The Psychology of Leaving

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Ross Morrison McGill founded @TeacherToolkit in 2010, and today, he is one of the 'most followed educators'on social media in the world. In 2015, he was nominated as one of the '500 Most Influential People in Britain' by The Sunday Times as a result of...
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What happens when a teacher resigns from their workplace?

Leaving a place of work is a fascinating process for those who are leaving and those who are left.

You may know a colleague who is leaving your school this term, or you may even be departing yourself. In this post I discuss ‘what happens between colleagues, students and a school when you decide to leave your job’. In this post, I’d like to unlock what goes on in the mind of various camps.

Prospect Theory

According to American-Israeli psychologist Daniel Kahneman (Nobel Prize in Economics) and cognitive psychologist Amos Tversky, Prospect Theory is a rational way to conduct calculation that involve risks – which seeks to uncover descriptions of the way we actually behave in defiance of supposedly rational behaviour.

As with gambling or weighing up the pros and cons of a new job opportunity, known as calculating ‘expected utility’, we often try to calculate the best outcome – sometimes this involves intuition. Kahneman and Tversky developed prospect theory to describe such intuitions. A key aspect of their theory is that we think about risks of losing differently from the way we consider risks of winning.

An important consequence of prospect theory is that you can change how people feel about ‘something’ by changing whether you describe it as a chance of a loss or a gain.

The Individual

Consider the last time you resigned from a job at school – was the reason for your departure positive or negative? Perhaps you have experience of both and can recall how colleagues reacted to your news …

It is inevitable, that at some stage of our teaching career we will move on to another school. This could be for a promotion, relocation or for a variety of other reasons left undisclosed. For example, a sideways move because the individual has been ‘pushed out’ or something personal, such as family commitments and health reasons.

When a teacher contemplates leaving a school, there tends to be 3 possible reasons:

  1. They are dissatisfied with their current situation
  2. External factors outside of the workplace forces the issue
  3. Or, a new opportunity pulls them away …

Context is king!

Context is king here! Essentially the moment a resignation is tendered, the teacher will feel a sense of relief having made a decision to depart. What tends to happen next is interesting – and dependent on length of time remaining to work – typically 6 weeks for a teacher and 3 months for a school leader – the individual begin preparations for leaving and will ‘mentally move on’. In my experience, each occasion a teacher moves on to another school, they are likely to have spent the last few weeks often ‘doubling-up’. What I mean by this is, closing off tasks in your current job, whilst sitting at the same desk and preparing resources and tasks in preparation for your next move to ensure you get off to a good start.

Teachers Leaving by Smithers and Robinson.

Source: NUT – Centre for Education and Employment Research

As time draws closer, decisions to complete tasks, resolves issues, take on extra workload will ebb and generally, productivity becomes slower.

However, the nature of schools does ensure that they member of staff has calendared events that are unavoidable. For example, end of year reports and references, examinations and assessment, handover notes for classes and so forth. Whether or not this impacts on quality is another factor.

More importantly, relationships start to change too, as working in schools carries with it a significant emotional investment. Students and colleagues may change their attitudes towards the person who is leaving, as will the individual. Hopefully, respect and working with good intent will remain until the last working day, but it’s all to easy to perceive colleagues who have resigned, to have a blasé attitude in the lead up to their last day – accountability appears to dissipate.

The Line Manager

Whether relieved of despondent about the impending departure, after an initial discussion about ‘moving on’, the line manager will move through the looming departure in a very similar way to the seven stages of grief. To remind you, these are the following stages, with my equivalent school scenario added:

  1. Shock and denial (initial resignation)
  2. Pain and guilt (days after …)
  3. Anger and bargaining (regrets / job vacancy)
  4. Reflection (how to fill the gap)
  5. The upward turn … (replacement made / mentally moved on)
  6. Working through (to-do list / handover)
  7. Acceptance and hope (thank you / speeches).

Depending on the working relationship between individual and line-manager, plus the reason for leaving will largely define how the final days unfold. Inevitably to-do lists will appear and there will be a mixture of amenable tasks versus (begrudging) chores imposed upon the individual. In some cases where there are issues, it is often the case that the employer will have ‘to let this one go’ and focus energies on those who are working with the team.

The School

School life rarely slows down for those who are leaving. Students will still need to be taught, disciplined and rewarded, as well as any parents who will be saddened/relieved by a teacher’s departure. In every situation, a child will be the person in which any resignation has its impact on the most. Thoughts then generally shift to, ‘which teacher will be teaching my child?’ or ‘who will teach year 11 next year?’

As for parents, those teachers who have good relationships with their students tend to ‘drop the bombshell’ in the last parents’ evening of the academic year, knowing all too well that their child has opted to study their subject next year. This is often a devastating blow for the student, but it can be overcome by the student’s natural ability and love for the subject.


Sadly, despite what we believe, everyone is replaceable. Even those colleagues who have worked in a school for decades – although they may be the bedrock of the school’s foundations – every member of staff can be replaced with someone new. New ideas, new ways of doing things … new systems and a new style.

In terms of the students themselves, they are often the last to know. Many teachers do not tell their students they are leaving because of the impact it will have on teaching and learning. If relationships are strong, there are often ‘secrets’ organised behind the scenes to plan a ‘leaving celebration’ for the teacher who is leaving the school – particularly if colleagues have served their communities for decades.

Where relationships with classes have been more difficult to manage, the teacher will naturally keep the decision to themselves for fear of retribution and disruption. Worse, the fear of any anticipatory ‘cheer’ when it is announced in whole-school assembly! Whatever is your experience of departing from one school to another, or those who have line managed a colleague who is leaving, there are likely to be multitude of reasons for leaving. What is rarely discussed, is the psychological journey – the ups and downs for all parties – in the resignation process from start to finish.

So, the next time you or a colleague resign from a job, consider the prospect theory – what’s are the positive and negative reasons for all concerned, but most importantly, consider the individual teacher’s context over everything else. There’s a lot more going on than you believe.

3 thoughts on “The Psychology of Leaving

  1. Thanks for an interesting read and made me more curious. It would be great to see the parallel piece – the psychology of joining….. Have you researched and written on this?

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