In my career so far, I have formally resigned from a role once. I was heartbroken by the experience, but I didn’t have the awareness or understanding of the circumstances that I do now. After reflecting on the experience, I want to share my story so that I can relate the lessons I learned in the hopes that I can help others process any harrowing experiences in their careers. Here’s how it started…
One of the jobs I applied for after college was for a dance company that was starting an outreach program. From the description, it looked like a good fit. I was interviewed and left a good impression on the company director.
About two months later, I was called in for a second interview. I hoped to secure a position as a Teaching Artist. They asked me about my experience, administrative skills, and whether I was organized. I had a little bit of part time coordinating experience, and yes, I was organized. They told me, “We’re looking for an Outreach Coordinator and Lead Teaching Artist. We think it’s you.” I was offered a job on the spot. The role wasn’t something I sought; it fell plainly into my lap. I gladly accepted the role. The company generously provided and accommodated for my training in the specific method the program was based on.
However, I found it to be a grueling, and at many times overwhelming season. I had to simultaneously administer the program, lead 15 classes a week (including 7 classes for my second job), and organize a final performance for 200 children - with only one year of teaching for a living under my belt. I didn’t feel free to focus on bringing my artistry to my teaching when there was just as much attention needed for coordinating the program. I didn’t feel supported when I had uncertainties or like I could access my director, as the education work was a fledgling part of the company’s programming, with most of the attention going to performance and touring. And at the end of it, I was called in for a meeting.
I thought that the purpose of this meeting was to set an agenda and clarify intentions for the rest of the spring while the program was in the planning stages for next season. This is where I was blindsided.
The director expressed great disappointment with my performance. They criticized my teaching, my appearance, and the way I represented the program. I was criticized for speaking up in company meetings. They said they were mortified when they introduced me to a funder. It was blatantly clear that I didn’t fit their aesthetic or personality preference. “It was embarrassing,” they said about my students’ final performance.
I felt belittled, demeaned, humiliated, and taken advantage of for being young and inexperienced. I felt like the director would have never treated the teaching artists who were 10 years older than me the way they treated me. I left the meeting disoriented, disillusioned, and sobbing.
After an hour of being shredded to pieces for my work with criticism that I felt was rooted in the director’s personal preferences and biases, I spent the weekend reflecting on the experience and sought advice from people I trusted. I decided to email my letter of resignation the following Monday, expressing that I became aware of our philosophical differences regarding dance education and that my values and goals didn’t align with the program. I realized the director and I weren’t interested in dance education for the same reasons, and their evaluation of my performance didn’t line up with the quality of my work for other organizations.
With that experience in hindsight, I’d like to share some key things to remember if you feel like you’re experiencing a work conflict that crosses personal boundaries.
1. Never take your superiors' poor judgment calls personally.
You can’t blame yourself if you’re expected to do things that you never said you could do. In my case, I think I would have been far from their first choice as program coordinator/lead teaching artist if the company truly prioritized the growth of the outreach program. I wasn’t on the same level as the teaching artists who were ten years more experienced than me, and that’s something I don’t take personally anymore.
2. Know when to say “no”.
Take time to decide whether or not you should commit to a role. Money and promotions aren’t the only factors. You don’t want to be put in a situation where you’re held to a high standard that you can’t meet because you don’t have enough experience to ground you in the role. I realize now that I accepted more than I knew how to handle.
3. Identify your learning style and work with a director who will set you up for success.
Ask yourself: What are the ways I need to be supported in order to successfully complete a project? What values do I look for in an organization’s mission? Do they align with my goals? My experience clarified what I value in a director. My favorite directors are process-oriented. They see mistakes as part of learning, and they set an example throughout the process. There is equitable dialogue when I am learning a new skill or improving my craft.
4. You are not alone.
If you feel that something is wrong, talk to friends and mentors you trust. If you feel icky, you need to ask why. The more I processed the situation with friends and mentors, the more people have said to me, “You’re not alone.” My friends and mentors have also clashed with directors and shared their takeaways with me.
5. Honor your boundaries and advocate for yourself.
This one is simple: if you are approached in an unprofessional way, address that. Protect yourself if the setting no longer feels safe. The friend I confided in later told me that vulnerability (when I started crying in the meeting) should never be forced. What I didn’t know is that I should have known that the meeting was going to be an evaluation and that it is inappropriate to discriminate based on age. I could have paused the meeting, expressed that the tone was going in a direction that wasn’t professional, and asked for the evaluation to be scheduled at another time via email. I realized that the way I was approached shattered my trust and I knew I wouldn’t fulfill my role successfully after such a negative experience.
In closing, I’m happy to say that since this experience I have gained great clarity and only worked on projects that truly align with my mission. My choice to resign has been affirmed by my circumstances and opportunities again, again, and again. If you’re going through something similar, be encouraged and don’t give up. Use these disappointing fallouts as an opportunity for clarification, healing, and refocus. I hope by sharing my story you will be inspired to create more equitable spaces for your art to have an impact in your community.
Edited by Nathan Landis Funk | www.liveitreal.org