Losing your job

Q: It’s “transfer season” for my large public school system. This is the time when schools get staffing allocations and teachers find out whether their jobs are safe. Well, my .6 literacy position has been cut. I still have a guaranteed job in the county, but I have to leave a school where I’ve happily worked for 11 years. I knew when I switched from full time to part time that I’d be more likely to be involuntarily transferred, but this still came as a shock. I chose part time because I had just had twins, my husband has no job flexibility, and it was the right choice for my family. I understand that it isn’t personal, but that’s just it. It feels SO personal, and I can’t help feeling fired. I love my work, and my colleagues have become like a second family, but now I look around and wonder whether anyone really fought to keep me. My principal says he tried to save my position and that it’s just a numbers game, but I’m not sure I believe him. I also have to go through the whole interviewing process and find a new school, which is stressing me out. Plus, I could end up at a school with a horrible commute. I don’t know how I’m going to make it until June. Do you have any tips so I don’t lose my mind?

A: This is one of the idiosyncrasies of working for a large school system. You’re employed by the district, not an individual school. You can simultaneously develop deep connections with colleagues and feel like a cog in a wheel. Unlike a corporation, where you must pack up and vacate the building shortly after you’ve been fired, you’re expected to finish your contract. As you’ve pointed out, this means you spend months at a job you’ve been asked to leave, and that takes a mental toll. In fact, if school systems are interested in retention, they probably should take a closer look at how they support staff members going through this type of transition. You’re hardly alone.

You’ve identified some of the other reasons it feels so difficult. You’re worried that people you felt close to wanted you to leave, and you’re feeling bad about yourself. You’re also second-guessing your decisions, such as switching to part time. You’re contending with uncertainty and the prospect of marketing yourself for the first time in years. It’s also much easier to fixate on what you’re losing than any potential gains because the future is still a big unknown.

So first, take a deep breath and cut yourself some slack. Everything you’re feeling is normal. The good news is that you can take steps to keep an even keel over the next few months.

Here are several ideas:

  • Monitor your thoughts and try not to ruminate. Our inner dialogue can be brutal. We tell ourselves things we would never say to a friend. The next time you think, “I was fired,” counterbalance that with reminders of all that you’ve accomplished in the past 11 years. Similarly, when you start obsessing over what you’re losing, consider the possibility that it could be a blessing in disguise. Change itself is a neutral word. Your next job might be bad, but it also could be a pathway to personal growth and new rewarding relationships. After many years of doing the same thing, you may have fallen into a rut. You could be energized by the newness, whether it’s a different student population or school culture.
  • Be proactive. Gather your application materials. This is a great opportunity to take a fresh look at your resume and take stock of your accomplishments. Update your LinkedIn profile, go to job fairs, network, and consider all of your options. You’re feeling paralyzed and scared right now, but you’ll feel empowered if you take action. Don’t forget to use your resources. Your principal may be able to help you. Job transfer season is stressful for administrators too, and they have a big picture sense of all the moving chess pieces. They talk and cooperate because it’s mutually beneficial. The first year of my career, I was in the same position. When my .5 counseling position was cut, my principal found me my next job. He introduced me to a colleague at another school who had a .5 opening, and his support simplified my search. His kindness also comforted and reassured me. It sounds like your principal might do the same for you.
  • Think outside the box. The universe has presented you with a chance for reinvention. This is exciting, really! Is there anything different that you’ve secretly been wanting to explore? Are there jobs in related fields that always have fascinated you? Would you consider independent schools? This transfer isn’t just something happening TO you — you’ve got control as well.
  • Kids are kids. I mean this in a couple different ways. For starters, no matter what you do next, you’ll be working with children. Presumably, that’s why you chose the teaching profession, and this piece of your job will be similar no matter where you land. But your students also can play a critical role in how your next few months play out. They deserve to get your best, and focusing on their needs will keep you busy and give you a sense of purpose. When you know you’re doing right by them and bring positive energy to your classroom, you’ll keep your confidence too.
  • Fake it until you make it. You’re going to have down days. Resist the temptation to commiserate with unhappy colleagues or others in a similar situation. You’ll drag yourself down if you surround yourself with drama and negativity. Trust already is an issue for you, and you might create new problems for yourself by criticizing others. When you’ve regained your equilibrium, you’ll be glad you took the high road and maintained your dignity. Plus, it just feels better to assume positive intent and focus on the good.
  • Practice self-care. This is not the time to make work your life — it won’t change anything, and it will rob you of the opportunity to maintain balance and perspective. Use up your leave at regularly scheduled intervals. Take a mental health day if you’re feeling particularly low, and use it to have lunch with a partner or friends from other parts of your life. Exercise, eat well, and get enough sleep. This will counteract any urge to turn to unhealthy coping strategies. If you sense that you are deteriorating, seek therapy so you have a safe place to unload worries.
  • Don’t second guess yourself. When you chose to go part time, you did what felt right for your family. If you had chosen to stay full time, you might not have lost your job, but there would have been different consequences.
  • Funnel fear into excitement. Four months isn’t forever. You’ve made it through lots of changes in your life, including the birth of your twins. You’ve got this! And you’ll know long before June what you’re doing next year, which may ease your anxiety. Once you do know where you’re headed, try to get a sense of all the positives. If all else fails and you’re placed somewhere awful, you can change course again. There’s no one prescribed path to success.

You’re navigating an imperfect process, and you can only do the best you can. You sound like a generally happy person who finds her work fulfilling, so the good news is that you take yourself wherever you go.

Have a question that you’d like Career Confidential to answer? Email to careerconfidential@pdkintl.org. All names and schools will remain confidential. No identifying information will be included in the published questions and answers. 

PHYLLIS L. FAGELL (@Pfagell; phyllisfagell.com) is the school counselor at Sheridan School in Washington, D.C., a therapist at the Chrysalis Group in Bethesda, Md., and the author of the Career Confidential blog. She is also the author of Middle School Matters, available at https://bit.ly/2RNXVu3.

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