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Why Setting Healthy Boundaries are Essential in the Teaching Profession

Why Setting Healthy Boundaries are Essential in the Teaching Profession

I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase, “teachers do it for the outcome, not for the income.” I want to take a moment to dismantle this concept because it is truly problematic. Yes, as teachers we want to see positive outcomes, growth, resiliency, and grit in the lives that we touch, however, we do it for the income. The problem is that the income does not match the amount of time, energy, and personal resources that we put into our jobs. This is a systemic problem.

Teaching has historically been a job held by women. Did you know that in 2021 women made about 80 cents for every dollar of male wages? If you’ve found yourself in a position like me, you’ve probably been asked to take on roles and commitments under the guise of “doing it for the kids.” But how many of those extra commitments are paid? So often we want to be agreeable and keep in good graces with our admin.

And let’s be honest, we DO want to do it for the kids. We just need to be compensated accordingly. So let’s start by talking about boundaries because this is essential to any teaching position.

Boundaries are for You

Let’s start with what boundaries are not since this is so commonly misunderstood. Boundaries are not about controlling another person. Boundaries are not about getting back at someone when boundaries are broken, and boundaries are not something you put on another person.

Boundaries are for YOU. They are about setting up parameters that help you to live out your life according to your values and priorities. If you haven’t read the book Boundaries by Dr. Henry Cloud and John Townsend, I recommend checking it out.

Saying No to Protect Your Yes

Within your contract, you might have an obligation to be an active member of several school committees. That’s fine. Boundaries are saying that I will be an engaged and committed member of the school committees I am contractually obligated to participate in, but I will carefully consider anything above and beyond those commitments.

One year, my principal encouraged me to become a member of a new school committee. The principal was quite flattering in sharing with me how I would be a great fit. They were confident I had insightful and helpful things to share that would be beneficial to the group. It sure sounded wonderful. But how many other teachers were told the same flattering lines to get the group off the ground?

Here are some things to consider:

Your Time is Currency

Before quickly agreeing to any new commitments, figure out how much this new obligation will cost you. For example, if you make a yearly salary of $40,000 you could probably figure you make around $27/hr. This means for every hour of that meeting in which you attend has a value of $27. If you meet weekly for the next three months that will cost $1,296 just for YOU. If there are 5 people on that committee that’s $6,480 (assuming they all make the same hourly wage as you).

Is that committee worth it? Could it be something organized over email instead? These are things to bring forth to your principal when considering whether the committee is worth the time. Could the school provide a $1,296 stipend for you? How about your colleagues? Where could your time be better spent if that stipend is not available?

Does this Align With Your Values?

Before jumping into a new commitment, ask yourself if it aligns with your values. For me, family is a top priority. If I attend an additional weekly meeting, I need to figure out how I will make up that hour of lost contractual prep time. Does that mean I will now need to stay late after school on those days? Does that mean I will have to miss my child’s sports games? Does that mean that I will have to take work home and try to grade papers late at night? Just taking on one extra role can completely change your schedule and interfere with your values, so consider new commitments carefully.

Stand Up for Your Values

Has your school ever participated in McTeacher’s Night? Listening to teachers across the U.S. share their experiences, it’s either a “love it” or “hate it” fundraiser (I’d take the word “fun” out of fundraiser if you get the hint about how I feel about this).

During my early years of teaching, our school decided to do a McTeacher’s Night. But the administration did not notify the teachers in a timely manner. We found out about this on a Monday, and the McTeacher’s Night was scheduled for Wednesday. Not only that, it was, “required” that we attend. I get it, the only way that this fundraiser is really successful is by having teachers do the work and families come to pay.

I’m all for family dinner night and providing an accessible fundraiser for families, but when it comes down to it, teachers are doing the work without pay. And most of the time, the paid staff at the drive-through are asked to take on extra work on these nights too. This is usually framed as a “do it for the kids” event because we know students love to see their teachers behind the counter. But let's be real-- teachers are being asked to do free labor with the proceeds very likely being used to cover costs like consumable supplies and materials in the supply room—all things that should be provided anyway.

At the end of the event, I shared with my admin how I felt about this type of fundraiser. Teachers should not be asked to provide free labor. If you were to use the calculations I shared above, the total raised by the fundraiser was far less than what should have been paid out to teachers for their time. Thankfully my principal at the time was very understanding. They had not been the decision-maker for this fundraiser but expressed similar sentiments. Was this the last McTeacher’s Night? Nope. But the school no longer required teachers to participate, and I chose not to participate in future events.

Be brave enough to share with your principal your values. It doesn’t always mean that things will change, but at least you know that they know where you stand on issues, and they are more likely to empathize or understand when things do come up again in the future.

Managing your Time with Healthy Boundaries

Ok, so we all have that teacher friend (or maybe it’s you) that stops in to say hello and wants to chat. I love chatting with teacher friends, but we all know we have a lot to do, and not enough time to do it. Remember boundaries are for you. So here are a couple of easy things to help you navigate the time-suck chit-chat.

Close and Lock the Classroom Door

Sounds pretty simple, but if I really need to get some things done, I will close and lock the door. I will close the blinds and sometimes even turn down the lights. If I just need a little uninterrupted peace, this is one way that I can control my time and space. If you share the room or have a teacher that needs to go in and out, communicate with them that the reason the door is shut is so that you can work without interruptions. You aren’t trying to be rude, you just have some important tasks that are time sensitive that need to get done today.

Turn off Notifications

I put my phone away, and I turn off notifications on devices. It’s so easy to jump on social media to scroll real quick during a break only to find that the time is gone. I choose to only check my phone during my lunch hour. My husband and friends know that I’m not ignoring them, but that’s when I will have time to answer questions. If it’s something urgent they know to call the office. This gives me peace of mind because I know that they can still get ahold of me if there’s something important or an emergency comes up.

Keep the Email Tab Closed

One sure way to become overwhelmed is by keeping your email tab open all day. For me, constantly checking email during the day can trigger anxiety. I’ve set boundaries on how often I check my school email. When I do check my email, I will flag emails that I need to respond to, and immediately delete emails from my inbox that I no longer need. I print emails that are important like newsletters or important dates. I’ve also designated email as one of my batching tasks. This means that instead of checking emails all day, I sit down and clear the inbox all at once.

I let my parents know that my first priority is my students, so if I don’t get back to their email right away, I’m not ignoring them. I also let them know that if it’s urgent just call the room. Remember, boundaries are things that you can control. You can’t control how many emails land in your inbox, but you can control when you choose to sit down and check your email.

Boundaries help you protect your yeses, so you’re not just working “for the outcome.” The reality is that we depend on income for financial stability. It’s a paycheck that pays the bills and provides food on the table. Boundaries allow us to center our values and priorities. Boundaries are essential in the teaching profession if we want to maintain a balance between work and home, and keep peace of mind.

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