Personal boundaries are important to everyone’s well-being, but they are especially important for people in caring professions, like teachers. Without good boundaries, we may find ourselves used or manipulated by others, and even if we think we are here to help and do so much, poor boundaries can lead to stress, resentment, and burnout. Better teachers need better boundaries.
Check your personal boundaries. Do you:
- Try to be always available when students need you?
- Respond to parents immediately if they contact you?
- Say yes to everything you are asked to do?
- Take on more than you can handle because you see it needs to get done?
- Get too caught up in a student’s circumstances?
If you answered yes, to some or all of these questions, you may want to work on your boundaries.
3 Boundaries Tips Better Teachers Know
The good news is that we can improve our boundaries and become better teachers. The challenge is keeping up with it, which is why it’s good to have reminders about how to firm up boundaries. Try one or all of these tips this week.
Turn off sometimes
Technology is a blessing and a curse. Instead of playing phone tag or having to set up a meeting for every question, you can email and text with students or parents. You may even have other school sponsored channels of communication.
Instant forms of communication set expectations that responses will happen quickly. But even if parents or students can text or email you, you don’t have to be available all the time. Set expectations about when you will respond. You can send this out with the beginning of the term communications, post it on your class website, or use an email autoresponder during your off time. You might say: Messages received during the school day will get a response by 5 PM or I check emails until 8 PM; after that, I will respond on the next school day (yes, it’s OK to claim your weekends!)
Once you set and communicate your boundary, stick with it. Try it for one week. It may feel weird at first not to respond right away, but as you get used to it, you may feel some freedom.
Don’t take every problem to heart
While you care for your students and some of their stories stick, taking on others’ problems is a sure way to burnout. Setting boundaries around what you can and will do are essential to well-being. This can be a really tough one. It does hurt to see students struggle or deal with serious problems and to wonder if you could have done more.
Step back and look at your responsibility in the situation. Talk to a colleague about the situation. Another perspective can help you find a solution or new approach—or see that you did what you could and it’s time to let go. Repeat the mantra: I can’t do it all, but I do the best I can. Doing the best you can doesn’t mean turning your life upside down. It doesn’t mean putting aside your own needs. That’s what boundaries is all about. You can be caring and go beyond the basics to help your students—and maintain your personal boundaries too.
Setting boundaries means that you value yourself. One way to reinforce your boundaries is to take care of yourself. Practicing self-care decreases stress and reduces burnout, but if your boundaries are weak, it’s easy to put everyone else’s needs first—you say yes to chairing the committee and running the play and helping a student during your prep period, because somebody needs to do it and you want to be helpful. But it doesn’t help anyone if you give too much without replenishing.
Put self-care on your calendar. Make it non-negotiable. Maybe you schedule a walk before school—don’t get sidetracked by a colleague in the parking lot who wants to talk about a student you both work with. If you schedule a massage or manicure, pay for it in advance to make yourself less likely to cancel. If you are about to take a hot bath to unwind at night, don’t bring your phone with you and don’t check email one more time to see if there is anything you need to deal with.
Sometimes it seems counter-intuitive, but setting better boundaries makes us better teachers (and parents and humans . . .). What will you do to improve your boundaries this week?
Bonus boundaries tip for new teachers: Lack of confidence and uncertainty can weaken boundaries. When you’re trying to prove yourself to students, parents, colleagues, and administrators, you might be tempted to open up your boundaries.
Get the support you need to feel more confident in the classroom and join a community where you can talk about better boundaries along with classroom management and specific teaching questions.