They Left Teaching in Search of a Better Life. Did They Find It?

Teaching & Learning

They Left Teaching in Search of a Better Life. Did They Find It?

By Emily Tate Sullivan     Apr 11, 2023

They Left Teaching in Search of a Better Life. Did They Find It?

The breaking point for Julie Sherlock was a literal one.

The elementary music teacher was burned out and so very tired, following years of feeling increasingly overburdened and bulldozed by students and administrators alike. But it wasn’t until she broke her leg last spring that she knew it was time to call it quits.

Sherlock was walking down the school hallway, carrying her heated-up lunch back to her classroom to eat, when a student called out to her with a question. The teacher, then 61 years old, turned to respond and wound up on the ground.

“I said, ‘This is it. I can’t do this anymore,’” Sherlock recalls about that clarifying moment and the many difficult weeks that followed, traversing school hallways and hauling around musical instruments on crutches.

She meant it, too. That was Sherlock’s last year in the classroom. Several months after her injury, in August 2022, she started a new job as a grants coordinator for a community mental health agency in Northern Michigan, where she lives.

“I knew I had a lot of good, productive years still in me, but that I couldn’t do it teaching,” says Sherlock, now 62.

It’s a sentiment shared by many teachers, at a time when adequately staffing classrooms is already a challenge: Tens of thousands of teaching positions sit vacant this school year, and multiples more are filled by “underqualified” educators.

In January 2022, a National Education Association survey found that 55 percent of educators were thinking of leaving the profession earlier than planned, nearly double the number of teachers who said the same in July 2020. The next month, a Gallup poll revealed that K-12 staff suffer higher burnout rates than any other segment of the U.S. labor force, at 44 percent.

Most educators have not left, and many never will. But some are following through; they’re walking out of their classrooms and away from the careers they thought they’d have for life.

Then what?

To find out what happens after teachers put in their notice, as they transition into their next acts, EdSurge talked with six former classroom teachers who resigned at the end of the last school year, after that NEA survey was conducted. Is life on the other side everything they hoped and expected — and are they happy now?

‘Unsustainable’ Asks

Why teachers leave has been well-documented, including by EdSurge. It comes down to feeling underpaid, underappreciated and undersupported while being overworked and overwhelmed.

Many teachers cite problems that emerged or were exacerbated by the pandemic, but none blames the pandemic alone for their departures. At most, they say, it expedited a process that was already underway.

“COVID was a tipping point,” Sherlock says. “But things were present before COVID.”

“I think, eventually, I would have left anyway,” admits John Stepp, a former fifth grade teacher who now sells real estate in Frankfurt, Kentucky. “I always thought, ‘What other options are out there?’”

The word that comes up again and again is unsustainable.

The pay is unsustainable. The workload is unsustainable. The emotional toll is unsustainable. The impact on physical and mental health is unsustainable.

“For a long time, I lived and breathed teaching,” says Elizabeth Neilson, a former high school English teacher who lives in Minneapolis. “I wanted to be good at it. I wanted to serve my students well. But it came at the cost of my mental health.”

Elizabeth Neilson, a semifinalist for Minnesota Teacher of the Year, in 2017. Neilson has since left the classroom. Photo courtesy of Neilson.

Neilson, 36, adds: “I was at a fork in the road. I could stay and be Mrs. Neilson. But all of Elizabeth had disappeared. Things I liked to do — make art, write poetry — had disappeared in favor of being a teacher. I didn’t have time for myself anymore. It got to the point where I thought, ‘I can’t do this anymore. I’ve lost who I am entirely. Who I am is gone.’”

For Cami Heredia, a former high school English teacher turned technical recruiter, it was partly about the money and partly about the mental exhaustion.

“I would come home absolutely drained, with no energy to hang out with my husband or go to the gym or make dinner,” explains Heredia, 25, who lives in Jacksonville, North Carolina. “I started to feel very discouraged. … I was to the point that I was like, ‘I don’t care. I'll be a bartender. I’ll be a cashier. Anything has to be better than this.’”

‘Am I Even Qualified?’

In a private Facebook group with more than 76,000 members, called Life After Teaching, current and recovering educators seek counsel, share progress reports and offer words of encouragement. They also ask, over and over, some variation of the question: What am I even qualified for besides teaching?

This is a hesitation for many wannabe former teachers. If teaching is all they’ve known, it’s difficult to imagine a spot for themselves in the corporate world, seated behind a computer screen all day. Many teachers don’t have LinkedIn accounts, because they never needed one. And they don’t make a habit of keeping their resumes up-to-date.

Sherlock, the 62-year-old from Michigan, found teaching later in life than most. She divorced at 40 and went back to school, becoming a music teacher at 44.

“I poured 175 percent of myself into it for 17 years,” Sherlock says, leaving 0 percent left for years 18 and beyond.

So when it came time to look for something else, she was self-conscious, worrying that her credentials would be an impediment to future opportunities. She hadn’t sent out a resume or interviewed for a new position in years, she says.

Others found themselves in the same situation, searching exhaustively for an alternative path that both sounded appealing and for which they would be qualified.

Yet those who have landed new positions — as all six former teachers interviewed for this story have — have been pleasantly surprised to learn their classroom skills are, in fact, quite transferable to other roles and industries.

Sherlock had written and won grants for her music classroom before. Knowing that was something she could do elsewhere, she began applying to foundations and nonprofits.

Once she was settled into her new position as a grants coordinator, she saw how similar grant proposals and project plans are to writing and evaluating a lesson plan for a class.

There have been adjustments, to be sure, Sherlock adds. She had to learn how to speak “a completely different language” practically overnight, noting that corporate jargon and mental health terminology both were relatively unfamiliar to her.

“There were moments when I was overwhelmed,” Sherlock notes, “but it was also invigorating.”

Tim Wright, a 27-year-old living in Western Michigan, says that his new job as a mortgage loan officer draws on the skills he developed and honed in the classroom: time management, multitasking, working independently — and even instructing. He writes blogs and makes videos to educate clients about property values, interest rates and loans, he says.

“I never didn’t like teaching the kids. It was usually everything else around the public school system that bothered me,” Wright says. “It’s nice I still get to educate, just in a different way.”

Erin Costello Wehring, 42, is now an administrative assistant for a department manager at an oil and gas company in the Houston area. She says the job requires organization and people skills, both of which she also needed to be a successful elementary school teacher.

“I felt really lost in the beginning,” she says of her job search. But she listened to podcasts about teachers who’d made the leap and bought a course that offered a roadmap for leaving.

“In the moment,” Costello Wehring acknowledges, “it felt really long and really hard.” But within just a few months, she, like so many others, had been offered a position — and with it, a ticket out.

The New Balancing Act

One of the things that many former teachers craved, when they were looking for the exit ramp, was better work-life balance.

Teachers often put in evening and weekend work to do all of the tasks that pile up while they are instructing, from responding to parent emails to lesson planning and grading.

In their new roles, none of the former teachers is regularly putting in extra hours. Two have actually been chided for doing work that goes beyond what is expected of them.

“I was absolutely gobsmacked by this,” notes Neilson, recalling the time, early in her new role as an instructional designer for a financial company, when she sent an email after 5 p.m.

Her boss told her that that’s not how they operate, and that anything that happens after business hours “can wait.”

“My job starts at 8 and ends at 5, and all the time that remains is mine,” Neilson says. “I can do all of those things I couldn’t do teaching. I feel like I have my identity back — all those pieces I had to put away to become a teacher, all the things that make me who I am. It just feels a lot more balanced.”

Heredia, the North Carolinian who taught for three years before resigning, says her quality of life has improved since leaving the classroom, mainly because she has more autonomy over her time now.

Her position is remote, so she works from home full time. She wakes up in the morning and makes a hot breakfast. She takes a lunch break. She goes to workout classes and walks her dog.

“I get to eat lunch in silence and go to the bathroom whenever I want, so it’s great,” she says with a laugh. “I have energy at the end of the day. My work-life balance is 1,000 times better than it was as a teacher.”

But the better outlook on life comes from more than just reduced stress and a lighter schedule. Heredia and others say they have been relieved to find that the expectations placed on them in their new roles are within reason, and that they feel respected and appreciated by colleagues and clients.

“I put my best foot forward, work hard and do what I’m supposed to do,” Heredia says of her new job, “and if something outside my control changes the outcome, that’s what it is — outside my control. The expectation with teaching was I had to fix everything that was outside my control, too.”

Others echoed this, saying that in school, they were constantly putting out fires that weren’t theirs to extinguish. That was just how it went.

In the year since he left teaching, Tim Wright has had more time for his hobbies, such as hiking. Photo courtesy of Wright.

“My husband says it’s like he’s married to a different person,” Sherlock says. “I do feel like a different person. I do. I feel more respected and smarter.”

Wright, the mortgage officer in Western Michigan, says he didn’t feel very appreciated as a teacher.

“In this career I’m in now, when I work with my clients, they say ‘thank you,’” he notes. “I’ve probably heard more ‘thank yous’ in the last six or seven months than in my four years teaching.”

Paycheck Improvements

Beyond “thank you,” another way to show appreciation to employees is through compensation. Wright’s new job is commission-based, and while that comes with inherent risk, he likes that he is rewarded based on the value he brings to his company.

Stepp, the Kentucky realtor, feels that way too.

“I chose a career where I knew if I could bring value to my brokerage, to my clients … then that would be reflected in my income,” says Stepp, 36.

He likes knowing that if he wants to make more money, he can just work harder, instead of knowing that no matter how much effort he puts in, the numbers on his paycheck are going to look the same, as it was in teaching.

John Stepp with his daughters during his final first day of school as a teacher. He left teaching last year and is now selling real estate. Photo courtesy of Stepp.

Because of the way teacher salary schedules are designed, many former teachers calculate the bounty of their current incomes by measuring the number of additional years they would have had to teach to get there.

Neilson, who taught for 10 years, would have had to teach for five more to get to the salary she was offered as an entry-level instructional designer.

Heredia, who taught for three years, would have had to stay in her district for another decade to earn what she does now as a recruiter. “I grew, financially, more in six months than I would’ve in 10 years at the school district,” she explains.

Costello Wehring, who taught for 12 years, got a $10,000 raise when she left her teaching job to be an administrative assistant. She would’ve had to work another 15 years in her district to get to her current pay.

“It’s awesome,” she says. “I am able to do things with my family now that, when I was teaching, there was no way.”

The Pursuit of Happiness

So, are they happy? Was it worth it?

These questions are largely met with a resounding “yes” — with some caveats.

Several teachers interviewed say that, if enough were to change in education, they would consider returning to the classroom. They feel like teaching was the career they were meant to have, and if things were different, they never would have left.

Neilson and a former student during a service learning trip to Peru in 2018. Photo courtesy of Neilson.

“There are a lot of pieces about it that I miss,” says Neilson, calling out how much she enjoyed talking with her students, developing curricula, coaching the yearbook team and sitting down to help a teenager understand something. “But in the end, the cons outweighed the pros. The pros are there, and they are wonderful. But all of the cons — not enough money, no time to be who you are and do what you love, the need to give all of yourself to the children — if all of that went away, I’d go back.”

For Costello Wehring, it’s more complicated.

“It really felt like it’s where I was supposed to be,” she says of the classroom. “Even where I am now, I enjoy my job, I have a fantastic boss and my mental health is much better. But I’m a teacher at heart.”

Yet Costello Wehring is not going back. She insists she’s done with teaching for good.

Sherlock, too, misses the kids and the joy that came from being around them every day, “but really, that’s all,” she says. She doesn’t miss anything else, especially the “Sunday scaries” she used to get — that overwhelming sense of dread that precedes the start of a new workweek.

Sherlock, like many of her peers who have left, didn’t turn her back on education, though. She continues to teach private music lessons and participate in workshops around the state.

“I still fill my teaching bucket,” she notes.

Julie Sherlock leads a drumming workshop for colleagues at her community mental health agency. "I still fill my teaching bucket," she says. Photo courtesy of Sherlock.

Heredia is happy now, and she doesn’t envision going back. But she wants to find an outlet for her teaching passion. Maybe a coaching gig or a summer camp opportunity.

Costello Wehring would like to run for a position on the school board some day, she thinks.

“I’m focusing on my kids and myself now,” Costello Wehring says, “but I don’t want to just walk away.”

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