Having the Courage to Walk Away

The other day I was sitting in the staffroom at the school where I’m doing my practicum. It was lunchtime and as I ate I struck up a conversation with a substitute teacher who was working at the school for the day. During our conversation the fact that I have an engineering degree and I worked in the field for about a decade came up.

The substitute teacher was surprised that I had left my engineering career and was now a student teacher. I explained to him that engineering wasn’t a great fit for me. I don’t regret earning that degree or working in the field: I learned a lot and I worked with some truly phenomenal people. In fact, it was those phenomenal people that confirmed my decision to leave. They loved being computer programmers. They lived and breathed technology and problem-solving. I admired them, but it just wasn’t me.

The substitute teacher then asked me how it was that, if engineering wasn’t a good fit, I finished university and worked in the field so long. I replied, “I don’t quit.” And I didn’t mean it as a good thing.

walk awayOne thing that I’ve learned in the past decade of my life is that sometimes the most courageous choice is to walk away. Once you’ve started down a path it’s easy to be carried along by momentum or inertia. You start with Step 1 and move on to Step 2 and Step 3 and Step 4. And soon enough, without even noticing it, you’ve been doing something that you don’t love for six years. Or 16 years. Or even longer.

Of course, persistence is an important quality, and sometimes you have to work for what you want. Sometimes it’s only by pushing through the hard stuff that you get to the good stuff. I acknowledge all that. But other times you know, deep down in your gut, that something isn’t for you. And because you’ve spent a lot of time or money, or because you’re afraid of what people will think of you, or because you don’t know what else to do, you persist. You conform to expectations and ignore your dreams. Maybe you even forget to ask what you really want, because you stop believing you can have it.

I was very cautious about my journey towards becoming a student teacher because I know that I’m a persistent, appearance conscious, do what is expected of me sort of a person. I knew that I would worry about disappointing my family, or wasting time and money, if I didn’t end up becoming a teacher. I had to remind myself over and over again that the bigger waste would be to spend more of my life doing something I didn’t want to do. I paused a lot to ask myself if I was really where I wanted to be. And this semester at school I’ve done the same thing. I’ve paid for tuition for one semester, but if this isn’t the program for me it’s better to save myself two more semesters’ worth of tuition and a whole bunch more time.

Fortunately for me all of my experiences so far have confirmed what I already knew: I want to be a teacher. I really, really want to be a teacher. Right now I am where I want to be.

Unfortunately for one of my classmates that decision was different. Recently, one of the 32 student teachers I started with in September made the decision to leave the program. I don’t know everything that went into his decision. I don’t know what he’s thinking or feeling right now. My opinion wasn’t asked for. But all the same I can’t help but feel something, because I got to know him and like him and I will miss him. Mostly, though, I think he made the most courageous choice possible. Walking away can be very, very hard. I hope that he gives himself space to process and then finds something even better that really fits him.

Building a life is a complicated, challenging, funny sort of thing. In the end there’s only one thing that I know for sure, and it’s that the person you’re going to spend every waking moment with is yourself. So, within the limits of decency and compassion, you should live your life for yourself. Whether that means seeing something through or walking away, only you can say.

Tomorrow is American Thanksgiving. Being a Canadian, I celebrated six weeks ago. All the same, today I am thankful. I am thankful for the times when I walked away, or things ended, and I found something better. It wasn’t always easy – on the contrary it was frequently gut-wrenchingly hard. But in the process, I learned more about who I am, what works for me, and what to make space for in my life. Time is short, and energy is limited. I don’t want to waste any of it on things that take me further away from where I need to be.

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