For the past five years or so of my 11-year teaching career, I have made an intentional effort to take stock of my relationship with the profession before walking back into the classroom for another year. The intention is always the same – to ensure that I am going back with the same sense of purpose I had when I first started out. In those years, I was hungry to get into just one classroom, any classroom, to prove my mettle. As the years have advanced, however, I have had to be more mindful of how the work affects me and what toll it has on my overall wellbeing. I am pleased to say that in each of the past five years, my answer to the question, “Are you coming back?” has been yes, but I would be lying if I did not admit that for the past two years, it has taken me a lot more effort to find that yes. I know I am not alone.
The crippling shortage of teachers across the nation is evidence enough that there are plenty of people for whom yes has been a bridge too far. For the rest of us, I fear there are many for whom the yes was only out of necessity. If they could find any other meaningful work that allowed them to get out from under the weight of long hours, low pay, surgical attacks from political groups, vitriolic slander from a public riled into a frenzy by said political groups, and a bureaucracy that sits on its hands and does little or nothing about these problems, they would. But sadly many cannot, usually for reasons of privilege (or lack thereof), such as the crushing weight of student debt, fear of the loss of healthcare, not enough savings to float a transition, or even the uncertainty of transition due to the inherent prejudice people of color face in the hiring process.
It is because of this that I have seen discussion of the wider phenomenon known as “quiet quitting” start to make its way around public school educator circles. For the uninitiated, quiet quitting is essentially a euphemism for “refusing to go beyond what one is paid to do.” I, for one, am a fan of the concept because I have long said that it should be the status quo. We as a society should be collectively repulsed by the idea of any power structure—be it a corporation or a public education bureaucracy—leveraging fear and emotion to wring more out of workers than it has rightfully paid for.
However, I feel that quiet quitting needs to be discussed in a little more depth for the educational setting because public education exists in a different realm. You see, I believe there are essentially two modalities of being in this life: the relational and the transactional. As human beings we are naturally relational; there is evidence of that all over the place, but we unfortunately spend most of our time treating life as a series of transactions. At certain times this is totally acceptable. If I am contracted out as a computer programmer who is asked for a certain amount of output in exchange for a certain amount of pay, it is perfectly acceptable for me to produce said output, to collect my wages, and to move on.
But anyone who has been inside a public school classroom (or any classroom) and truly understands what it means to educate realizes education is a business that is completely built on the relational. This means that if educators really want to utilize the power of “no,” to claw back their inner peace, to regain their work life balance, then a concerted effort needs to be made to take stock of the relationship we have with this machine and set some healthy relationship boundaries.
In order to set those boundaries, it is important for educators first to define clearly the complicated layers of the relationship that we have to the institution of education. By that I mean we have to define clearly how we relate to the job itself, how we relate to (or define) ourselves within the job, and how we relate to the power structures that run the profession. The first two steps, relating to the job and defining ourselves within the job, are the most difficult because they are two concepts that tend to become hopelessly entangled with one another.
Two of the pillars public education is built upon are that the public education system is the great equalizing bulwark that stands in the breach against children being consigned to a life of poverty and crime, and that teaching is a sacred and heroic calling that nearly completely defines who we are as people. I am here to tell you that this is all a lie.
First, the evidence is spotty at best that public education in its current form does anything close to achieving equitable outcomes for all the people it purports to serve, and second, the evidence is glaring that not only does the system do little to alleviate these problems, but in some cases it also contributes to them. (Google the school-to-prison pipeline to see what I mean.) In order to propagate these lies, the system has to have people who are willing to serve the narrative, and since time immemorial, the playbook for finding and retaining those people has been the exact same.
To keep people around who are willing to accept the aforementioned conditions, both for themselves and for the population that they serve, the game plan has always been to wink and to nod at the problems, produce small changes that do not alter the system in any meaningful way, profess a profound inability to do anything to make the needed systemic changes, and then lay the sacred hero narrative on nice and thick. This, in no uncertain terms, is an abusive relationship, and as teachers, we can do ourselves a world of good by simply recognizing this basic fact. It is okay to state that teaching is a calling or that you feel a sense of sacred purpose in the classroom, but please remember that it is, first and foremost, a job.
One thing that helps me define my relationship with teaching is that I have separated how I talk about myself within the scope of the profession. These days, I refer to myself as an educator to the wider world. I only refer to myself as a teacher when I am actually in my school building on contract hours. The subtle difference here is in defining who I am versus what I do. I can educate anywhere (and often do); I teach when I am being paid to teach. Doing this allows me to operate a sort of Venn Diagram where if what I am being asked to do as a teacher aligns with my calling as an educator, I do it. If it does not, then I usually say no. The difference between this and the hard boundaries of the quiet quitting movement is that I can allow for the relational aspects of the job that I really love, such as coaching or attending after-school functions, without feeling a sense of obligation or guilt.
The third necessary step in creating these relationship boundaries is to define clearly how we as educators relate to the system itself, which means having clear eyes about how the system sees us. When I was entering the profession at the height of the fallout from the 2008 housing market collapse, there were over a hundred applicants for every open position in the system. At the time, the standard reply to any discontent was that the discontented could be replaced in a day. The current situation, where there are over a hundred openings and practically no applicants, still seems to produce roughly the same response. The necessary systemic changes are mostly ignored, and school systems are openly advertising that they are not only happy to take any warm body for a classroom, no matter how grossly unqualified, but they are also willing to move mountains in terms of rules and policy to do so. (As a side note, I can guarantee they will be happy to utilize any success stories from that initiative as ammunition to quell any future discontent.)
In each case, the systemic narrative is loud and clear – classroom teachers are expendable. It is evident in teacher pay, in the demands on their time, in the line items of budgets that always seem to have money for the central office but not enough for supplements or adequate supplies, and especially in the fact that the hero narrative magically melts away whenever one of those heroes has the guts to demand some level of equity or justice. When your relationship partner is not showing you respect, you have to set boundaries.
So what do those boundaries look like? Unfortunately, that definition is not universal, because what some are willing and able to accept as the terms of their relationship with the profession and the system are largely based, unfortunately, on individual circumstances and privilege. For instance, there are those who have skills that easily translate to quitting and finding another job. Still others may have financial resources readily available to them that allow them the freedom to walk away whenever they wish. Some, like myself, have the privilege of receiving minimal pushback and reprisal for refusing extra assignments, not working past contract hours, or challenging bad policy. This takes an enormous strain off of me but I have noticed that my female colleagues are not often treated the same. I’m allowed to make no a full sentence, they’re barely allowed to utter the word. So, different people can and will have different definitions of what their individual boundaries entail.
What is absolutely necessary for educators to be able to thrive, however, is universal recognition that the relationship is broken and that each individual must find and unequivocally set those essential boundaries. Self-care is a start, but self-care is too often a salve that is used in place of demanding actual systemic change. For those educators for whom “yes” is becoming harder and harder to find at the end of each passing year, the demand simply must be met that the relationship become less transactional, less exploitative, and more appreciative of the unique souls that hold the system together.