Please seek professional help, especially if you are struggling with the feelings of depression. Always seek the advice of your own medical provider and, or mental health provider regarding any questions or concerns that you have about specific issues with your health.