Teaching Profession

Can Teachers ‘Quiet Quit?’

By Elizabeth Heubeck — October 05, 2022 7 min read
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“Quiet quitting” has been riling some corners of the business world lately. But below the surface of the term and images it may evoke of burned out—or, depending on your point of view, entitled—employees, the actual act of quiet quitting is not particularly new. Countless employees from multiple industries have long chosen to perform the duties that their job requires—and nothing more. But, generally speaking, that’s not how teachers work.

Teachers are known for going above and beyond expectations—giving of themselves, their time, and even their own money. It’s not unusual for teachers to skip going to the bathroom or eating lunch during the school day. They devote chunks of their evenings and weekends to lesson planning, grading, and responding to student needs and parent inquiries. They also regularly buy supplies to outfit their classrooms—in a 2021 member survey from the Association of American Educators, around 32 percent of respondents said they spent between $500 and $700 on out-of-pocket expenses for their classrooms annually; nearly 9 percent spent $1,000 or more.

“Look at how much teachers spend out of their pocket,” said Colin Sharkey, executive director of of the association. “They do the same thing with their heart.”

But the longevity and fairness of teachers’ commitment-at-all-costs attitude has come into question. Teachers’ job satisfaction levels have plummeted to all-time lows, according to the Merrimack College Teacher Survey conducted earlier this year by the EdWeek Research Center. The same survey found that 44 percent of teachers said they’re likely to quit and find a different job within the next two years.

So far, a mass exodus of teachers has not materialized, even as individual schools and districts have had to deal with high turnover and staff shortages. In a nationwide EdWeek Research Center survey from July 27 through Aug. 8, district and school leaders reported that a median of 7 percent of teachers had resigned or retired within the past year. But just because teachers haven’t officially quit doesn’t mean they are satisfied or might not be looking for ways to manage their work-related stress.

“I think it’s still coming,” Sharkey said, referring to an uptick in teacher resignations. “If you’re exhausting the people who are staying, you’re just buying some time.”

The “quiet quitting” trend—made viral this summer by TikTok videos with tips on how to keep your job from taking over your life—has gotten tons of attention across industries, especially as labor markets continue to challenge employers. In schools—especially those with unionized teachers—quiet quitting may sound a lot like the “work to rule” concept when employees stick to official working rules and hours exactly to the letter.

Education Week talked to some educators about job-related frustrations that could lead to negative behaviors associated with quiet quitting, as well as practical solutions that include boundary setting, proactive communication aimed at problem solving, and a deliberate emphasis on building a positive work culture.

Setting boundaries

Michelle C. Faust is a literacy coach at Carolina Springs Elementary in Lexington, South Carolina, a transition she made this year after spending over a dozen years as a classroom teacher. When she hears the term “quiet quitting,” Faust says she immediately thinks about setting boundaries—a need she saw escalate during the pandemic.

“Everything was an emergency: a phone call about quarantining, coming up with emergency plans,” Faust said. “There was such a heightened sense of urgency.”

Adding to the intensity of the situation was a near-constant barrage of emails from parents, whom Faust says often expected immediate responses—despite frequent lack of reciprocation when she sent messages home. Faust recalls one such email that forced her to set some boundaries.

She had taken a personal day for a doctor’s appointment when a parent emailed her at 5 a.m. requesting a meeting to discuss a conflict between her child and another student. “Finally I was like: No, I don’t need to answer this email immediately,” Faust said. She then instituted a “24-hour rule” in which she’d give herself that amount of time to respond to parents’ emails that were not urgent.

And rather than respond to parent emails about issues such as changes to student transportation and early dismissals, she began reminding parents to follow school protocols and contact the main office with those messages.

The self-imposed boundary-setting that Faust describes has been labeled a hallmark of quiet quitting, although some HR professionals see it simply as common sense behavior.

“Quiet quitting is what some managers choose to call employees setting healthy boundaries in their workplace … The truth is, employees are starting to set and protect their boundaries at work around work-life balance and how they want to be treated at work. That’s all,” wrote global recruiter Elena Stefanopol in Forbes.com.

Boundary-setting notwithstanding, Faust eventually began looking for an opportunity outside of classroom teaching that would allow her to grow professionally and continue to make a positive impact on students. Now, as a literacy coach, she partners with teachers, sharing best practices and acting as what she describes as a “think” partner.

Acknowledging a need for help

For countless teachers like Jessica Saum, it’s hard to imagine working strictly within designated hours—behavior associated with quiet quitting.

“Change isn’t just made between 7:50 a.m. and 3 in the afternoon,” said Saum, an special education teacher at Stagecoach Elementary School in Cabot, Ark.

Saum accepts that getting to her classroom earlier than when the school day officially begins and staying later to wrap things up and prepare for the next day is part of her job. Even when she’s not physically present at her job, it’s often still with her. “It’s hard to shut off work when I leave,” Saum said.

But recently, when she had too few paraeducators for students in her classroom, she recognized that she needed to speak up. Her classroom consists of students from various grades who leave the room at different times throughout the day—and require adult supervision.

“I simply did not have the staff to get all my students where they needed to go,” Saum said.

The solution proved to be a matter of asking colleagues to help with the logistical challenges she was facing. But Saum—like so many teachers—wasn’t accustomed to asking for help.

“It took me admitting: I can’t do this. I’m overwhelmed,” said Saum. “It’s hard to say that. As educators, we don’t want to admit when we can’t.”

Saum acknowledges the role of improved communication in solving the problem. “A lot of times, our administrators are willing and want to help us, but they don’t know what we need,” she said. “So much of it feels like a breakdown in communication.”

Building a positive work culture from the top

Teachers finding the courage to ask for help is one thing; administrators hearing them is another. It’s something that Drew Eichelberger, superintendent of Bethany Public Schools in Bethany, Okla., says he makes a priority.

“We practice listening until there is dead silence,” he said of his leadership team. “So a teacher or parent might come in with a concern. We listen, take notes, do whatever we can to make the person feel heard. If there is a reason why we have to do what we do, we tell them. If it is something we can change, we change it.”

Eichelberger describes this as part of the culture he strives to instill in the leadership throughout his district.

“When I hire, I am looking for people who believe in the importance of building relationships with students, teachers, staff, parents, and community,” he said.

It starts with seemingly small actions that leave big impressions.

For instance, each of the district’s principals stands in front of their respective schools every morning to greet students and staff with a smile, a knuckle bump, and some type of affirmation: I like your hair, nice shoes, thanks for being here, great job in the game last night, etc.

Eichelberger credits his emphasis on relationship building for the high retention rate among his staff, which he says typically runs between 95 percent and 97 percent.

Said Eichelberger: “People will run through brick walls for people they believe care for them, have their best interests at heart, will listen and will go to bat for them.”

A version of this article appeared in the October 19, 2022 edition of Education Week as Can Teachers ‘Quiet Quit?’ Educators Talk About Setting Boundaries at Work

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