Q: I’m an elementary school special education specialist in my early 20s, and I just broke up with my boyfriend. Here’s the issue: He’s a 5th-grade homeroom teacher in the school where I work. It’s almost recruiting season for schools, and I’m wondering if I should start looking for a new job. I’m barely holding on. He dumped me rudely over text, and every time I see him I feel like crying. We were really serious and had talked about marriage, but he says he’s not ready for such a big commitment and wants to date other people. He seems to be totally fine about all of this, too, which makes me feel worse (and pretty angry). When I tell my parents and friends I think I might have to find a new job, they basically tell me to calm down. I’ve tried to explain that elementary schools are different than big companies. We’re like a family—a strange and dysfunctional one at times—but still a family. We’re forced together all the time. I see him when I observe or work with students in his classroom, at staff meetings, school events, special ed meetings, and in the halls. As an unbiased outsider, I’m curious what you think I should do.
A: No one wants to be told to calm down, especially when they’re heartbroken. I can understand why you want to flee right now. It’s upsetting and uncomfortable to bump into your ex, and you’re forced to interact with him frequently in the school building. I’m going to reframe your parents’ and friends’ advice, though. Our brains have the capacity to think both logically and emotionally, but we’re wired to prioritize emotion over logic. In some situations, it’s life-saving. Fear, for instance, will help you leap out of the way of a speeding car. The cavemen who ran away from bears were more likely to live and reproduce. However, when we’re emotional, we don’t think as carefully. We may make bad decisions. Before we make big life changes, we need to make sure we’ve tamped down our emotions enough to think rationally. In other words, you want to avoid a knee-jerk reaction while you’re angry and grieving.
That doesn’t mean you won’t decide to leave. In fact, I encourage you to explore your options. That way, you’ll have an escape hatch if you still want and need one in a few months. But you’re there for the time being, and this is your place of employment. It’s tricky when you date or break up with someone at work, but your situation is not uncommon. According to a 2017 Career Builder survey, 41 percent of workers have dated a colleague—the highest amount since 2007. Thirty percent of those relationships resulted in marriage, but five percent of workers who experienced a work romance left their job because the relationship ended badly. According to that same survey, 40 percent of men and 37 percent of women keep their work relationship a secret. I don’t know which camp you fall into regarding disclosure, but if you’re openly anxious and distracted, you may want to let your principal know why you’re not at your peak. Your district may even have policies about alerting supervisors when you engage in a work romance.
Let’s talk about the present. Are you able to fulfill the duties specified in your contract? If not, that’s the first problem you need to tackle. Whether you stay or go, you need to get yourself back into working condition. Take good care of yourself. That means eating well, getting exercise and plenty of sleep, spending time with trusted friends and loved ones, and seeking therapy if you need it. You may have access to counseling services through an Employee Assistance Program.
Your judgment may be impaired right now, so resist the temptation to do anything rash or retaliatory. If you’re able to have a conversation with your ex, explain that you want to be respectful and professional but need some space. That may mean you discuss students or work duties, but steer clear of anything personal. Since he initiated the breakup (and over text!), my guess is that he’ll be happy to respect your boundaries. He sounds immature and in need of some breathing room, too. Schools are also gossipy places. Try to come to an agreement that you won’t talk about the breakup in the staff lounge. In fact, resist the urge to talk about this at work at all, and don’t bad-mouth him to any of your colleagues. You’ll not only look unprofessional, you’ll put the other teachers in a difficult position.
As the weeks pass, take note of any changes to your emotional state. Periodically ask yourself, “How would I feel if he dates another teacher at the school? Can I move past this? Do I still want to be with him or harbor hopes of getting back together? Do I need a clean break to heal? Would I be thinking about leaving this job otherwise, or am I generally happy?” Many teachers in their early 20s work at different schools simply to vary their experiences. By the time you’re weighing other job offers, you’ll be better equipped to make a decision.
You’ve discovered that work relationships are fraught, especially in a small elementary school, and you may choose to avoid them in the future. If you do enter another one, however, have candid conversations from the get-go about keeping your personal relationship outside the school setting. That way, it’ll be less messy if you break up. For now, avoid airing your personal drama at work. Whether you decide to stay or go, you’ll want to be remembered for your work with students, not for your contributions to the school gossip mill.
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