Way back in 2012, long before the word “pandemic” was a household word, I asked the following question on my Facebook page:
Would you advise a young person considering a career in teaching to forge ahead or choose a different path?
The responses were heartbreaking and sadly predictable. Many teachers talked about how they love the kids and love teaching, but that the profession has changed so much that they would not recommend teaching as a career. Constant stress, limited time for family, politics, paperwork, testing low pay, and a general disrespect for teachers were all frequently mentioned.
And this was all before teachers had to risk their health in socially distanced classrooms and/or devote themselves to learning the technology required for teaching remotely.
As I am sure you know, learning to love yourself and respect yourself runs right down the middle of self-care. As you get better at appreciating and respecting yourself, it becomes increasingly difficult to work in an environment where you are both unappreciated and disrespected. You may start to realize how much you have been taken advantage of. “Do it for the kids” may no longer be enough to justify the huge sacrifices you are making.
It would be wonderful if those in power would give you the salary, resources, autonomy, and respect you need to do your job happily and effectively, but we all know that is not happening anytime soon. Still, there is one thing you can do to make your life as an educator more balanced and less stressful. You can set boundaries.
Appropriate boundaries are powerful. They can give you back your time, your energy, and your emotional health. Here is how to set some of your own.
Identify the Problem Areas
You know that you are overwhelmed and overworked, emotionally drained, and exhausted. But specifically, why? Spend a few minutes exploring what exactly is making you feel this way. Consider:
- Extra work you volunteered for that is beyond what is in your contract.
- Extra work that has been given to you beyond what is in your contract.
- Extra work you do to make things cute, or special, or perfect.
- Extra work you do because you are worried about what other people will think and say if you don’t do that work.
- People who regularly disrespect you and your professional expertise.
- People who disrespect your time.
- People who take a toll on your emotional well-being for any reason.
- Your own thoughts about what makes you a “good teacher.”
- Your own thoughts about how much is enough.
Look at the list you made and see if there is anything you can decrease or eliminate. Go for the low-hanging fruit first. There may be some things that you can tweak or stop doing without a lot of friction. Every little thing you manage to cut out gives you a little more time and a little less stress. You don’t have to make drastic changes (although you certainly can!)
Here is a little inspiration from Deborah, a 2nd-grade teacher who has made some significant changes:
I have done a few things to help me. I stopped volunteering for everything, and I stopped working for free. I work my contract hours only. Of course, things don’t get done, but I no longer care. I teach and do my necessary paperwork. ….They learn because I love them, not because I created a cute project. I keep things as basic and simple as possible…no fluff…nothing fancy or extra. When I stopped killing myself for this job, I was happier and that reflected in my classroom. Happy teacher, happy kids…. I’m still highly effective because it turns out I am an amazing teacher.
I love that Deborah acknowledges that not everything gets done. But she also knows she is a better teacher because she stopped killing herself for the job. That term, “killing herself” may sound like hyperbole…but is it really? Many of us know teachers who have developed life-threatening illnesses from giving everything they had to their careers…and that was before COVID. Your emotional and physical health matter. Please take them seriously.
Set Those Boundaries
Set reasonable boundaries about your work life, follow them, and expect other people to follow them too. Here are some boundaries to consider:
- I go home at 4:00 every day.
- I don’t take work home with me.
- I don’t volunteer for extra work (coaching, leading after school groups, serving on boards or task forces, etc.)
- I don’t work over the weekend.
- I don’t answer work emails in the evenings or on the weekend.
- I get at least 7 hours of sleep each night.
If doing these things feels impossible, just pick one. Tweak it if you need to. Maybe never bringing work home is too big a leap. But could you not bring work home on Tuesdays and Thursdays? Start small and work your way up.
If you are setting a new boundary that will significantly affect other people, consider implementing it at the start of the month or when starting up after a break. People are usually not as surprised when changes are made at these times.
Two cautionary notes:
First, don’t apologize. In fact, don’t even explain why you are setting the boundary. You do not owe anyone an explanation about how you are using your off-the-clock time. You can say in a class newsletter, “Starting on Friday, I will no longer be responding to emails after 4:00 or on the weekends.” You don’t need to explain why. Ever.
Second, on a similar vein, avoid oversharing. Parents don’t need to know that you are no longer taking work home with you. Similarly, it might be better if your administration didn’t know that you have decided you will no longer volunteer for extra work. No need to make an announcement, send a group email, or post a TikToK expressing your new boundary with a sassy dance. Just to say no to the “opportunities” as they come up. Implement a “Need to Know” policy about what you choose to share.
When you are at school and within your contracted hours, whether with you are with your students, at a staff meeting, or planning lessons, yes, for sure, give it 110%. Be the best teacher you can be. I am in no way saying that you should give up on being the amazing teacher that you are. That said, there is no reason to feel guilty for putting yourself or your family before your students outside your contracted hours.
As Deborah said in the quote above, if you are happier, less stressed, and more rested, you will be a better teacher. You will, in fact, be the emotionally healthy teacher your students need and deserve, which is infinitely better than an exhausted shell of a human being with a fake smile and a stack of corrected papers.
Further, if you set healthy boundaries and take care of yourself, you are more likely to stay in the teaching profession, making a positive impact on thousands of children’s lives rather than burning out, quitting, and going into real estate.
Setting appropriate boundaries does not have to be something that you feel ashamed of. It doesn’t make you less of a teacher.
It is true that there are things that won’t get done. Your classroom may not be Pinterest-worthy. Your students might not get to do that awesome art project (which entails tons of setup, a copious quantity of glitter, materials you purchase out of your own pocket, and an afternoon of cleanup). But they will get a top-notch education from a teacher who cares about them – and isn’t that why you became a teacher in the first place?
Be a Role Model
Setting these boundaries, especially when the teachers around you are not, may feel uncomfortable at times. It can be hard to say no when the expectation is that you say yes. You might feel less-than, or like you aren’t doing your part. But it is important to hold fast for two reasons. First, for your own self-care and mental health, and second, for everyone else’s.
By setting appropriate boundaries, you become a role-model. You are showing your colleagues how it could be. How it should be. Imagine how things would change if everyone followed your example. Here are some things that might happen:
- Teachers would be well-rested, less stressed, and happier.
- Students would get to learn in a more positive and happier environment (because as the teacher, you set the tone) which would likely result in fewer discipline issues.
- There would be less teacher burnout and turn-over.
- Teachers could focus their energy on teaching and their students because they are no longer responsible for 65 other things.
- Administrators would stop expecting teachers to do extra work without compensation.
- Money might be found (PTA, grants, fundraisers, stipends, etc.) to compensate teachers for running after-school clubs, coaching, extra tutoring, bus/recess duty, etc.
- Community members might step forward to help with, and even lead extra-curricular activities.
- The community as a whole will start respecting and appreciating teachers – their time and their professional expertise because teachers are respecting themselves.
The entire culture of school could change. Instead of expecting teachers to do everything for very little compensation, to sacrifice their lives “for the children,” the new paradigm would be that teachers teach their students. And then they go home to be with their own families.
A final thought
I reread this post and felt the need to add one more thing:
I know that every school and district is different and that setting boundaries is harder in some places than in others. I also understand that teachers setting boundaries cannot actually solve the deep and systematic problems that educators face and that further, teachers should not have to solve them – that responsibility falls squarely on the shoulders of administrators and (sadly and inappropriately) politicians.
However, setting boundaries is something you can do and it is a start.
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