The real reason I left primary school teaching: My search for true vocation
I didn’t tell the whole truth. Recently I wrote an article on Medium (Six things I’ve learned from leaving the teaching profession) sharing my reasons for resigning from a full-time teaching contract. But I didn’t detail exactly why I left. I only chose to highlight things I had observed. I didn’t focus on my decision to leave. It’s only now that I realised why. Here is the real story.
Back in May, the Friday before Mother’s Day, I slowly walked to the principal’s office. I had been teaching for one month. I nervously sat down and explained to my principal that I had decided to leave my teaching contract.
I explained that I was experiencing early signs of depression and I knew that if I continued teaching, my health would deteriorate further. My principal was understanding and compassionate, and I walked out of his office wondering whether it was just my mental health that was ‘in the way.’
At first, I thought the reason I resigned was because of how challenging the complex needs of the children in my classroom were. And how ill-prepared I was to deal with this. Or perhaps it was the involuntary, loud noises coming from a particular student that interrupted lessons, transitions and quiet time. Or maybe the reason was the curriculum and assessment tasks: I had found them too rigid and too confining. Or was it that I felt like the occupation had changed too much in the last nine years and I decided that it just wasn’t for me.
All of these reasons have some truth, but I knew there was something more profound. Something that was hidden underneath the usual expectations of a teacher.
In Parker Palmer’s book, Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation, he describes his journey of vocation and where he became stuck. He writes about being driven by the ‘oughts of his profession.’ At one point, when he was a community organiser, he noticed that he was focusing on what he should do, rather than what he felt called to do. Palmer calls this ‘a sense of true self.’
The ‘oughts’ plagued me each day I walked into any classroom. We ought to have more resources. Children ought to have more time to play outside. Children ought not to be burdened by homework. Children ought not to be emotionally hurt by their parents all the time. Children ought not to be doing tedious assessment tasks. Teachers ought to work fewer hours. Teachers ought to have more time to mark and plan. Teachers ought to get more support from the principal and deputy when difficulties arise in the classroom. Teachers ought to be paid more money. Teachers ought to spend more time with their family. I was completely disconnected from a sense of true self and from living in the present moment. The oughts were my mind’s way of justifying the life I was living.
I also don’t like losing. For me, it felt like a game and I couldn’t even move a few spaces on this board, let alone finish. The need to win was something beyond perfectionism, although perfection was still a large part of it. I felt as though the education system itself wasn’t working. Students had gone from playing games to writing more paragraphs (in year one!). I felt my shame and embarrassment creep in: I could not ‘handle’ the duties of the job. Palmer describes the tension of things not coming together as ‘letting my ego and ethics lead me into a situation my soul cannot abide in.’ I certainly felt, on a soul level, this wasn’t a good fit.
I also lack the much-needed traits that a great teacher requires: patience, a capacity to listen and an inherent love for working with children. If you ask any school teacher why they teach, most will say ‘because of the children.’ My response since my first day of university was that ‘I love music, academics and sport, so teaching in the primary school sector is a great way to do all of these things.’ You can see the problem here. In teaching: I don’t get to do an activity I get to teach it. The students do. Remaining a primary school teacher wouldn’t enable me to experience and develop my own thoughts and ideas.
I also don’t have any interest in assessing children, teaching them skills or enlarging their learning capacity in STEM. I wanted to be the learner and come up with my own ideas and creations. Parker Palmer has shown me that in my self-righteousness, it’s easier for me to say I left teaching because I didn’t fit. But in reality, like Palmer, I don’t enjoy teaching children from a curriculum. I prefer to create my own ideas, not just teach other people’s ideas.
However, there was one aspect of teaching that I adored, and that was talking with parents about their concerns. I loved encouraging them on the road of parenting and creating a personal connection. My favourite memory of teaching will always be the meeting I had with a mother and her 10-year-old daughter. I remember listening and assisting them to see each other’s perspective. It was a privilege to watch as this mother finally heard what her daughter had been trying to tell her and to witness the mother’s gratitude for being heard herself. I didn’t realise at the time how much professional satisfaction this moment gave me. It was way beyond any satisfaction I ever had from a child learning to read or write.
I know that I am in a very privileged position having the opportunity to reflect and resign without the pressure of remaining in a job I struggled with. Not everyone has this luxury.
Through this whole process, I needed to learn to listen to myself honestly, and without judgment. If I took out all the judgment the answer was simple. Growing in self-awareness and self-compassion changes the conversation, moving the focus from the external world to the internal world. My journey of understanding why I left teaching had to start from the inside, not externally. It started with the decisions I made each day. I am choosing to walk towards my true self, instead of away as I learn to live my own life. Palmer puts this beautifully:
Vocation does not come from a voice ‘out there’ calling me to become something I am not. It comes from a voice ‘in here’ calling me to be the person I was born to be. I understand vocation not as a goal to be achieved but as a gift to be received.
Vocation does not mean a goal that I pursue. It means a calling that I hear. Before I can tell my life what I want to do with it, I must listen to my life telling me who I am. I must listen for the truths and values at the heart of my own identify, not the standards by which I must live -but the standards by which I cannot help but live if I am living my own life.