February 2013 | A Better You | Getting Out With Grace

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How to take care of yourself and your future when leaving a job or folding a business
By Suzanne Martin, PT, DPT

Most teachers, myself included, have witnessed messy employee/employer breakups, or worse, been a party to the dreaded dance divorce. Sometimes teachers are fired. By the time that happens to you, there’s not much you can do except maintain your dignity and keep your chin up. But making a decision to quit, and doing so in the most positive way possible, requires thought, planning, and maturity.

The dance community is small and news travels fast, which means a poorly executed exit can have effects days, months, or even years later. Here’s some guidance on how to decide whether a less-than-perfect employment situation is salvageable or untenable, and then, if it’s time to go, how to do so as positively as possible.

First, don’t quit impulsively. Give yourself time to assess your work situation before you take action. Is it really right for you to leave? Be honest.

As dance artists, for better or worse, we are conditioned to believe that sacrificing for the sake of art is right and necessary. We hold high goals and expectations for ourselves and our students. We’ll do anything for art. But if some divine authority told you that it would be OK to change your situation, would you sigh with relief and jump at the chance? Or, after evaluating your job, your employer, and yourself, would you decide to try to make improvements that would make staying more palatable?

Avoid the common exit interview mistake of outlining all the organization’s defects. Even if you’re asked what can be improved, be brief and non-committal.

If you’re considering making a career move as drastic as quitting, it’s time to take out a pen and paper and examine what about your working situation is and is not working for you. Rank your satisfaction or dissatisfaction on a 1-to-5 scale (1 = very satisfied, 5 = very dissatisfied) in the following categories.

• Pay. Like it or not, this is a business relationship. Dance is not a lucrative field—and that’s probably not why you chose it—but you have to survive. Are you making enough to allow you to be the best teacher you can be? Anxiety about money can affect your well-being and attitude, and spreading yourself too thin in order to make ends meet is physically and emotionally exhausting.

• Work conditions. Are you pressured to put in unpaid overtime during production time, or at other times when workloads increase? Are you expected to take on jobs for which you weren’t hired?

• Communication and support. Does your employer show respect for you and your colleagues, both privately and in public? Does the management offer support when employees are taking heat from irate students/parents, or is there an automatic “customer is always right” policy? Good employers allow all sides to be heard. And management should be open to and offer opportunities for employees to discuss any concerns that arise.

• Quality. What is the studio’s approach to technique quality or production quality? Do you see the school’s values as lining up with your own?

• Health and environmental conditions. What are the studio’s policies on sick days or leaves? Are the floors too hard, the rooms too hot or cold, the restroom facilities inadequate?

• Schedule flexibility and fit. Does the schedule fit well with yours and/or with your family’s schedule? Does it offer advantages like a welcoming and safe place for your children to study or relax after school while you’re teaching?

• Career enhancement. Does the school enjoy great prestige or provide useful connections? Are you given the opportunity to work on your own choreography? Are you learning management and other skills? Consider whether this job is a good stepping-stone to another career or a rung on the ladder to ownership.

Even if your evaluation turns up negative results, ask yourself whether you can salvage the situation. It may be time to assertively state what you need. Would a pay raise, lighter load, better boundaries set around time demands, or paid teacher training make you want to stick around longer? Can you tweak the situation to make it work? If you and your organization share mutual dreams and goals for your students, is an open-ended agreement to pursue those goals sufficient? Can you and your employer agree on a specific plan and concrete timeline to make the changes that will render your job acceptable to you?

If no feasible solutions can be found, acknowledge that it’s truly time to go, and plan your exit. Give yourself a timeline of at least a few months. Be reasonable and empathetic. Consider the institution’s needs, and avoid burning bridges at all costs. Leaving just before a major performance or parent review could cause havoc.

You will also need to get your finances in order. Start planning and saving for a possible period during which you won’t have an income. Make a budget.

If you’re looking for other teaching or studio work, be cautious about your job search, and discreet when making inquiries. Nothing will make a difficult situation even more toxic than information—true or untrue—circulating about your impending “defection.”

Next, dial up your performance. If you’ve been feeling resentful and operating at a less-than-optimal level, up it to 98 percent. If you’ve been squeezing blood out of rocks, ramp it back down to 98 per cent. Doing extra tasks and putting in unreasonable hours to please an employer will not rectify an untenable situation. Perform with integrity, do your job; but the time has come to start reducing your investment in the enterprise.

Once you have your strategy in order, give notice. Make sure you mean it and that management knows this. Do it in person, and again, do it with empathy. You’ll burn fewer bridges. Avoid the common exit interview mistake of outlining all the organization’s defects. Even if you’re asked what can be improved, be brief and noncommittal. After all, if you’re at this point, you’ve probably already tried to negotiate a better situation for yourself, and it hasn’t worked. And if you’ve followed the steps in this article, you’ll likely have worked through the first part of your emotional separation and can be more detached in your delivery.

p92_A_Better_You_2Follow up your conversation with a letter outlining the terms of your departure such as the stop date, or negotiated items like ongoing studio rentals for your private students. Throw in a compliment for good measure, and be sure to thank your employer(s) for the opportunity to work with them.

Next, allow closure. If the organization and/or parents want to give you a party, let them. If not, find a way to say your goodbyes. Keep it upbeat, light, and above all, remain detached. If you’re asked the reasons for your departure, keep them to yourself. Accentuate the positive by repeatedly explaining how much you’ve enjoyed and valued all the students you’ve watched blossom.

Do expect to feel a sense of loss, separation, and perhaps anxiety. Change is scary, but it offers the possibility of opening new doors on exciting new vistas. Making necessary changes—and doing it right—will help you develop resilience, new approaches, and new skills; all of these make you more employable, not less.

Be smart. Be discerning. Do your homework. Breathe, and take the step.

I have faith in you.