On leaving teaching. By Stephanie Wescott.
Friday December 21 was my final day at the school I have worked at for five years. It’s been in my dreams almost every night since. In them, I’m there, and things are going terribly wrong. Like those dreams you have the night before the start of a new term – you’re in front of the class completely unprepared, or you’ve made some terrible, embarrassing and irreparable mistake, you forget everyone’s names or you’re trying to talk but your voice has disappeared along with your will to live.
On my final day there, I thought about how many thousands of times I took steps on the grounds. I thought about the milestones of my life celebrated around the rhythms of the term—turning 25, completing my Honours thesis, starting a PhD, buying a house, friends having babies. My parents divorced at the end of my first year, my mum remarried at the beginning of the my last. My closest friend’s husband rang me one morning as I was getting ready. As I put my shoes on he told me that overnight I had become an auntie.
As a graduate teacher I experienced the full spectrum of things you hope will or will never happen. I’ve attended funerals of a student’s mum, a colleague’s father, a student. I met a bunch of women who would become among my closest and most precious. A student called me a ‘fucking cunt’ at 9 in the morning.
One thing I never expected was that my capacity to love the young people I taught grew until we formed something like friendship (but not). The authoritarian persona I assumed at the beginning of my career fell away quickly as I relaxed into an identity that felt more closely aligned to something authentically me. I tried hard to care about things like uniform and the tidiness of my students’ books, but I was always far more interested in what they thought about things and what was going on in their lives.
Once I decided to leave, I felt fearful. I wondered if I could ever find the same meaning and purpose in any other type of work. I worried I’d made a mistake—that teaching was tied so closely to my identity that ripping it apart would feel like losing something essential. Doing some reading around teaching as a vocation rather than a ‘calling’ helped me to reframe my thinking in more practical ways—that it was very normal for people to move on. That is was okay. I wasn’t letting anyone down.
At the same time, I realised I had been searching for a way out for some time. I began to wonder if the job was suited to me at all. I’m an introverted, anxious type. Teaching forced me out of some of my introversion, but it also amplified it, and this took a significant toll on my health. By Friday afternoons I was deeply craving seclusion and would be relieved to have a weekend of no plans unfolding in front of me. School holidays were essential for recovery. I would use them to mend, mentally and emotionally, but they often became the times when my mental health was at its worst—like the momentum of the term leant me enough adrenaline to hold on for just the right amount of weeks.
I eventually accepted that I would need to take medication for my anxiety so that I was able to cope with my job. I realised that I needed quietude and slowness with long stretches of solitude and chunks of time for thinking and reflection, and that these things were incompatible with the rhythm of teaching. Working within the confines of bell times, confronting unthinkable things— there were some confrontational moments I just couldn’t shake. These things started bearing down on me and my health continued to be affected.
By my fifth and final year, I found ways to manage what I found fundamentally difficult. Yoga, meditation and frequent debriefing became my salves. I focussed on the meaning and purpose teaching offered—the deep connections I had with students, the lessons when I felt that we addressed things that mattered. But, I was looking and hoping for something else. I began my PhD, which had been a goal since I began uni, but when my supervisor mentioned that a scholarship could be on the cards the way I imagined my future changed. I resigned from teaching, taking a gamble on being offered a scholarship.
I’m not sure I will ever return to teaching. For now, I am focussed on surviving this thing I’ve taken on with no real understanding of what I’ve signed up for. For a while, I believed that in secondary teaching I found the most meaningful job, but it quickly became something I felt I was completely unsuited to. Maybe the distance is both important and necessary. My fixed predictions of teaching as a forever job have relaxed, and I think that is a good thing.