When I tell people I have taken a sabbatical from teaching with a view to making a career change, they respond with either surprise or envy. Relatively, I am still quite young to leave any profession and who doesn’t like the idea of taking six months off work, whatever the context? Initially, even I had dismissed the idea as a pipe dream – I have a serious case of Protestant Work Ethic, thanks to my parents. But once the idea had taken root, it was, like convolvulus in the garden, impossible to cull or contain. Punishingly long, dark November days simply nourished its growth. Still, even I was surprised by my own audacity when I handed my notice in on the first day of the Spring Term.
To ensure my school had the best opportunity to find a replacement, I gave my SLT a whole six months’ warning of my departure. This long lead-in was to my benefit too; six months’ full salary to save for when I was no longer earning, and a full six months to clear up the three classrooms and two offices that had accommodated me during my thirteen years at the school. A lot of paper was sorted, shredded, filed, shared and archived. By the end of a busy six months I had accrued a healthy savings account and provided a clean slate for my successor. I left feeling virtuous and ready to take that first step into the unknown.
My excitement and optimism continued through the early days of the summer holiday and the hot Greek sun, but almost imperceptibly, my energy levels fell so that by the time school re-started in September, my batteries were perfectly flat. Rather than luxuriating in week-day lie-ins, doubt and uncertainty begin to creep in; a lack of direction is a difficult concept to wrestle with.
Here’s the thing about teaching; the rest of the world believes that as the summer holidays begin, teachers down tools, put up their feet and live, laugh, love. In reality, we work through our holidays, researching and preparing texts and resources for the following year’s programmes. Actual stopping – the kind of stopping a sabbatical allows– is like the speeding bus in the Keanu Reeves blockbuster; drop below a certain pace and the bomb will explode.
Doubt and uncertainty can both be very undermining. My best friends were back at school, and unavailable for philosophical musings and pick-me-ups; furthermore somehow it didn’t feel appropriate under the circumstances to ask for their support. I felt totally disoriented; an uncomfortable place for a professional used to the rigorous structures of a school day.
This leeching of energy and focus is also quite frightening. I began to feel that I might be going a little bit mad; my brain felt sluggish in the mornings (too much sleep) and raced at 2.00am – what was I doing? What next? How long might my money last? I paced like a caged tiger through each day, even when I was yomping across the South Downs.
Often teachers who leave the profession are back within the year. Teaching is unique: dynamic, challenging, fun, fast-paced and draining but also very addictive. Teachers are carers and helpers and that is an addictive feeling; they are also purposeful and focused, with never ending to-do lists, which fire up the adrenalin first thing in the morning, and adrenalin is addictive; teachers always strive to make things better, and that too is addictive. In my more despondent moments, I considered returning to the classroom. After all, I reasoned, teaching is what I’m good at; it’s what I do.
Thankfully, unlike the cold, wet summer, the autumn was warm and gentle. I took long walks with my partner, read voraciously, began different personal and domestic projects, most of which tailed off after a few weeks, took naps in the day and stayed awake long into the night, watched too many films and drank too much wine on school nights.
But I also played. I played with big ideas and everyday life. I played with my friends’ children at the park, and on their bedroom floors, and I started colouring again with my god-daughter. I played with our domestic space and in the kitchen with new flavours and recipes and on the bouldering wall, pushing myself to my physical limits. My partner and I played favourite card games from childhood and dug out Monopoly and Ludo and scrabble, just for fun. Play is creative and stimulating and therapeutic, and most definitely under-valued. But when do we ever have time to play?
And then, slowly, seemingly out of nowhere, ideas, plans and opportunities began to bubble up. Maybe they were always there but I didn’t see them? Or, I saw them and was too tired, and too tied up, to care? Without warning my replacement took time out after just ten days of term and I was back in a part-time management role that imposed a degree of structure on my week (lack of structure is really challenging on sabbatical) and provided a modest source of income. The familiar school environment and the friendly banter were welcome after the isolation of meandering unemployment. It instantly took the pressure off job hunting.
Meanwhile, without realising, my sleepless wonderings, seemingly prehistoric in their lack of form, had taken a firm shape. With space and time to think creatively, I had clarified my personal and professional values and identified my ideal role. The haphazard connections I had made during the summer began to deliver results. Freelance writing jobs came in and voluntary work at Age UK satisfied that deep desire to help others.
Four months later, my days are busy, varied and unpredictable – much like teaching. However, they are also flexible, stimulating and inspiring. I had liberated my long-lost resourcefulness and discovered a new range of talents and skills. Most importantly, I had designed a life of my own choosing; where, when and how I worked was entirely up to me. Such autonomy is impossible in teaching, which is dogged by limitations and restrictions delivered at every management layer from government to senior teams, and by time itself. While I appreciate this is both necessary and usually practical, it feels at times like a tight vice around a life.
Taking a leap into the unknown is always frightening, but maybe not as frightening as the alternative. Has it been worth it? Absolutely.