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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Setting Boundaries Can Mean a Happier Teaching Career

Heather Wolpert-Gawron

Middle School teacher by day, Tweenteacher by night

In fact, some time ago, the Fordham Foundation's Education Gadfly posted that teachers have six main afflictions, all of which assume that our profession has not evolved. In a nutshell, they are as follows:

  • An outdated compensation system.
  • A personnel system intended for the 1930s.
  • A dysfunctional method of training and licensing.
  • A system that allows teachers surprisingly little control over fundamental decisions about their work.
  • A lack of teacher's pay to keep up with a student enrollment that has steadily increased since the 1950s.
  • School systems with narrow accountability.

But they missed one:

  • We're not allowed to go to the bathroom when we need to.

The Unspoken Dilemma

OK, for all you snickering folk out there: If you aren't a teacher -- although why you would be reading this blog if you aren't, I can't say -- you clearly can't understand what this bladder bigotry does to the soul.

A teacher is potentially onstage for three to four hours without a break, and our prime responsibility during that time is to supervise and be available for hundreds of students. Just imagine: You teach from 8:10 a.m. to 12:15 p.m., straight. You're told to be standing at your door to monitor the halls during the passing periods.

The bathroom is on the other side of the building, down the hall, and in the trailer on the other side of the field. There's only one stall in the adult restroom, and it seems to always be occupied by front-office employees who don't teach, so why they need to go during passing periods is beyond you.

I suppose you could call the front office every now and then for coverage or open the doors between classrooms for some neighborly supervision, but, let's face it, how often can you do that without undermining the authority that comes from the students thinking that you can't control your bodily functions?

I once heard a rumor that the teaching profession has the highest incident of kidney disease of any profession. Or was it liver disease? Or was it bladder infection? Anyway, I said it was a rumor.

I joke, but this affliction actually goes hand in hand with a bigger problem in education -- this myth that teachers aren't human. I mean, students think that when teachers aren't in front of them, they shut off, like animatrons in a museum. A kid enters the room and we turn on with a smile and a wave. The last kid leaves and we power down, ready for the next group.

Dispelling an Old Belief

I remember when I was in third grade, and my parents went out of town, leaving me with my favorite teacher, Ms. Lydon, who occasionally babysat for my sister and me. The first morning, she came out of the bedroom with a nightgown and robe on, asking if we wanted pancakes. My sister and I sat there, stunned. I remember actually thinking, "Oh, yeah, I guess she has to sleep, too."

It didn't even occur to me that she actually used the bathroom on occasion as well.

Years later, as a teacher myself, I found myself at an estate sale on the outskirts of Wickenburg, in Arizona. I was idly going through a stack of paperwork someone found in an old attic when I came across a teacher's paycheck from the 1800s. It was for one month's work -- $8 and some change -- and in the memo line was lightly scripted in ink, "Cannot be married."

The memo line of that schoolmarm's check said it all: "Thou shalt not have a life outside of teaching." And I think that this attitude towards teacher, this insistence that a teacher be some self-sacrificing, Florence Nightengale-esque single gal just grateful for the job, is a reputation that has haunted the career ever since the dawn of chalk and slate. This mythical sense that teachers exist only at school and only do unto others is something that, frankly, still plagues the profession.

Reinventing Our Image

Adults know logically that we have needs and lives, but at times, it's as if we are faulted for putting our lives first. We keep our doors open at lunch, we stay on the phone sometimes hours beyond the last bell, soothing parents or communicating with families about that which their student does not.

Why? Because we love and care. But we as professionals must love and care about ourselves, as well. Make sure that your needs are being met. School -- especially for a new teacher -- has a way of zapping your life force from you like a B-horror-movie succubus. Make sure you are doing what is necessary but what also protect your energy. It is not infinite.

If you want to teach for the long haul, pace yourself and your devotion. You'll influence more students that way, you'll be more present in your lessons, and you'll be happier in the end. And your happiness trickles down to the students and shows up in their achievements.

Find what recharges your batteries. Maybe it's a pedicure. Maybe it's a yoga pose at lunchtime. Maybe it's making sure certain nights are not about grading but about -- at least in my house -- busting out the PlayStation. Maybe it's taking a day off to go to a conference, to be in a network of adults taking all day about a topic you're passionate about. Pitching content is exhausting, after all. Sometimes you need to take a step back and remind yourself it's fun, too.

Just remember, it's perfectly OK to hang up the phone. You're still a great teacher. It's fine to close your door at lunch to have some you time. They'll still like you tomorrow.

But the next time someone smiles and says, "Oh, you're a teacher? Must be nice having summer vacations and getting off at 3 o'clock," I'll reply, "Summer? Yeah, that's when I get to go to the bathroom."

Heather Wolpert-Gawron

Middle School teacher by day, Tweenteacher by night
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Katy Farber's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Great post. The bathroom part, especially. This is seriously worse when you are pregnant and teaching! I am writing a book about teacher attrition that will be published next year by Corwin Press. This issue comes up in my working conditions chapter.

When I see my students in the grocery store (I teach fifth and sixth grade at Rumney School in Vermont), they look at me with surprise, as if to say, "You eat, too?". I think seeing a teacher in different contexts helps expand our humaness, with flaws and beauty all the same.

Thanks again for an insightful post. I will enjoy that aspect of summer as well!

Heather Wolpert - Gawron's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I remember when I was pregnant with my son. I had counselors come spot me while I waddled to the bathroom over and over again during the day. Embarrassing, but (shrug) that's just the way it is. I'm teaching summer school this year and I just received my schedule that has me teaching from 8:15-10:15, supervising the break, and teaching again from 10:30-12:30. My colleague asked the VP when she was going to be allowed to go to the bathroom if there's no supervision on her station but herself. He didn't have an answer. This goes to the heart of the issue of publicity in teaching.

The "great" teachers seems to be those who don't sleep, don't eat, don't have families, don't pee, and don't have lives outside the school. Anything short of that and you're accused as not being dedicated to the profession and your students.

It's up to the teachers to begin promoting what wonderful things are happening inside the classroom within the school day, so that people begin to know that over-and-above doesn't need to be the only definition of great teaching. We also need to share our own stories, stop pretending that we aren't human. We need to share stories about our own kids and families. We need to share our own issues, and stop teaching in such silent isolation that the public is forced to define our jobs for us.

Thanks for your comment. Let us know when the book is published! Sounds honest and interesting. Congratulations!
-Heather Wolpert-Gawron

Tamara Fish's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

After my first three exhausting years teaching, I finally learned that it is okay for me to have a life of my own. I teach high schoolers and I will sometimes start my classes with a funny little antecdote from my life, just to remind them that I am human too. They like (or act like they do to avoid the lesson) my stories and they see me, not only as their teacher, but as a person with the same thoughts, feelings, and embarrassing moments as they have.
To rejuvente and unwind, my husband and I go to Mexico at the end of each school year without our own children. We stay at an adults only resort and by the time we return, we are both ready to get back to real life.

Betheny 's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

A great teacher is someone who is not afraid to show his or her true selves. I feel the more honest and real you are with them, their realness will shine through. My students know what my interests are and I know what they like and love. That builds the trust. My students do know when I go to the bathroom, because most of us are like clockwork. I tell them either I can go quickly or the principal can come in and baby-sit. They do not like that idea. Luckily, the bathroom is so close to my room; I can hear what is going on in my room, if I need to sneak away. I am a middle school band director so I have the best kids in the school and we have a mutual trusting relationship. They do not want to lose the privilege of independence.

Heather WolpertGawron's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I love how it's not "party points" or candy that's the reward, but your respect and trust that is. I love how their behavior is tied to their independence and this privilege is something that they want to continue to have, for you and for themselves. Great job. Great spin on internal rewards. Thanks for the comment.
-Heather Wolpert-Gawron

Carol Garboden Murray's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I love your article, but have a hard time with the concept of being taking advantage of. I guess I am weary of hearing teachers talk about lack of respect since I have always felt respected and highly regarded for the work I do. I believe we really need to move away from the language of victims in order to gain our full power as teachers.

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