Teacher Wellness

The Necessity of Boundaries

There are limits to teachers’ time and energy. Recognizing that is important to best meet the needs of both teachers and students.

May 30, 2018
A teacher grading papers in a classroom
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Teachers need balance. You need to set professional limits that will support long-term engagement with your students and with teaching. This is about protecting your energy and attention in order to maximize their effects. It’s about what you can and cannot control. It’s about when to hold on and when to let go.

It feels like heresy to say it, but it’s true: Sometimes, no matter what we say or do, no matter how many meetings or phone calls or emails we have about a student, no matter how much time and energy we put into adapting and consideration, things don’t improve. They may even get worse. At some point, in order to protect the classroom and our own professional stamina, we must regroup and set limits.

What Might This Look Like?

Let’s consider a fictional middle school student named Jake. Jake is in eighth grade. He’s absent once or twice a week. Since the first week of school, it’s been apparent that Jake isn’t doing any work. He’s not disruptive and he’s generally compliant—he just won’t try. He barely puts his name on his documents, and the grade book is a list of zeros.

The teacher has tried talking with Jake, calling home, changing seats, adapting the assignments and due dates, offering makeup work, asking colleagues, reporting to administrators, setting up a student success team meeting, and community building. Calling home has produced no results. The parents are unresponsive, do not attend meetings, and do not reply. The other interventions? No change.

At this point we often urge the teacher to do more, try more. It is also at this point that the teacher often shifts to self-blame, taking on worry and guilt.

The constant refrain to do more, try more often comes from the best of intentions. These calls to pull more out of us, to stretch our capacity, are often worthwhile and necessary. If we’re not careful, though, they can also do harm. They can perpetuate the teacher-as-lone-hero myth that, in my experience as a peer coach, can lead to burnout and despair.

So What About Jake?

We can sustain the kindness and connection that we show him. Even if he’s reluctant, reach out anyway. Find ways to connect. He may respond, or he might not. But our intent and ongoing care provide a foundation for him to learn to trust in something outside of whatever is pulling him away.

Continue to plan organized and engaging lessons. Talk to him. Check in, and even with no parent input, make a positive phone call home. Small gestures matter. Stay the course. For traumatized students, the simple reliability of a structured classroom, combined with a teacher’s kind presence, can be enough to make a difference. We never know.

These actions need not be extra or arduous work. They are, to the fullest professional extent, humane and compassionate responses to suffering. They do not require a whiz-bang technology lesson with fireworks and video; they don’t mandate another meeting. They require only kindness and a consistent effort to meet students’ needs.

Mindful Limits

Poverty and social conditions play a role in the inequities of schools, but they cannot be an excuse for a lack of effort. They cannot be an excuse to throw up our hands and retreat. Yet it’s also true that teachers who work in high-needs schools interact in greater measure with absenteeism, depression, homelessness, poverty, anger, and trauma. Because of this, it becomes imperative to be able to ask for help, to recognize professional limits, and to know when to say “enough.” Resisting overextending ourselves is a form of engagement. And it’s a form that, used judiciously, can support long-term engagement with teaching and with students.

The truth is, there are limits to our time and energy. Burning teachers out with calls to do more, try more—especially when a teacher shortage looms, especially when student needs overwhelm—does not best serve our neediest students. And sometimes requiring more of teachers masks a systemic or policy failing, which the individual teacher can’t fix.

In setting mindful limits, we address equity for all. We’re not giving up: We are, with compassion for ourselves and our students, attending to practices that will best serve the learning of the largest number of students. No long-distance runner can sustain the pace with too many sprints or too much weight. Balance, kindness, and setting boundaries can act as forces that allow our best work, and our best, most compassionate teaching selves to arrive.