Digital advancements have made communication easier, for better or worse. Students can reach out to clarify assignments — leading to better grades — and teachers can update parents with a quick, three-line Facebook post on the class page.
However, this ease of communication means some educators feel pressure to always be “on” or available for questions and comments. They spend their weekends responding to emails and their evenings keeping up with messages and issues. At some point, this has to stop.
The boundary between school and home is blurred for many educators who continue teaching after the final bell rings. This boundary is further blurred in the remote classroom, where your “office” is also your kitchen table or living room sofa.
Learn how you can set boundaries in any classroom setting in order to reduce burnout and protect your career.
The Digital Era Removed Boundaries That Need to Be Rebuilt
Many educators (and professionals in the private sector) are still learning how to set boundaries outside of the classroom or office. Responding to one email might only take a few minutes, but this adds up when there are 50 messages in your inbox.
“While I used to make phone calls home during my contracted time before and after school…, it now seems that I am getting emails at all hours of the day and night with the expectation of an immediate response,” teacher Brittany Andy writes at Primary Perfectionist. “Communication apps…are awesome tools for classroom communication during the day. Not so awesome when teachers are bombarded by notifications while they are eating dinner in the evening or spending time with their families on the weekend.”
Many educators have learned the hard way over the years to set boundaries. They have forced themselves to break bad habits of constantly checking email and have implemented rules for themselves for how to work at home.
Unfortunately, this all changed during the pandemic. Home was school and school was home. Plus, many educators wanted to offer emotional support for stressed students and technical support for parents who were trying to learn Zoom and a dozen other digital apps at once.
“At the start of the closure, there was this imperative to work around the clock to provide stability and consistency for students and families,” says middle school principal Matthew Howell. “As we move along, that is not sustainable nor is it wise.”
Being available and on all the time, regardless of whether teachers are in a pandemic or normal times, is detrimental to their mental health. This constant need from others puts added pressure on educators to work even harder than they already do.
Kathleen Minke, executive director of the National Association of School Psychologists, uses the metaphor of the “stress cup” to communicate teacher burnout because of 24/7 access. “When your stress cup gets full, it doesn’t take much more to get you over the edge,” she says. “Teachers have to think about, how do you empty that cup so that [you] are available when needed?”
The levels of the “stress cup” that every teacher has tend to rise throughout the year. However, the 2020 pandemic filled many to the brim in both their professional and personal lives. Even as this school year has tried to retain some form of normalcy, you may find that you are more sensitive to stress and in need of clear boundaries.
How to Set Boundaries As An Educator in a Pandemic
There is a process for setting boundaries with students, parents and your principal. This process starts with doing what is best for you in the classroom and then learning how to hold on to your values through the school year. Consider following these steps.
Establish Guidelines for Your Classroom Early On
Your boundaries work like road signs: You need to provide instructions for people to follow before you can require parents and students to follow them. No one is going to stop at an intersection unless there is a light or stop sign.
“You can’t exactly complain about parents crossing boundaries if you haven’t clearly communicated very specific boundaries to begin with,” Sharon Kim writes at Study.com. “Communicate them in as many ways as possible: verbally, through email, on the printed page – heck, even draw pictures if you have to. Give parents the opportunity to ask questions about your policies at the beginning of the year…and make sure they sign their agreement to the policy.”
These guidelines should be in the class syllabus or sent out as a separate document at the start of the year. Review them with students and make sure everyone is on the same page. This way, if your boundaries aren’t respected, you can point to your agreed-upon rules.
Don’t fall prey to feeling guilty if you’re not working constantly.
“Without setting clear boundaries, guilt takes over,” writes Michelle, a teacher who blogs at Teach Smart With Me. “Guilt messes with your brain. You end up feeling guilty all the time.”
She uses the example of two choices on a Sunday night: You can either spend the evening relaxing with family (and feel guilty for not preparing for work the next day) or spend the time preparing for Monday morning (while feeling guilty for staying away from your family). It’s a lose-lose situation either way. However, if you establish your Sunday night as family time, then you can reduce that guilt and focus on relaxing.
Create a Space Where You Can Get Work Done
While responding to email messages might take up a lot of your time, it isn’t the only work you have. Designate a specific time to respond to messages (like right after your last class or right before you leave for the day) and keep your inbox closed otherwise. Then, carve out time and space to get to work on tasks that can’t be completed during the school day.
“If you have things that you need to finish, close the door, silence your phone, and get to work,” writes teacher Erin Sponaugle. “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.”
This workspace looks different for everyone, and you may need to test different times and places to find out where your focus zone is.
“I vowed from day one that I would not take any papers home,” one educator at iTeach explains. “You have to realize this requires you to stay at school later. This worked for me because I didn’t have children that I needed to go home to. This might not work for you.”
Practice Saying No — And Stop Apologizing for It
Saying no is a practiced skill. Early in your career, you might not turn down requests in order to look like a good employee. This year, teachers took on all kinds of extra tasks to help students get through the pandemic. However, you need to set boundaries for yourself and know when your personal time is being violated.
“When you realize that every time you say yes to one thing, by default you say no to something else, you can start being more strategic about what you say yes to,” says Linda Kardamis at Teach 4 the Heart. “What’s more, you can start saying no to things that, while potentially worthwhile, won’t have as big of an impact as other more important things.”
When you do say no, avoid apologizing for it or making promises for next time. Kaitlin Boldt, senior schools manager at EverFi, encourages teachers to stop apologizing when they set these boundaries. You do not have to apologize for taking time for yourself or stepping away from technology or saying no to a task. You are looking out for yourself, your career and your mental health.
Determine What Will Actually Help Your Students
If you still have trouble turning down requests or keep piling work on yourself to guide your students, step back to see if your time is creating value.
The team at Resilient Educator has an infographic with tips to improve the work-life balance of educators. They remind teachers to think about the Pareto principle, or the 80/20 rule, which is “we get 80 percent of results from 20 percent of the work we do.”
You may want to say yes to everything and add a dozen small tasks to your list each night, but these actions likely won’t have as big of an impact as you think they will. Work smarter, not harder.
Learn What Works for You
In some cases, you may need to take extreme steps to mandate a work-life balance in your home. Debra Rook, an eighth grade language arts teacher, said she cut off her home internet access to force herself to create boundaries when she left school at the end of the day.
“Without the internet, I stopped working from home,” she writes. “I stopped obsessing over lessons and entering grades. I stopped responding to emails that required more than a few lines tapped out on my phone. I stopped overworking myself because I literally didn’t have the access to do it.”
While this might be considered a drastic option, it created the necessary barrier Rook needed to reclaim her personal time.
Maintaining Boundaries is Just as Important as Setting Them
Setting boundaries away from work takes time, and each educator needs to do what is right for them. However, once you have your limits and clearly communicate them, the real work in maintaining them begins.
Katy Farber, professional development coordinator at the Tarrant Institute for Innovative Education, encourages teachers to care for the boundaries they set, treating them “like a well-tended garden.”
“Once you have these boundaries in place, they take tending and care,” she writes. “There are always resources, people, and tasks that require your attention, and they are present and persistent 24/7. But the work is in recognizing this, and saying to yourself, ‘Not now. I will get to this, but not now. Now I need a break.’”
It’s not uncommon for teachers to set firm boundaries at the start of the year, when the main assignment is to read the syllabus or gather supplies, but then break down those barriers as the materials get more advanced and students are juggling different classes and workloads. However, this is when you need to remain firm, especially if you want to survive the most stressful parts of the year.
“Lack of confidence and uncertainty can weaken boundaries,” teacher and literacy specialist Mel Crean writes at Top Notch Teaching — specifically addressing new teachers. “When you’re trying to prove yourself to students, parents, colleagues, and administrators, you might be tempted to open up your boundaries.”
Turning off your phone for a few hours each day does not make you a bad teacher. It does not mean you are abandoning your students or ignoring parents. Instead, it means you are preparing yourself to be more effective tomorrow.
“Recognize that being a robot does not produce the best version of yourself,” writes teacher Lauren Huddleston at Edutopia. “Taking breaks and setting boundaries for work hours and non-work hours will breathe more life into your teaching practice. Many teachers are parents or spouses, and…those relationships deserve care, too.”
Along with setting boundaries, take steps to protect your mental health, both during this pandemic year and the ones to follow.
“Always have something to look forward to,” Julia Thompson, author of “The First-Year Teacher’s Survival Guide,” writes. “Make a point of planning a weekend excursion or an outing with family and friends or even setting aside time to work on a hobby.”
It’s completely understandable why so many teachers struggle to disconnect and set boundaries outside of the classroom. You love your work and care deeply for your students and their families. However, if you want to really be there for them, you need to care for yourself. You need to take steps to reduce your risk of burnout so you can have a long, healthy career that helps hundreds of young pupils.
Images by: Roman Stetsyk/©123RF.com, rido/©123RF.com, brenkee