Things Fall Apart- What to Do When Your Student Quits

Good evening, friends and neighbors.

Jay was a troubled kid. He was eager to please and seemed interested in the work. That’s what got my boss to hire him on to be my new assistant. He’d been a food runner and dishwasher since his teens, but never really had a cooking position. As far as baking went, “Well, sometimes I used to help my folks.”

He’d had some trouble with the law, and his living situation was not the best, but he didn’t like bringing that up at work. Jay was there to work, to learn, and to get the job done. I took him on, taught him as much as I could, and gave him all the support possible.

Within a month, I was looking for another assistant.

It just doesn’t always work out.

Photo by David McEachan from Pexels

Someone to Teach, and Someone to Learn

There must be a Teacher willing to Teach,
and a Student willing to be taught.

Since starting at my current bakery a year ago, I have trained 10 people. Some moved on to other stations, others quit or were fired. In that time, the ones who were fired were frustrating, but didn’t bother me to much. It was a bummer to be sure- no one wants to see their students be asked to leave.

No, what bothered me most were the ones that gave up. Not the ones that quit to pursue a new opportunity— the ones that just said “this isn’t for me” and walked away.

When you are a teacher, those hurt the most. People can quit learning for a number of reasons- some of them perfectly good. They may truly find that what they were learning- and what you were teaching them- was not a good fit for them. They may realize there’s another area of work that holds more attraction for them and that this was just something to try. There’s nothing wrong with that.

All the same, having a student “just give up”- especially when things seemed to be going well- can hit surprisingly hard.

It’s Not You, it’s Them (But It Might Be You Too)

“You can go your own way…” – Fleetwood Mac

Mentorship is by nature very personal. I’ve described it as not just teaching someone a craft, but the art of living with that craft in their life. It requires a lot of investment from both apprentice and mentor– financially, emotionally, in time and labor.

It’s only natural then that when the mentorship doesn’t work out, there’s a level of disappoint experienced all around. To the mentor in particular, it can feel like a personal rejection- an insult or betrayal.

Yes, they seemed like they were doing well. You may have started to rely on them and your workload may now increase in their absence. It may really screw with upcoming work… but that’s the thing: if they weren’t doing well, it’s either a good thing they left, or you should have asked them to leave earlier.

The fact that an apprentice was doing well but decided to leave anyway can teach you a lot about them, yourself, and how you teach.

When it comes to your teaching:

  • Where they having difficulties that you didn’t notice? Did they seem happy to be working?
  • Where you engaging them enough? Did you engage (or just acknowledge) their curiosity, creativity, and ambition?
  • How have you been carrying yourself? When an apprentice looks at their mentor, they are trying to see themselves in the future. Are you excited to work? Do you demonstrate your love for the craft? Do you complain too much?

Even if there was nothing you could have done… well, that’s the point: there’s nothing you could have done. There are any number of reasons they may have had that you could not predict OR control.

The old wisdom says, “You can’t control someone else’s behavior- only how you react to it.” With that in mind, it’s easier to get past your initial feelings of frustration and disappointment, and get on with whatever next step you take.

Shortly after Jay’s departure, I interviewed and found another apprentice. This one took to every task like a fish to water, and was eager to learn not just about the work, but the industry as well and how to advance in it. She was an excellent student- who quit after a week to look after a suddenly home-bound family member.

My boss showed me the message and asked, “What do you think, Matt? Think she’s lying? That’s kinda weird timing, isn’t it?

I shrugged and said, “Does it matter? If we find out she’s lying and just wanted to quit, does it actually matter? We can’t just make her come back. She didn’t give notice, but she gave a good reason- just let it go and let’s get looking again.

It Still Can Mean Something

Looking back, Jay probably shouldn’t have been an apprentice.

He had very little patience for himself, and would “space out.” He’d mention that this was just a job until he could study to be an electrician.

On rough days, he’d talk about how he “could go back to being a food runner, make twice the money for half the work, doesn’t make sense to be kicking my ass for this bullshit, I dunno man…” We told him, “If that’s the case, then there’s the door. You owe it to yourself to do that instead.” Jay would always refuse- he wasn’t going to let this job beat him, he wasn’t going to quit.

All the same, that attitude and his difficulty with the work got directly on my boss’s last nerve. I arranged easier or less work for him, showed as much patience as I could with questions, and repeatedly stood up for his character. “He’s still trying.”

In the end, Jay did quit but for very different reasons. His physical health had been suffering the whole time, and his family was going to move. They offered to support him while he recuperated as long as he looked after his young nephews. He gave two weeks notice, and promised to work through the two weeks.

The last week he worked was the best quality I’d ever seen come out of him.
When I asked about it, he shrugged and said, “I dunno, man. It sucksI’m finally starting to like the work, and now I gotta leave.

Looking up, he gave me a sad smile and said, “I guess you just rubbed off on me.”

Your apprentice leaving doesn’t make you a bad teacher, or what you teach useless. It doesn’t mean they learned nothing, or that you should just not bother teaching anymore. It definitely doesn’t mean you should be cold and try not to get so invested in future students.

It means you wish them well, and be glad you still got to teach them something very important- what was most important to them.

It’s sad, but if you mentor correctly, everyone still got something out of it.

Stay Classy,

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