How I Quit My Career to be a Writer

unhappy teacher

This is my actual 2016/2017 school picture. This is in the yearbook, friends.

For nearly 12 years, I worked in inner-city education. The cities I worked in were some of the most impoverished in the state. The students and families I served were some of the most deserving, hardworking people, and I was honored to work for them.

But after 12 years of working as a high school English teacher and non-profit teacher organizer, I was pretty much burnt out to a laughable degree. I would drive to work and think to myself, I wish I would just get rear-ended. Nothing serious, I don’t have enough money for a new car or anything, but just enough to get me to the hospital for the day with some minor neck pain and a doctor’s note. I was to the point where a day in the hospital, wearing an open-in-the-back-smock, sleeping in a hospital bed, surrounded by the stank of death and disinfectant sounded better to me than going to work. And this seemed normal to me. Crying in the shower before work was normal to me. Trudging through the day just to get back into bed seemed normal.

The last 2 and half years of my career, I worked in a high stakes charter network that claimed to care about teacher professionalism (they didn’t) and claimed to care about student achievement (they really didn’t) and working inside of what I perceived to be a militant, racist system was slowly crushing my soul.

But I’m a realist. I’m a lower, middle-class girl from a broken home and my family is not the type of family that says ridiculous things like, “Follow your dreams!” They are more of the, “Who’s going to pay your bills?” kinda group. My parents didn’t have careers. They had jobs (sometimes). They went to work, and they expected me to do the same, and get a paycheck, and shut up about it. I had a few degrees under my belt, and a “good”, “secure” job, and by all definitions, I was lucky and I had tremendous guilt and fear about leaving a good job because I was unhappy. It was such a millennial mindset. It was a mindset for spoiled brats, or so I told myself.

According to a recent Harris Poll, only 33% of Americans are happy. And if we analyze some of this data a little closer, we can lean on the Easterlin Paradox that suggests that “there is no link between the level of economic development of a society and the overall happiness of the citizens.” But I was on a path, that I felt I had little control to alter. At the end of the 2017 school year, I was coming close to 35 and trying to wrap my head around embracing my unhappiness. To make myself feel better, I told myself that everyone feels like this. All the people I worked with hated their jobs. All my friends more or less hated their jobs. So what? Just suck it up and keep working, keep your head down, and trudge along and one day, in about 30 years you can retire, and then you can die, and then you can stop whining.

I started applying for other teaching jobs, but nothing was panning out. I thought about switching careers and getting back into the non-profit sector that I spent almost two years in, but the pay was so much less for what I imagined would be, lots of extra stress, and I didn’t really want to do that work anyway. The last thing I wanted was to jump from one miserable job to another. I started writing list after list looking for a good reason to stay at my current job. My lists looked like this:

Reasons to stay at your job: Good pay. Summers off. Health benefits are good (free birth control). You like the kids. Sometimes there are cupcakes in the breakroom. Your coworkers are cool. You like telling people you are a teacher. Only babies quit. Don’t be a baby. Suck it up. Remember: the cupcakes.  You’re too scared to quit. You’d fail at another job. You’ll fail. You’re scared. You’re too scared. You’re way too scared. You can’t just start over. You’re thirty-freaking-five. You don’t start over at 35.

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Reasons to leave your job: No growth opportunities. Charter school work is sucking the life out of you. Racist establishment. The kids call the principal and deans white supremacists behind their backs. 60+ hour work weeks. You cry in the shower in the morning. You hate it. You want to be a writer. You hate it. You want to be a writer. You hate it.

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In the end, I decided that being scared was the only real reason I had to stay, and being scared to leave is not a good enough reason to stay anywhere. So I left. I told my principal in a meeting. I was one semester away from finishing my MFA and I told him I wanted to focus on writing. He said to me, “What are you even getting a degree in? What are you going to be, A Writer? He then offered me a part-time position so I could spend time on my “stories” which would include half the pay, no benefits, and if I were lucky, 15 hours less a week of work. No thank you. I left that office floating.

But there are lots of practical challenges to leaving your profession, the career you’ve been cultivating for years, the position you thought you’d retire in, to jump into the virtual unknown. Here are some practical steps to leave your job for a new job that is unstable and terrifyingly exciting.

  1. You’re going to want to drink a lot with your friends and get to the point where you are all saying things like, “Yes, totally! You can totally do this!” Thanks Pam.
  2. You need to save up some money. I saved up a month’s worth of all my bills. I knew that freelance writing would take a while to get up and running and I needed something to keep me floating while I could build a base.
  3. Acknowledge your privilege. I am lucky to have most possibly the best husband in all of human history and I was able to get on his health insurance. I’m 35. I need a few monthly pills and yearly checks. I also have three higher education degrees. A B.S. in Secondary Education and English Literature, an M.A. in English Literature and an MFA in writing. I realize that these degrees make me more marketable and more likely to receive certain jobs. I could leave my job with a decent amount of confidence that I would be ok.
  4. Get brave. I tend to be mostly insecure about most things, so leaving a career and a profession that I had worked at and become good at over the course of 12 years was terrifying. Suddenly I was a newbie. Suddenly I had to learn how to do everything all over again. I had to develop new routines and new plans and then when those plans didn’t work, I had to try again. I had to tell that voice in the back of my head that was jumping up and down and laughing and pointing at me and screaming, You suck! You can’t do this! Why would you think you can do this? to shut up.
  5. Get humble. I still needed to pay my bills. My husband and I had a long talk about finances and in the end, we realized that his job and the dynamic of our relationship would require me to still be a 50/50 partner in our financial life. It was beyond important for me to still maintain my equal contribution to your finances. I needed a way to pay bills. All through college I worked at Applebee’s. (Please never eat their Riblets. Ever.) I had to go back to basics and get a waitressing job. Luckily my brother was just opening a pizza place and I went to work for him.

It’s been almost 5 months since I started writing (and waitressing) full time. I have a handful of clients, a handful of online publications I write for, and I’ve even gotten one of my creative pieces published.

I usually don’t cry in the shower anymore.

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