How I left teaching and overcame my vocational crisis

by Annelise Mitchell September 23, 2017

How I left teaching and overcame my vocational crisis

[Ralph Waldo Emerson as a young man. His experience of a vocational crisis would help guide me out of mine.]

Suffering is a deeply personal thing.

You will from time to time hear a journalist or politician say that a "nation" or a "group" of people are suffering. But this is not true. A whole group of people, made up of individuals - each with their own way of looking at the world - will not suffer as a whole, and some of these individuals may even be oblivious to what they are allegedly suffering from.

I saw and experienced this as a high school teacher.

What would make one person describe their situation as sheer hell, would have another say they are as happy as a pig in mud. This realisation dawned on me for the first time when talking to a veteran teacher. I was in my third year of teaching and she in her 30th. She saw the school, despite its big problems, as a challenge and something that she could make better. I, very much her opposite, both in temperament and disposition, had come to feel like I was in a perpetual nightmare. The school was in the lowest socio-economic neighbourhood in the region and had just lost its "authoritarian" vice-principal - the vice-principal who "ran the school with an iron hand" and had kept the school together for over 25 years. Things were falling apart fast. The school was undergoing rapid change, along with the burning down of a building here and there. (The building I taught in was burnt down, allegedly by some chemistry students who clearly knew what they were doing, and my department would go through four supervisors in my first year, with teacher after teacher leaving due to stress- or work-related conditions.)

This veteran teacher, who was about to leave the school and take up a position in another similar environment, advised me to "hang on in there" and "it will get better." She said, "This happens in schools. There are some really good years and some really hard years. You'll learn to ride the wave." But, as with some of my other colleagues, I wasn't sure I had anything left to give. The more I tried to push forward, or ride the waves, the more stripped I felt.

It is hard to find the words to describe those dark days. I felt like I was lost in a dark sea of chaos. I couldn't see clearly in front of me and I barely could keep my face above water. The mentors I had looked up to were gone and every which way I looked appeared just as terrible. What hastened my descent was my staffroom. Teacher's, who should have known better, would not talk to each other. They hated each other and would do anything in their power to ignore or belittle the other side. It was here that I realised how stress can bring out the worst in human beings.

Another colleague, who was also a veteran, advised me to get out while I'm "young enough." I was just on 30, he was in his late 50s. He shared his experiences, and although highly skilled at his job, he believed the profession was "going to the dogs." He said it was too late for him and he had already had enough savings to hack it out for a few more years (which he did) and then travel the world. There were many teachers repeating the folklore that teachers often "drop dead" once they retire. Dropping dead at the end of hacking it out was not appealing but it certainly felt like a possibility.

I asked this same colleague did teachers ever just quit the profession and he said "No." He hadn't seen it. (Damn, I thought, I'm going to be the first one.) He said that teachers either transferred to another school, got pregnant or went on stress leave. I had witnessed four heads of department and three teachers in my first year of teaching leave for each of those reasons, with two leaving because of "mental health issues." None of those options appealed to me and I was afraid that if I stayed, I would end up going out on a stretcher. Suffering a "mental collapse," what my mother would call it, was an ugly option. Not because the teacher had succumbed to despair but because what would happen to them afterwards. I saw what was left of these teachers when they eventually came back to the classroom - they barely recovered. They no longer had their energy and decisiveness. In fact, in some cases, they had become completely indecisive, cautiously seeking advice and approval from all sides. Or worse, they were incredibly bitter.

How did my journey out of the abyss start?

Very, very slowly.

In my third year of teaching, I was offered a casual position with the local university - the university I had graduated from.* It was as Curriculum Advisor for Pre-Service English teachers. I enjoyed working collaboratively with these new teachers and began to envision myself working as a professor in Education or Linguistics. Things were looking up, I thought. But, just as I entered the university sector, the Humanities were on the decline. It wouldn't matter how good I was or how much I wanted a position, I was told in no uncertain terms, the jobs simply no longer existed, and if they did, I would be in a casual role for many, many years waiting doggedly for a lecturer to retire. Here again I entered a world of pain. Professors or Adjunct-Professors would share how terrible their experience was and how they were taking early retirement to leave an institution that no longer valued their work. Their work load was increasing and course offerings were declining. Many were on anti-depressants and withdrew completely. Some advised me to stay in high school teaching - at least I would have job security. Individuals, who I once admired and wanted to be like, became a shadow of their former selves. It was like the whole edifice of higher learning, at least in the Humanities, was falling to the ground.

This, of course, was not the experience of every single person in the Humanities and definitely not in other faculties. The Marine and Medical Sciences were burgeoning with grants every which way they would look. To say that the university was suffering as a whole was not true. It was individuals within who were suffering and each in their own way.

But despite my turmoil, I felt an extraordinary pull towards writers and teachers to help guide me out. The educators who were writing to share what they have learned and to help me find my way. It felt like these writers were talking directly to me.

An example of one of these educators is Ralph Waldo Emerson, a 19th century lecturer - an independent scholar and curator of ideas. He had made very similar observations as I when teaching. He too had witnessed what happens to teachers when we become a part of a system and how we risk losing our "love of learning."

The teacher, says Emerson, has his day commanded by the clock. "[T]wenty classes are to be dealt with before the day is done. ... [You get] lost in the routine of grammars and books of elements." Hence, Emerson continues in his essay on Education, "you must work for large classes instead of individuals; you must lower your flag and reef your sails to wait for the dull sailors; you grow departmental, routinary, military almost with your discipline and college police."

Emerson's account of the 19th century schooling system, despite minor differences (20 classes) was very, very close to my own. He could see what happens to teachers after only a few years inside an institution. They would end up assuming a character and role that was in stark contrast to who they are and what they set out to do. But what was most profound, was how Emerson would struggle to find a way to educate outside of these traditional systems (i.e. schools and universities).

In his mid-twenties, Emerson went through a fast-deepening crisis of vocation. He knew he could not stay in his current ministerial role - nor in his previous role as a teacher of girls - but he had no clear or obvious direction. Just like had happened to me, he would look around for role models and find none. He knew he could not continue but he felt sick, scared and worried about his future. With no clear pathway to follow, and constant reminders from his Aunt Mary that his ancestors had been clergy men for four generations, he sunk into turmoil.

Familial reminders of obligations are tough. I would get the same types of reminders from friends and family. It felt like I was turning my back on a profession that I once believed in fervently. I couldn't move forward because I had "invested so much time and effort."

I think it is this heavy weight of the past that causes the most suffering. We can't let go of who we thought we are meant to be, or what others think we are meant to be. Especially, when we are faced with constant reminders by our nearest and dearest. You can share what you are going through with others but you will most likely face indifference or objection. I would try to explain what I was going through to friends and family but would find myself quickly digging a hole. I would alternate between denouncing my profession and railing against it, to complete and utter silence.

The most difficult thing about suffering is how terribly isolating it can be. You may be amongst others who are suffering but more often than not, individuals who are in pain are reluctant to let go of what is causing their pain. This was a harsh realisation. Teachers would often decry the injustice of the administration or the way their colleagues have treated them but they would not, under any circumstances, do something to change what was happening. I would suggest, often naively, that they had options and that they could make things better. But what I would find, more often than not, was that these individuals would be convinced that they were powerless and that they just had to put up and shut up. They were often great teachers but their experiences had rendered them impotent and afraid.

Fear is catching.

I could see that the longer I stayed, the more likely it was that I would one day be too afraid to leave.

Emerson had this same realisation. He could see that in order for him to be the teacher he wanted to be, he had to leave the ministry. If he stayed, he would be conforming to other peoples' ideas about teaching and ministering. This was not an option for Emerson. His one great fear was conformity. As was mine.

Emerson would look for guidance and found it in William Channing, a minister and founder of American Unitarianism. Channing said: [T]he ultimate reliance of a human being must be his own mind." If we don't follow our own mind, we are in trouble.

It is only in hindsight can I see what helped me move forward. I didn't know it at the time and I wondered if I would ever find my way out of the abyss. If I doubted that I would, even a little, I would sink quickly. It was a little fire burning deep down inside that would keep my head above water. Something that I can only say is akin to a flicker of hope. It never died and it was always nudging me into further learning and growth.

In fact, you will find that when you are railing through a crisis, the experience, although terribly painful, is pushing you towards real inner growth.

It is these gentle nudges from within that would see me take on new roles with the school and the university. When asked whether I wanted to do something - like develop curriculum, teach teachers, create online learning platforms for students and teachers - I would take it on wholeheartedly. I didn't even think about where each role would lead me too. I just knew that I enjoyed doing what was offered and would go above and beyond the call of duty.

It is this action-taking that is pivotal to finding your way. Emerson emphasises that "the only path of escape known in all the worlds of God is performance." [My emphasis]. He means that the only way you can get out of a situation that you don't want is by acting in the world. He would do this every single time he faced a crisis. He didn't withdraw, no matter how tempting. (Emerson had lost his first wife after only one year of marriage to tuberculosis and his two brothers, as well as his five year old son, Waldo). Every single time, no matter how much he was suffering (and he suffered tremendously) he would deal with trouble by turning to life.

To Emerson, withdrawing or reminiscing on an ideal past was not just a mistake, it was disaster: "A new day, a new harvest, new duties, new men, new fields of thought, new powers call you, and an eye fastened on the past unsuns nature, bereaves me of hope, and ruins me with a squalid indigence which nothing but death can adequately symbolise."

Your only choice is to move forward, no matter how afraid you are. And on some days, you will be terribly, terribly afraid.

When Emerson left the ministry, he was faced with the "terrible freedom" that we feel when we leave an institution or any type of security. Freedom isn't easy and as humans, we naturally seek safety and certainty. Emerson wrote in his journal: "It is awful to look into the mind of man and see how free we are... Outside, among your fellows, among strangers, you must preserve appearances, - a hundred things you cannot do: but inside, - the terrible freedom!"

But despite his fears, he endured his freedom no matter how sick, frightened or uncertain he became. His brother, Charles, wrote to Aunt Mary that he had never seen Emerson so oscillating and disheartened. "He has many ideas for projects but not one project." Charles continued, "[Emerson] is sick... I never saw him so disheartened... things seem flying to pieces." It was here that I smiled and could relate. I was the same. I left teaching in high schools but with no single vision in mind. I had no real direction. I had many, many ideas and projects that I wanted to try, but I couldn't focus on what I wanted to do with my life. I would head for one idea with headless abandon and the very next day, quit the idea. This oscillation led me to burnout. (This indecisiveness is characteristic of vocational crises - we don't know who we are or where we fit in the world, and I was terribly afraid that I didn't fit.) All I knew, as Emerson knew, was that there was no turning back, only forward, albeit in a zig-zag-like pattern.

What I had yet to learn was that I needed to "dwell patiently" with my feelings of "dreariness and absence." If you are in a vocational crisis, the same applies to you. It is the advice of Mary Rotch, a quaker who had turned away from her path in the Quaker ministry, that enabled Emerson to deal patiently with his. Rotch had been advised by a friend that she would need to see her crisis as necessary to the "sweeping away of all her dependence on tradition, and that she would finally attain to something better." But, as with all improvements, the friend continued: "the beginnings [will be] very, very small."

I don't think I've ever heard anything more true. Neither had Emerson.

Emerson wrote in response to Rotch in his journal: "Can you believe, Waldo Emerson, that you may relieve yourself of this perpetual perplexity of choosing, and by putting your ear close to the soul, learn always the true way?" Rotch had learned to rely on her own inner strength, her own inner light; ideas which Emerson would integrate into his own thinking and writing.

For the rest of his life, Emerson would emphasise this universal truth. You can only find your way when you trust in your inner voice. Or, as Lissa Rankin says: "Your inner pilot light." It is what will guide you onto your true path.

It was following my curiosity that led me out of my vocational crisis. I would spend hours, days, weeks and eventually months and years creating educational resources. It was during these hours that I found time just ceased to exist and I was happy as a pig in mud. I enjoyed the act of creating learning experiences more than anything. This love of learning would lead me to obtain positions as a curriculum developer with education start-ups and growing companies. I would also sell my own products online as well as deliver workshops on the Gold Coast.

No matter where you are in your life right now and no matter how black everything may look around you, you must keep heart. You must believe that you will find your way. Your belief will enable you to act in the world. It will help you take advantage of opportunities. It will make you say "Yes!" to offers of work that spark your curiosity.

And if you are in that abyss right now, your task is to force yourself into activity that heals. Doing things that fan your curiosity will ultimately guide you out of the sea of turmoil. It is through action that you will eventually bear fruit, and no one can take that fruit away from you. Think of your action-taking as your saving bank, earning compound interest with every step you take, and with everything you create.

"A man must do the work with that faculty he has now. But that faculty is the accumulation of past days. No rival can rival backwards. What you have learned and done is safe and fruitful. Work and learn in evil days, in insulted days, in days of debt and depression and calamity. Fight best in the shade of the cloud of arrows." This is the fighting faith that you must have as a modern creator.

Whatever you do, promise yourself to never settle. To never turn your back on your inner fire. That small but very powerful spark of hope that is deep within you. Abandoning your expectations in life means impotence, and over time, certain death.
"To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment." Ralph Waldo Emerson

*As a student with the university, I had created Junior and Senior English unit plans that had become models for other students to use. It was the creation of these types of resources that led to the university contacting me for work as an English Curriculum Advisor for Third and Fourth Year Education Students.


Emerson, R. W. (1837). “The American Scholar,” Digital Emerson: A Collective Archive. Retrieved from

Emerson, R. W. (1841). “Self-Reliance,” Mathematics at Dartmouth. Retrieved from

Emerson, R. W. (n.a.). “Ralph Waldo Emerson: Lectures, Emerson on

Education,” American Transcendentalism Web. Retrieved from

Harper, D. (2008). "Mary Rotch, Quaker turned Unitarian." Yet Another Unitarian Universalist, vol.1. Retrieved from

Richardson, R. D. Jr. (1995). Emerson: Mind on Fire. London: University of California Press.

Annelise Mitchell
Annelise Mitchell


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