By Susan Jerrell, TOFT Founder
Set work boundaries to make your teaching life go more smoothly. From colleagues, administrators, electronic communication, the demands of your job, and home responsibilities, it is easy to feel overwhelmed and to let one area blur with another.
However when you learn to set boundaries, some of the chaos can disappear, and you begin to feel more in control of your life. Try these 5 ways to set work boundaries.
Define your boundaries
When you do not define for yourself what your boundaries are, it is easy to feel confused and even feel resentment toward others and not be sure why you feel that way. So that you are not caught off guard, determine ahead of time what your boundaries are.
To do this you need to look at your needs and what is important to you. Think about your life and what you need to best live it. Then, physically making a list creates a tangible document and makes it easier to follow than a vague notion in your mind.
Make a list
Example, I need:
- 8 hours of sleep.
- time to exercise each day.
- quiet, alone time.
- relaxation time.
- family time.
- students who pay attention.
- a break from school.
- time to plan lesson and grade papers
And the list goes on. There is no right or wrong with this list. The purpose is to make it complete and to reflect all of your needs and the things important to you.
Once you know your needs you can then begin to determine how to make those become the boundaries you will set.
Looking at the above list, and let’s translate that into boundaries.
- I get up at 6 a.m. so I need to go to bed by 10 p.m.
- Since, I don’t like to exercise in the morning, so I need to do it after school.
- I can find some quiet time each evening between 9-10 before I go to bed.
- To spend family time and get a break from school, I will not do any school work between 4-8 p.m.
- I will not speak over my students and they will not talk while I am talking.
- So I can plan lessons and grade papers, I will close my door and work during my prep period.
Your list may look entirely different, but when you know your boundaries, you can easily make decisions as the obstacles arise.
When the principal asks you to cover an activity between 6-7 p.m., you can tell her that you have plans. It is absolutely okay to consider yourself and/or your family as a plan. If you don’t plan for those moments, you will not get them.
When a colleague interrupts your grading time just to chat you can say, “I would love to talk to you about that. Can we meet for a few minutes tomorrow morning because I need to finish grading these right now.”
Having a plan for your boundaries means you can step up and advocate for them.
Provide clear communication
Once you know your boundaries you need to clearly communicate them. People are not mind readers, but they do take cues from you. Be sure that you only permit those things you want to give permission to and the only way to do that is by speaking up.
Let the appropriate people know what your boundaries are. Once colleagues know that you use your planning time for school work only, they will respect that and not interrupt. When an administrator knows that you are not available before 7 a.m. for impromptu meetings they will quit asking.
Most people will respect boundaries when they know they exist. However, if you have not provided that clear communication, don’t be surprised when your boundaries are inadvertently stepped on.
Be clear on:
How to contact you
Inform people about how to contact you. If you do not respond to messenger or texts, let them know. People play by the rules most of the time if they are aware of them. I highly suggest you limit all parent correspondence to school email and school phone. Allowing them to contact you at home on personal devices is a professional boundary I would insist on.
When they can contact you
Make sure you are clear on your hours of availability. If you will answer emails until 5 p.m., then make that a clear boundary. If you turn your phone off at 9 p.m. and will not see messages until the next morning, make sure people know that. For parents, you might say you are available from 7:30-3:30.
When you will respond
Tell people when to expect a response. Unless it is an actual emergency, it is rarely necessary to reply immediately, unless you want to. When you let people know you will reply to emails within 24 hours, it gives you some leeway for when you are super busy. It also takes the pressure off of you.
Handle problems immediately
You give permission by what you permit. That simple phrase can be a game changer in life when you realize that anything you permit sends a signal to others that it is allowed. This works in your personal life as well as in your professional life.
If you let something go that overstepped your boundaries that will continue to happen.
Think ahead to how you will handle situations that are bound to occur and that cross the boundaries you have set for yourself. Have a plan about how you will react and what you will say. All of these can be said with care and without being rude.
Situation: when another teacher interrupts your classroom repeatedly with questions or requests for something.
Response: (later but not in front of students) “I will be glad to answer your questions before or after school, but please do not ask them while I am teaching. I have such little time with my students as it is.”
Prep period interruptions
Situation: your administrator interrupts your prep time on a regular basis.
Response: I appreciate that you want my opinion, thoughts, feedback (whatever the discussion is about) and wonder if we could schedule a time tomorrow morning when I am not distracted by all of the papers I need to get graded.
Before and after school interruptions
Situation: a student doesn’t want to stay in the designated area before school and shows up in your room to chat.
Response: “I know that it is boring sitting around waiting for class to start, but I only have a few minutes to get this done before students come to my room, so you will need to go back to the assigned student area. I’ll be glad to chat during the passing period when I’m on hall duty!”
Situation: a colleague corners you in the hall and starts bashing a mutual student.
Response: “I am sorry you are having a bad day, but I’m not comfortable discussing so-and-so because I was not involved in that situation, and he and I have a good relationship.”
Situation: a student runs into your room exclaiming, “Did you hear what so-and-so did to so-and-so? You’re not going to believe it!”
Response: My classroom is a No Drama Zone. I don’t want you to share it with me, and you don’t need to be sharing it with anyone else. How would you feel if someone was saying that about you?” (Sometimes students just need to be told what is appropriate behavior.)
Personal details that are not your business
Situation: a student starts to tell you personal details about their family or themselves that you should not know (this will happen more than you might believe).
Response: “This is private information that I should not know. If you need to discuss this with someone, I can send you to the guidance office.”
When you are told something you have to report
Situation: a student tells you about abuse or suicidal thoughts.
Response: “I am glad that you felt comfortable talking to me about this, and I am going to make sure you get the help you need.” You then take that student to a guidance counselor for further assistance and report this to the proper authorities required by law. Be sure that if a student expresses suicidal thoughts that you do not leave them alone under any circumstance.
By thinking about specific responses ahead of time, you will feel more capable dealing with boundary issues immediately. If you do not and think to yourself, “Oh, well, I’m sure it won’t happen again” you are deceiving yourself. If you have allowed it to happen once, it will happen again, and again.
Set home/work boundaries
To preserve your mental health, you must set boundaries that separate work and home. This may mean leaving work at school, turning off all of your work devices at a set time each evening, or not doing school work on weekends.
How this looks is up to you, but once you have decided on those personal boundaries, stick to them. If you have to have a spouse or someone else hold you accountable, then go for it.
If you are doing online school and teaching from home, this becomes even more important. Stick to set work hours, and then turn off your computer until the following morning. Let parents know when you will answer emails and do it during that reserved time only. Follow a schedule for the day, just like you would for in class teaching and stick to it.
If you do not set those parameters you will be working 24/7. That is not sustainable and will definitely damage your mental health. The boundaries you set should match your needs from tip 1 above.
Here are additional tips to help you if you are teaching from home.
Trust your instincts
The last thing you should do is trust your instincts. Assess how a situation makes you feel.
If you feel angry, uncomfortable, resentful or guilty, those are all signs that boundaries may have been crossed.
Dana Gionta and Dan Guerra, authors of From Stressed To Centered, suggest listening to your feelings when a situation or personal interaction happens that causes you to have a reaction and to rank those feelings on a 1-10 scale with 1 being lowest and 10 highest.
When a situation arises and you feel resentful for example, rate it on the scale, and if it consistently falls in the higher zones then that is a signal that you need to create a boundary around that situation or personal interaction.
Putting those feelings into action, like using the 1-10 scale, may help you determine where you need boundaries in your life. For example if you are resentful that someone has interrupted your work three days in a row, but you have never said anything to them about being busy, then you now have an action that you can take to help with those feelings.
Often, under the guise of “being caring and helpful,” teachers avoid setting work boundaries. They may be afraid of seeming mean, disappointing someone, or not being a team player. However, if you set professional boundaries, you will actually accomplish more and also feel better about yourself.
Setting work boundaries is one step you can take toward advocating for yourself, taking care of yourself, and giving yourself time that you need to enjoy life. People who set boundaries, clearly explain them, and maintain them appear to others as professional and well put together.
If you want to give yourself a gift this school year, set work boundaries.