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December 19, 2022
ASCD Blog

Yes, Teachers Are Talking About “Quiet Quitting”

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Teachers deserve work-life balance. If leaders don’t start creating the conditions to support it, morale will go south—fast. 
Leadership
Yes, Teachers Are Talking About “Quiet Quitting”
Credit: Andrei Ermakov / iStock
Today’s intelligentsia have produced a parade of pithy think pieces on “quiet quitting,” the practice of completing your job duties without going above and beyond. That parade is usually dampened by a stormy gale of qualifying, disputing, and outright feuding over the concept on social media. Despite the arguing, though, it does seem like the internet is experiencing a rare moment of unity in one regard: whatever people have to say about the idea of “quiet quitting,” most people despise the wording. Many point out that it’s inaccurate; if you are meeting just the minimum requirements of your job, you are still doing your job. You’re not quitting at all. Others correctly suggest that it exposes management’s reliance on the unpaid, extra labor employees do, either to distinguish themselves or else for fear of being dismissed. Commentators have also added the term “quiet firing,” in which supervisors lock employees into their positions, with insufficient coaching, raises, or promotions. Start with Why author Simon Sinek recently posted a TikTok video unmasking the hypocrisy of managers who seek “work-life balance” while calling their employees “quiet quitters” for seeking the same thing.  
I’ll throw my own two cents in: I hate the term “quiet quitting” because it implies that one’s job is one’s sole source of identity. Ariana Huffington’s thoughts illustrate this implication: “Quiet quitting isn’t just about quitting on a job, it’s a step toward quitting on life,” she writes.
Clearly your identity cannot revolve around your family, your faith, or your avocations . . . you are your job, I guess. Sorry, jobless people—you don’t have a life. Sorry, menial laborers just trying to feed your families—you’re not doing enough. Sorry, people who want to raise children, travel the world, or seek personal fulfillment outside the office—you’re useless layabouts. 
So, society agrees that “quiet quitting,” as a phrase, is inadequate, but there is little consensus around how to rebrand it. NPR has an exhaustive list of proposals, the cutest of which is “acting your wage,” but the zeitgeist hasn’t latched on to a single replacement. (Something tells me we will not collectively pick up on Gallup’s less-than-zingy term, “employee engagement.”) 
Why am I telling you all of this in an education leadership blog? Because teachers are thinking and talking about this constantly. They’re on TikTok, watching not only the semantic debate over quiet quitting, but also the philosophical one. They’re considering where to draw boundaries between their work and home life. They’re figuring out what the minimum requirements for the job actually are, intent to meet, but perhaps not exceed, them.  

I’ll throw my own two cents in: I hate the term 'quiet quitting' because it implies that one’s job is one’s sole source of identity.

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I don’t say this disparagingly—in fact, I’ve railed against the unrealistic expectations placed on teachers before, and I think we’d all be healthier and happier if we adjusted our attitude toward work. However, if you are a reflective leader, you need to figure out an ethical, genuine, productive response to the “quiet quitting” you’re probably seeing in your building.  

1. Give it a new label. 

Your first step is obvious: don’t call it “quiet quitting,” even if you personally feel that people should extend themselves a bit more than they are. Pick a different, non-pejorative phrase. I like “drawing boundaries” or “finding work-life balance”—terms that don’t suggest the employee is a deadbeat.  

2. Clarify (and frequently repeat) your expectations. 

Then, be crystal clear about what the job expectations are, on the assumption that your employees do, in fact, want to meet them. If you’ve seen Office Space, that seminal meditation on workplace culture, you probably remember the infuriating scene in which Jennifer Aniston’s character, a waitress, is berated by her manager for not sporting enough “pieces of flair.” She explains that she is wearing the exact number of pieces required by the rules, yet this is clearly not good enough for her boss. Most annoyingly, he refuses to tell her how many more pieces she should add, instead comparing her to the model employee who wears double the number and then pressuring her into agreeing that she wants to “express herself” at work. The whole time, the audience is thinking, Just tell her how many more pieces to add! Just say it!   
Well, leaders: just say it, clearly and frequently. Even if your teachers aren’t looking to hustle, to climb, to outshine their peers, they still want to meet your expectations. That’s the whole idea behind work-life balance: being proficient at work and at home. You absolutely should have high standards for conduct, performance, and results; and, what’s more, you can get your employees to meet them. But if you shift the target, if you imply rather than state, and if you disparage their efforts, of course they’ll be exasperated.  
And do everyone the courtesy of avoiding wily, waffling expectations like “Always do your best” or “Bring your heart into it.” Those aren’t related to workplace competencies, and they’re just as bad as Stan the manager forcing a minimum wage waitress to say she wants to express herself through buttons. Your teachers deserve better. State precisely what they should do and what the team is trying to achieve; this will give you a leg to stand on when holding them accountable, and it will give employees a clear set of standards to meet. 

3. Strategically support your young teachers (they’re most likely to “quiet quit”). 

You should also invest time in younger staff members, who, as the same Gallup article points out, are the most apt to disengage at work these days due to feeling dismissed or underdeveloped. Forbes contributor Adrian Gostick advises helping these employees prioritize and showing them gratitude. Especially given the massive turnover ransacking the education industry, focusing on building up young educators is an essential investment.  

4. Set your own “game-changing” boundaries. 

One final thing—and I know this will be hard for many school administrators to hear—why not try setting boundaries for yourself? Look, I’ve been an administrator for nearly a decade, so I know that sometimes work follows you home. I’ve checked my email on Saturday, taken the boss’s call at 5:00 a.m., and interrupted dates with my husband to respond to a work crisis. But honestly, these situations are rare. For most of the year, there is no real need to check email after hours; not once has a situation been made worse because I waited until the next morning to respond. Not a single person has ever made a severe mistake because they didn’t hear back from me at 11:30 p.m. Do people notice that I don’t respond to emails at night? Yes. Do they comment on it? Yes—in an admiring tone! Teachers and administrators alike are astonished that I’ve set this simple boundary.  
Then, too, I have decided that not every miniscule problem brought to my attention needs to be my problem. Maybe you’ve heard of the “monkey on the back” concept. It changed the way I viewed productive leadership and made me confident to push problem-solving back into the hands of the complainants. Got a problem with the wording on that document? Go in and change it! Want more pictures on the website? Take and post them! Hate the way the office looks? Go find some décor! Finding the line between achieving serious results and constantly trying to please everyone has been a game changer, and it’s probably my most important boundary.  

Beyond the Buzzword(s)

When you hear whispers of “quiet quitting,” don’t be afraid. Correct the phrasing—in your head or otherwise—and move on. In the end, teachers who honor their work expectations and their personal boundaries might just come to school more content, stable, and satisfied.

Elizabeth Dampf is the director of professional learning at Round Lake Area Schools 116 in the Chicago area.

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