Career Rebounding: Don’t ask me why I left, ask me why I couldn’t stay?

Jobs and careers are like romantic relationships, they can require a lot from you. 

Education is one of those professions that people might describe as more of a calling, than a career. You could certainly earn a lot more money doing something else!

Something that I have often struggled with is the idea that if people move around ‘too much’, or don’t stay long in one place, this is generally regarded as problematic. This judgement seems to happen a lot in education.

To use the relationship analogy, I feel that there are some things missing from this conversation based upon my personal experience. I’ll share a little of the latter first.

Prior to working internationally at my current school (now entering my fourth year here), my own CV might have read in a bit of a patchy way. After completing my PhD, followed by a post-doctoral role, I held a lecturing job for a year, I coached CrossFit for a year, I worked in an addiction rehab for a year, and I also spent a short-time at a different international school that just didn’t work out.

I remember going to an interview at another international school at the same time that I interviewed for my current school, and feeling so embarrassed about how my CV read. As it turns out, I had good reason to. The school liked me it seemed, but in the interview, when I attempted to pre-empt what I was sure would be a concern for them, the school principal looked at me sternly and said ‘ah yes, I was hoping you were going to address the elephant in the room’. It cast a shadow over the interview, and when I walked out I cried… a lot.

I remember feeling so much shame… ‘Why can’t I keep a job?’, ‘What is wrong with ME?’ I carried this with me for a long time, and just couldn’t work out what the problem was.

Now looking back, I wish they had asked me not why I left, but why I couldn’t stay.

When people leave a romantic relationship, they may take a break whilst they process and heal, or they may have ‘rebound relationships’ whilst they are picking up and putting themselves back together again (it’s a good thing that we don’t have CVs for our romantic relationships… imagine having to explain those!). And yet, when it comes to our jobs, those career breaks or rebounds are seen as a negative. Instead we are asked to rush into the next relationship as quickly as possible, each time with the added pressure that this now needs to be ‘the one’. 

Prior to entering my ‘patchy’ resume period, I had to leave a job that was harmful to my mental health. I look back at myself in photos now and all I remember is a really dark period. I couldn’t sleep, I barely ate, and I cried most days. I worked from 5am-10pm Monday to Friday plus working all day Saturday and half of Sunday just to keep up. 

So, when I moved to Thailand, it felt like I was processing a messy break-up from my previous career. It was painful, it was sad, and there was a lot of grief for the dreams that I had held.

If you had asked me why I left, I would have told you the easy version… to pursue new opportunities, to have the chance to live in a different country, to follow my wife as she began a new job. These are also true, but this version negates the deeper and more powerful reasons for why I couldn’t stay. 

Now, I enter my fourth year at my current school, a place that never even asked about this period, or why I left. They only ever saw what I could offer – something I will always be immensely thankful for. I look ahead to moving on at the end of this year having recovered not just in a professional ‘CV’ sense, but also on a personal level. I am grateful for the opportunities I have had to grow my wings here, and now the time is coming to fly somewhere else, wherever that may be. 

The end of this relationship feels much different than the last. This time I prepare to leave with a sense of closure, fond memories and hope for what the future might bring. 

In closing this article, what I hope is that those of us involved in recruitment, now or in the future, can look beyond the ‘patchy’ periods we might notice on the CVs of others, and ask not why they left, but why they couldn’t stay. What was going on for them at that particular time? Not to provide opportunities for finger-pointing or blame, but to allow space and compassion for people who may be coming to you off the back of a difficult personal or professional time, but still with plenty to offer. To respect when people honoured their boundaries enough to recognise when something wasn’t working for them, and to see their ability to prioritise their wellbeing, and to walk away from relationships that were no longer working, as a strength rather than a weakness. To cast the responsibility for work-based wellbeing and job longevity not on individuals alone, but also on the schools and workplaces they inhabit. And to ask ourselves honestly, when people move on from our schools, was it (just) them, or was it (also) us?

Ask questions, be curious, stay open… career histories don’t happen in a vacuum, and how those elephants got into that room in the first place is perhaps a more fruitful discussion. 

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