Quiet Quitting: My Experience
Mental illness cut short my beloved teaching career, but no one wants to talk about how “involuntary quiet quitting” affects professionals like me
Last year a new phrase, quiet quitting, emerged from TikTok and quickly spread to mainstream media. As with many viral expressions, its meaning is subject to evolving interpretations but, as I understand, quiet quitting involves people setting limits on the parameters of work, resisting being married to their job.
They clock in, clock out, check emails only from 9 to 5 and meet expectations without going "above and beyond." It's a very different mindset than the one I experienced in my professional life, but I admire the pushback. Unfortunately, there is no opportunity for me to adapt any quiet quitting behaviors for one obvious reason: I'm not working.
It's not that I retired. Technically, that remains a few years off. Instead, I'm in a nebulous in-between realm.
It's not that I retired. Technically, that remains a few years off. Instead, I'm in a nebulous in-between realm. I stopped showing up for my paid job six years ago. I was there on one Friday; on the following Monday, I wasn't. For nine months, all my desk ornaments and personal belongings remained in my office until I finally arranged for building access to clear out my space one evening after everyone had gone home. I suppose I have my own definition of quiet quitting.
I spent my career as an educator, first as a special education teacher, then as an elementary classroom teacher. When I moved to a rural area where they didn't need teachers, I applied for and got the only position available: principal.
I didn't fit the cookie cutter version of an administrator. I couldn't stay put in my office. I missed working directly with kids so I'd grab a handful of picture books and plant myself in a classroom, reading whichever book the class voted on.
An Unorthodox First Day
After my first day at one school, word got around to parents that Mr. Walters climbed to the top of the spider web playground apparatus at recess. It wasn't a safety check or a rescue. I just wanted to take in the view and connect with other climbers.
I loved my job. I had the luxury of giving "problem" kids extra attention when teachers needed a break. "Why are they laughing when they're in the principal's office?" one staff member asked. I contend that some of the best lessons are learned as clear guidelines are generously sprinkled with humor.
I was guilty of overworking. It was hard to shut things off. Entire workdays passed without crossing off anything on my to-do list. Little emergencies were everywhere. People were always asking, "Do you have a sec?" They may not have known how to tell time. I spent evenings and weekends slogging through the administrative tasks.
Early in my career, an experienced teacher took me aside and told me I was working too hard. I needed balance or I would burn out. I dismissed his advice. I thought he was coasting to retirement. If I set limits, it would compromise my passion.
When I was younger, I remember news blurbs about celebrities hospitalized for "exhaustion." I wondered why only famous people got that as a diagnosis. Why was I never screened for that? Whether a euphemism for an addiction issue or a label to avoid the stigma from a mental health condition, people seemed to shrug and wish them well.
My Unraveling Begins
Then in 2014, an unexpected tragedy led to my rapid unraveling, so many burdens and dark thoughts no longer kept in check. I was suicidal. An ER doctor involuntarily committed me to a psychiatric ward. I pressed for early discharge and lied about my mood improving. I was out in nine days and back at work the next day.
When I told my psychiatrist I was worried about returning to work in January, he said, "That won't be happening." It didn't and it hasn't.
I would carry on. I would continue sharing my love of books. I would resume my image as the beloved principal. I gave everything 110% again, A+ for effort, but I felt diminished. Once my anxiety and depression had been exposed, I couldn't so easily contain them.
In September 2017, only a month into a new school year, I found myself back in the psychiatric ward. It had been a start-up more stressful than any other, with a severe teacher shortage that wore down staff, parents and students. I eventually got the school to where we could go forward. Then I collapsed.
My hospital stay was longer. I received new diagnoses. When I told my psychiatrist I was worried about returning to work in January, he said, "That won't be happening." It didn't and it hasn't.
After years of hospital admissions, treatments and medication adjustments, my mood feels within normal range, my anxiety mostly in check. But then I get a reality check when the slightest hiccup comes to the highly structured schedule I've created or I'm blindsided by crushing depression that comes without any obvious antecedent.
Psychologically, my plate is full. But it's a paper plate, one of those floppy ones that won't support a scoop of potato salad, just some grapes and a few chips so long as everything is spread out evenly. To be a principal, I'd need a hardy plastic plate, the kind kindergartners toss as a Frisbee or use as a makeshift sand scooper.
Dreams of School
I continue to have school dreams once or twice a week. They're exhausting and humiliating. Every one of them involves a crisis I'm tasked with solving. The dreams go on and on, the problems worsen. I awaken, feeling a sense of failure.
My career didn't end so much as it piffled away.
Back when I was a teacher, the school district held a tea each spring to honor staff members who were retiring. It was a chance to witness hard-working professionals feted for all they'd accomplished and to listen to their hopes and dreams for their next chapters. The event always heartened and inspired me.
My career didn't end so much as it piffled away.
There was always a program listing each retiree and I felt a sense of sadness for the ones who weren't attending. They weren't being modest, choosing to go out quietly. There was no school typed after their names; instead, in parentheses, a simple notation: "leave of absence." These were people whose careers had already ended, their final months or years of employment spent on disability.
I remember feeling sympathy, mustering empathy, ruing the fact their careers didn't get to end on their terms. No proper sendoff, no closure. How do they bundle up 30 years of working in schools and craft a future involving wellness, hope and new adventures? Raised to have a strong work ethic, how do they shake the disappointment and guilt?
This kind of involuntary quiet quitting doesn't garner headlines. It's an old-school version, the kind we remain hush-hush about. It's a kind of quiet that still needs a voice.