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5 Ways Teachers Can Set Boundaries

This blog post is based on a podcast I did on setting boundaries. You can listen to it here.

Today’s topic, boundaries, is extremely important considering the mounting stress teachers are under as the school year resumes in the midst of a global pandemic. Whether you’re teaching face-to-face, remotely, or in a hybrid model, the demands are unlike anything I have experienced in my 18 years in the classroom. If you’re a new teacher and you have nothing else to compare it to, I’m sure you are wondering what you’ve walked into.

The expectations and uncertainty of what the future holds for this school year have not only caused disruptions to work-life balance, but to the physical and mental health of teachers. Fearing for your safety unfortunately is not a new thing in education - only the threat now isn’t just an active shooter or other acts of violence, but not having the necessary PPE or social distancing to protect yourself during the day and to avoid potentially bringing COVID home to your loved ones.

Aside from health concerns, the technology transition that most schools are undergoing is a source of overwhelm in itself. Even if you are back in a physical classroom, the move to put resources online and teach students how to use technology to complete and submit work - basically making things as touch-less and paperless as possible - is no easy feat, six feet apart and wearing a mask. Everyone has a different level of comfort with implementing technology, appearing on camera, and adapting their teaching style and resources for a digital format. If it feels like too much, it’s because it is. No one, I assure you, ever signed up for this.

Worst of all, this is a long haul situation. It’s not going away next month, next semester, and who knows, maybe not even next year. It’s not the normal that we want - but it’s the normal that we have.

Which leads to our discussion about boundaries. The line in the sand. A brick wall, if you prefer. The point before the breaking point. Boundaries are how you protect your family, your health, and your soul. It’s a topic I discuss in The Thrive Guide: Beginning a Teaching Career in Uncertain Times, which you can download at this link. Creating boundaries is the only way to sustain a teaching career for the long term. It’s you, as an intelligent, worthy individual, recognizing the necessity of a division between work and home.

Being a first year teacher is overwhelming - pandemic or not - but no teacher of any experience level is meant to work themselves into physical and emotional exhaustion. As I like to say, you are more than a teacher, and you deserve to set limits on how you spend your time outside of school. Setting boundaries will save your career before it starts. 

But no one can set those boundaries but yourself. How long to stay after school, when to stop responding to emails for the day, the amount of time to spend writing lessons, grading papers, or troubleshooting technology. That’s for you to decide. And believe me when I say I know it’s hard, because I have struggled saying no and reducing the blur between my work life and home life. However, a saying that I have come to abide by is “What you allow, will continue.” You have to speak up for your needs as a human being, or no one else will. And you are allowed to have needs and limits - even in a pandemic.

One of the reasons why setting boundaries is so hard - is because teaching is a profession dominated by women. As women, we often feel it our duty to be the nurturers, to sacrifice our time and needs for the safety and security of others. I refer to this as the “martyr mentality” and the “busy badge.” Maybe you’ve felt that you’re not good enough unless you’re giving all you’ve got until you have nothing left. I couldn’t disagree more. No career should lead to the destruction of your health, family, and happiness. Not even the noble pursuit of teaching. Setting boundaries is not selfish - in fact, it’s more selfish to run yourself into the ground because you feel you need to do it all. Who will you be, what will have left to give others, if you’re burnt out and not able to serve anyone? And a very real point to consider, especially in the age of COVID19, is the value of your life. I recently wrote a blog post about this for NNSTOY, titled “You Are Not Essential,” that addresses this topic.

But let’s go back to that “martyr mentality” and “busy badge.” We hold on to those with an iron grip in education, and they will keep you from sticking to your boundaries every time. It comes down to confronting your own ego. You alone are not meant to save the world, do everything, or make all the trains run on time. The issues that abound in education prior to and in the midst of COVID19 were created by many longstanding problems out of your control. We can all do our part - but we have to recognize our own frailty as human beings. Others have created issues and look to you to clean up a mess you did not create. And often, what’s being asked of you isn’t necessary or could be approached in another way. If public education is to succeed, there needs to be systemic change, but internal change from teachers as well. It starts with creating boundaries. Not because you are lazy. Not because you don’t care. But because you recognize your worth as a human being who was made not only for service to others but to experience peace and joy - even in a pandemic.

I'm sure even if you agree with me, you’re thinking, “Okay, but how do I get there? How do I make boundaries?” Learning to create and stand by boundaries is a growth process. You will cave and have to start over. You’ll be wracked by guilt. But ultimately, you will gain self esteem, confidence, and be an even better teacher than you ever could have dreamed of being because you will have the energy to focus on the things that matter - in your classroom and in your life. Here are five ways to get started with setting boundaries today.

1. Make lists and prioritize your tasks.

Focus on completing the things that are due first and what is most important for student learning. The popular Steven Covey quote, “The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing” applies here. There’s a lot being thrown at you to do right now - but you know as well as I do, as a talented, well educated professional, what is most important for your students to experience this school year. When faced with an onslaught of tasks, choose the things that are the must dos and most important dos. There’s no doubt in my mind you have the intelligence and intuitiveness to find them.

2. Be intentional with how you spend your time.

This has become even more difficult with our need to use technology for teaching and to keep updated on an ever changing situation, but by being intentional , you can be, well, intentional. If you have things that you need to finish, close the door, silence your phone, and get to work. This often means being firm about not being interrupted, especially at home, but if the intention is to create more time with your family and you are upfront with that, the ones that love and truly care about you will get on board. It may mean having to change your habits, but think of it as exchanging one habit for a better one. You'll feel better when you can cross things off your list.

3. Choose certain days to complete necessary tasks.

Make one day your day to stay late to plan lessons or upload assignments for the upcoming week, instead of doing it at the last minute or staying after school each day. Use a calendar to schedule your times for when you will work on these things so you have a visual reminder to keep you accountable. What if that doesn’t give you enough time to get everything finished? Go back to number one - prioritize what matters most to student learning. The concessions you may have to make are worth the peace you gain.

4. Have a time where you "turn off" school for the day - and stick to it.

I know - this year that’s like asking for the sun not to rise. But if you’re going to make it to June, it’s probably the most important thing you do. Even if you feel you must bring work from school home, set a time where work will stop and life for the evening begins. You and your family need to have time to connect and prepare for the following day, with no interference from work. It will be there tomorrow waiting for you - but this moment with your family will not.

Your "turn off" time also includes responding to emails and parent communication. Emergencies happen, and parents are just as stressed as teachers regarding the changes to education, but your time as an adult, spouse, and parent yourself needs to be respected outside of school. Leave correspondence about work and student issues to the hours you are at school or holding “office hours” if teaching remotely.

5. Find or keep your hobbies and activities you enjoy that are not school related.

Don’t let those go by the wayside in spite of everything that’s going on. Being a well-rounded person will make you a happier, healthier human being, not to mention teacher. With the emotional distress that we are under from this crisis, they are necessary for maintaining your mental health. Work out, learn how to paint, have a Zoom meet up with friends - the endorphins gained from having fun will only help you with the work ahead.

Before I close, I feel I need to address the act of saying “No,” because in order to set and maintain boundaries, you’re going to have to do this, and not everyone will like and respect that. I’ve been there, and it doesn’t feel good to be looked down on. It requires a level of bravery that didn’t come easy for me. Teacher guilt is a real thing. You can be giving your all to the point of exhaustion and feel as if you aren't doing enough. Being asked to be on a committee or to take on another responsibility may feel important while at the same time like one more thing on an already full plate. You need to do what's fair for yourself and your family at all times. Not everyone is going to have this mindset, but not everyone is you. More people need models of healthy boundaries, and you can be that person by speaking up for yourself. If you need a script for something to say when you know you need to say no, you can use this:  

"With my other commitments, I cannot give that my full attention right now. That is something I would be interested in doing at another time. Please keep me in mind for the future." (Only say the last two sentences if that is true.)

I’ll leave you with this. Another one of my favorite quotes is "every day you teach others how to treat you." Teach others now that your "yes" is valuable. The pandemic has forced us all to look at the value of life differently. Use this moment to establish boundaries that will sustain you the rest of this season of education and beyond. The teaching profession needs your talents just as much as it needs you to be healthy and whole.


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