Can quitting be an ultimate act of self-care?
In my October post, I wrote about mental health and tools for battling depression. Today, I am sharing my journey to courage. The courage to face my fears. The courage to give up. The courage to say “I’m done” as an ultimate act of self-care.
Quitting is an unacceptable and almost taboo word and often a reprehensible action that brings with it conflict and judgement, especially in a society that says our work is never done, rest is for the weak, and giving up shows lack of character.
But . . . sometimes, quitting is necessary.
Welcome to the Circus
The other day, I sat in a mid-year performance review with my principal. Per the usual script, he asked me to share how administration could improve my experience as a teacher.
My mind raced through all of my responsibilities . . . the requirements piled on top of a mountain of disappointment, a recurring message of nothing is good enough and why can’t you give us more?
I am trained to walk the tightrope and smile, but I had promised myself that this time I would be honest.
I started off strong.
- We have too many responsibilities.
- We have too many meetings.
- We don’t have enough time.
- We only have 135 minutes a week to meet the list of ever-growing demands.
I shared how I arrive at work 45 minutes to an hour early to prepare. I work hard, and I get the job done. I jump through the hoops, juggle the many demands, and put on my best face for the kids.
But I am exhausted and unable to fully meet the demands of my home life.
I was honest.
My boss’s response – a lashing whip, driving me back, reminding me of my place.
“I can’t give you the gift of time . . .”
He Lost Me at Time
As the Charlie Brown wa-waa-wa-waa voice droned on and on, my face felt hotter and hotter. He just repeated the same demoralizing messages that have made teachers feel isolated, invalid, and unheard.
- He parroted the constant mantra of pursuing excellence by following the script – the district’s formula for success.
- He talked up, down, and sideways about testing and how we must balance it all to keep moving the mark and pushing the kids.
- He picked through the scores, measuring me by a number based on a class of students who are uniquely different in their needs, wants, and emotional and academic deficits and strengths.
Another performance review marked with the constant glossing over of the individual voices of the students and teachers who are crushed with constant expectations and rising standards. Kids who can’t be kids. Teachers expected to be superhuman automatons.
I was half-present and half-awake to the conversation until he ended with:
“Well, are you happy coming to work every day?” He flashed a showman’s smile.
What I really wanted to say?
“No, I haven’t been happy coming to work for the 13 years I’ve been a teacher. Are you listening to anything? HELLO??? Are you there?”
Of course, I lied. A wrote performance, practiced and repeated year after year. I responded with a pause, a sigh, and . . .
“Well, most days. I mean . . . some days. You know how it is working with kids.”
My mumbling tapered off into an awkward silence for me, and the only confirmation he needed to hear.
I am a performer in this insane circus. I’m expected to mesmerize these children and hypnotize them into reaching unattainable standards.
For the system where I work, the show must go on. But next year, it will go on without me.
Different Circus, Same Cage
Public education in the elementary school system has become a toxic situation (at least for me and all the other homeroom teachers I’ve known). After teaching in four different districts and a charter school, I’m realizing that relocating to a different circus didn’t change the fact that I am still a trained animal in an identical cage.
This is not my career. I knew it from the moment I caved to the institution, but it took this long to finally face myself. For years, I drowned out my own voice and listened to my partners’ and friends’ advice:
But you have so much time invested.
All that education will go to waste.
Your student loans could be forgiven after ten more years.
You have a stable income with good benefits.
The voices around me became the voices I heard inside.
The bars that sealed me in.
Day in and day out, I performed my job and returned home demeaned and demoralized – imprisoned by the weight of contributing to this broken system that stifles creativity and awards high test scores.
I forgot to listen to myself. I forgot that I counted . . . that what I wanted mattered.
Performing for Meager Survival
As a single mother, caregiver, and breadwinner for my household, I find myself looking at the cage I am in and trying to claw my way out. Survival depends on how much work I can accomplish, and how much I can work myself into the ground. My life motto has become “more work equals more pay equals survival.”
I teach. I tutor. I am trying to build a writing career. But that day in my boss’s office – it dawned on me that this is no way to live. If I give a perfect performance, there will always be a new act to up the stakes, a new series of stunts I’ll be expected to master.
I am struggling to live a mentally and physically healthy life because of my job.
If I don’t consistently work late, come in early, and take work home, I am significantly behind. It’s a toss up deciding whether I please the parents, please my boss, or take proper care of my own household.
I am afraid to change. I am afraid of taking risk when I have no savings, immense amounts of school debt, and am already going in the red each month.
Breaking Free: Self-Care is Not Enough
Several of my past posts have addressed the changes in patterns of thinking and living that must occur to find balance.
For someone like me, this is imperative, life-saving work, and in a state of fight-or-flight survival, it is nearly impossible.
All of these elements of self-care fly out the window when you remain in an environment that is toxic.
“We act as if teachers are to blame because they do not persist, despite the ridiculously bad conditions. We act as if teachers should just “focus” their way out of situations in which they cannot thrive.”The Bitter Southerner
So . . . the advice I am giving myself? Find the courage to quit. Find the place where I can thrive. Escape the cage.
Yes, be responsible, find a path that is manageable, AND draw a line in the sand. Face fear and possible ridicule. Take action and own my life instead of letting others lead it for me.
Fearing the Wide Open Spaces
Fear will rob you of everything if you let it. Fear of not having enough. Fear of letting others down. Fear of leaving what you know for the unknown. But as I look at the toxic environment I am in and realize it is affecting my health, my relationships, my parenting, I think about how we aren’t guaranteed tomorrow.
I could lose my job any day. I want to go out on my own terms and honor myself.
I know this is a hard pill to swallow without a nest egg to sit on. I am right there with you, but it is also a life-saving change.
If you are in a place where your mental health is at risk, where you struggle to get out of bed, and your body and mind are beaten down and exhausted, you have to take risks in order to save yourself.
Life is too short to live in years of unhappiness.
You and I are more important than the paycheck. Sometimes, we have to have faith in our worth and our ability to find creative solutions to break free of our cage.
So . . . as you begin your new year, I ask you this:
Where are you giving so much that you are losing yourself?
What relationships, environments, habits are toxic in your life?
Where in your life do you need to find the courage to quit?