There comes a time in every fitness instructor’s career when he or she must stop teaching a particular class for one reason or another. Sometimes it’s easy enough to make an exit—for example, when you didn’t feel a real connection to the participants or format anyway.

Other times, it’s a tough, perhaps painful, choice to finally say goodbye to a loyal group you’ve been leading for years. Are there etiquette rules to make the process go smoothly? What do instructors need to know about leaving a class with certainty and grace? Read on to learn how you can help curtail potential awkwardness and anxiety for everyone involved.

How You Leave Sets the Tone

It can be an especially difficult decision to leave a long-standing class if your exit is related to unfortunate circumstances, such as an injury, conflict at the club or a general feeling of burnout. The departure is more comfortable when the reason is a happy one, such as a new baby or job promotion. Regardless of circumstance, though, your exit strategy should be the same: responsible and professional.

“How you leave your class or establish closure from a class affects the participants, management and incoming instructor,” says Patricia Friberg, group fitness manager and West Coast Barre Ambassador at Equinox, Westlake Village, Calif. “The instructor who is leaving sets the tone.”

Frame your departure so it minimizes negativity around how participants process and, ultimately, handle the situation. “An instructor is a powerful influencer of his or her class members,” says Leisl Klaebe, group exercise manager at Virgin Active in Sydney, Australia, and 2017 winner of the prestigious Virgin Star Award. “The members look up to and respect that person.”

Klaebe recommends “owning” your reason for leaving. “If an instructor explains the ‘why’ clearly and well, members will understand and accept, rather than feel bereft, uninformed badly treated,” she says. When members are left in the dark, they may be more likely to make assumptions and complain to management.

But what if your reason for leaving is private or tied to dissatisfaction with management or the club? Choose a less specific, but neutral, explanation for moving on. You could say you are pursuing a more balanced schedule or changing direction with your leadership efforts.

“I would not embellish,” says Ron McPhee, a fitness instructor and master trainer for Barre Above and Tabata Bootcamp in Edmonton, Alberta. “I am careful how much info I share, but I provide enough so they understand.”

The relationship you have with your class might help guide you. When Tasha Edwards, M.S., finally made the call to give up a class she’d been teaching for almost a decade, she knew it would be a shock to her group. “There were gasps and tears,” she recalls. “It just came down to being very real and vulnerable with them as to why I was leaving,” she says. “My students (like me) felt a huge loss because it was more a community than anything,” says Edwards, master trainer, fitness instructor and owner of Hip Healthy Chick in Madison, Ala. “We were all attached to the experience as opposed to just taking the class because it fit in with our schedules.”

Consider that the workout might be secondary to why people actually attend, but realize, also, that you shouldn’t stick with a class just because participants want you to. “I had felt like it was all my responsibility to keep people motivated,” says Edwards. “That was hard to carry.” 

Timing Your Announcement

If you predict that your regular participants might become flustered or upset, you’ll want to break the news at the right time. When is that? Before class or after class? And how far in advance of your actual departure?

The experts in this article agree that at least two weeks’ notice is customary (and might even be a stipulation in your instructor contract). “Before telling participants, who are often friends, I would recommend letting management know first,” says Friberg. “This way, management can help with the emotions that might come up for the members and offer reassurance on finding the best possible replacement.” 

“Most people don’t like change, so that two weeks gives them some time,” says Klaebe. If you can provide participants with even more notice, consider doing so unless you’d prefer to avoid long goodbyes.  

“I gave my students a month’s notice,” says Edwards. “I wanted them to have time to let it sink in.” Edwards used the lead-time to plan a special event. “I made my last class a BIG deal for former and current students and teachers who would be stepping in,” she says. “I did a social media push to invite all of my old students, and there was a photographer.” 

As for whether to make your announcement before or after class, it's a judgement call. “I suggest making the announcement at the top of the class and following up with a great workout that makes them feel good and leaves them with that feeling,” says Klaebe. “Announcing it at the end of the class will ruin the good feeling of the class and leave members open to grouping together to complain and grumble.”

“I have announced at the beginning of class before and it just brings the whole energy down,” says McPhee. He has also tried waiting until the end. “I will adjust my class so as we are finishing our stretch, I will have a couple of free minutes to announce. This gives some time if members want to talk.”

Edwards declared her departure after class and felt the timing was right. “The entire mood shifted,” she says. “None of us would have danced and had fun during class because it was a heavy emotional hit.” 

Both approaches have pros and cons, so consider your group and the style of class. For example, if you feel you need to keep spirits high before an energetic, whoop-and-holler-style workout, announce at the end. On the other hand, saying something before a yoga or mind-body class might give participants an opportunity to quietly reflect on and absorb the news during class. 

Smooth Transition to a New Instructor

Once you’ve let participants know you’ll be leaving, you can focus on helping them transition to an incoming instructor (if the class will be continuing without you).

“Often the members are used to their regular instructor and even a new, good instructor will not be well received, simply because they are not who the members are used to,” says Klaebe, who manages a team of 93 instructors and a timetable of more than 200 classes a week. “If they understand that the old instructor respects the new instructor and makes the new instructor welcome, the transition will be so much smoother for everyone concerned.”

Team teaching is one way to accomplish this. “I wish I had invited other instructors to co-teach with me for that last month and perhaps get feedback from the students,” says Edwards. As it happened, Edwards’ class fizzled out after she left. “The class lost its appeal and has since been moved to another day in another location in the gym,” she says.

Planning a team-taught workout also helps create a sense of occasion around your leaving and a new instructor arriving, allowing members to get to know the new person. If they are already familiar with him or her, you can promote the team teaching as a “launch party” for the incoming instructor, suggests McPhee. This puts an optimally positive spin on the transition.

Such Sweet Sorrow

Saying goodbye is hard, but sometimes it’s necessary. “Do not carry the guilt of disappointing people,” says Edwards. “I stayed a lot longer than I should have because of the sense of responsibility and loyalty I had to the group. I wasn't loyal to myself or my family in the process.” Even as a motivator and leader, you are not responsible for your participants’ perseverance with fitness.

As you exit, you might also worry that participants will easily move on, making it seem that you are quite replaceable. Says Friberg, “It is normal to wonder, ‘Will my members miss me?’ or  ‘Will they love the new instructor more?’ Knowing that these kinds of emotions are normal can help make a clear and healthy transition. We are entitled to feel all of these emotions; it is how we handle them that matters to the community.” 

As you transition away from a beloved class, Friberg suggests thinking about the legacy you want to leave your participants. “For group fitness, it is community, health and positive motivation,” she says. “You want this to continue in your absence, so set the tone for a healthy closure.” 

Notes for a Group Fitness Manager

In addition to assisting an instructor with the details of leaving a class, group fitness managers should also consider how they can contribute to a positive departure. Here are a few ideas from Leisl Klaebe, group exercise manager at Virgin Active in Sydney, Australia.

  • Use club and staff communications to make people aware of the change with positive messaging.
  • Don’t let the instructor leave without an acknowledgement of his or her contribution to your club and the positive effect he or she has had on so many members’ lives. Thanks and kudos are due.
  • If possible, plan a fun, celebratory goodbye for the instructor when it’s his or her last class.
  • Make yourself available to talk through concerns with members.
  • Replace the original instructor with someone of equal or higher caliber.