• Mike Vachow


The conversation surrounding "quiet quitting," the revolt against hustle culture and more egregious versions of employee manipulation has brought about a reckoning for me with my personal and professional attitudes about work. It's a reckoning that's been out there on the very near horizon for about 10 years as it's closely tied to my experiences as a lifelong independent school employee, and as an "infant Boomer" who grew up in small town Midwest.

My attitudes about work fit pretty much every generational, regional and professional stereotype you might imagine from the bio above. A huge portion of my self-concept is centered on work and status within the workplace. Some of the happiest periods of my life were when I was working hardest, especially when I was a young classroom teacher and coach. Throughout the 90s, my wife and I worked at the Isidore Newman School, a place we adored, and had a large cohort of similar age colleagues who became close friends. We lived a block from school, and when we weren't leading the activities we were responsible for, we were supporting our colleagues: judging Lincoln-Douglas rounds, taking colleagues' sections when they were out (the school used subs only for long-term absences), keeping the volleyball scorebook, attending student performances, chaperoning dances, going on class trips, providing extra help, opening up the computer lab for an hour or two on a Saturday for kids to work on the essays we'd assigned. When we weren't doing these things, we were hanging out with our teacher friends and talking about school. And, for my professional aspirations, this approach worked. I soon found myself moving up the org chart.

The school made it practically possible for me to experience all of this as joyful. Middle and high school teachers taught 4 sections, and in 11 years at the school, I never had more than 18 students in a section, each as mission-appropriate as the best efforts of my admission colleagues could discern. As a teacher and coach, I never lacked for the resources I needed, and the school helped pay for our graduate degrees. Our compensation was augmented by school-owned housing for which we paid a laughably small, token rent. In 3 years, we were able to save enough to buy a house. The mission and culture of the school made up the larger reason. Teachers had very high expectations for the kids and similarly high expectations for the work they were willing to do to help students meet those goals. I had enormous respect for my colleagues, on average, and wanted to live up to their example and to help them whenever I could.

Fast forward, then, to the middle years of my first headship, around 2010, when I began encountering ideas about work very different from my own: the young teachers who had "other plans" and were "so sad" they couldn't attend the Saturday admission open house, or wanted to take a personal day the day before spring break, or were "so honored to be asked" but declined the invitation to lead a task force. Some of these new dynamics felt like the conversation about labor in public schools--each activity or additional hour of work assigned a dollar value, each employee an independent contractor with a "scope of work" outside of which negotiations would be needed to establish a new contract. These young employees viewed the "other duties as assigned" portion of the contract, the part that had seemed like opportunity for me, as a slippery slope to abusive labor practices or at least as being in competition with aspects of their lives to which they attributed equal or greater value.

I began being clearer about job expectations, enumerating them in letters of appointment, laying them out in a calendar that accompanied said letter, and I fought harder for improved compensation and benefits, but clearly something more was needed if I hoped to achieve the balance of support and inspiration that would help faculty and staff feel empowered. A big part of that was a sober look at my own perspective and at the way that "work" had accumulated for teachers over the years. By that point, I had been out of the classroom for 5 years, a period when teachers had been asked to learn a great number of new digital tools for instruction, management, and, increasingly, for the marketing of the school. It was also clear that managing parent energy was absorbing much more of their time and intellectual and emotional energy. I also forced myself to look closely at what I'd sacrificed in idolizing work. A large part of this was watching my own children finish college and move into the professional workforce. Both are clearly "team players" in their endeavors and speak frequently about their admiration for colleagues, but they also have much richer lives outside the workplace and make time for stewarding those relationships and cultivating new connections. As a head of school, I had a sophisticated and growing network of relationships, all for the support of the school. Outside of school, however, I had a small and diminishing network. It was clear that a big part of promoting a healthy, collaborative school work culture was going to be getting out of my own judgmental way.

There may be endeavors where a "quiet quitting" disposition toward work can make for smooth functioning. I am convinced that education is not one of them, is in fact antithetical to the excellence that defines independent schools. Good schools rely on collaboration, improvisation, on belief in and commitment to mission. In its most mundane form, it's evident in the 5th grade teacher intervening in the taunting he encounters while walking through 3rd grade recess. In its more substantive form, it's the department chairs organizing a yearlong re-examination of the school's AP course offerings, to include the very existence of the curriculum. Building this kind of culture is partly practical; no amount of proselytizing or cheerleading from school leaders can overcome a workload they've allowed to become extortionate over time. School leaders must also inspire faculty and staff through clarity in expectations, by creating an emotionally safe space for new ideas, and through instigating and modeling meaningful collaboration, in short, exactly what good teachers build in their classrooms.

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