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Setting Boundaries Can Mean a Happier Teaching Career

Heather Wolpert-Gawron

ELA Teacher, Middle School, Curriculum Coordinator TOSA
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Yes, there are many problems in education. But many of them boil down to the fact that we are a cadre of professionals who are often taken advantage of as part of the job requirement.

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  • An outdated compensation system.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."

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Heather Wolpert-Gawron

ELA Teacher, Middle School, Curriculum Coordinator TOSA

Comments (16) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Heather's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

To me it seems healthy to discuss these things with people who can truly understand and relate to them. On more than one ocassion, I have had to call the counselor down to my room to sit with my class while I go to the restroom. I am diabetic, and sometimes you just have to go. I like to believe that if you are a teacher, then you are dedicated to the profession. We as educators are responsible for so many things. So, I think that we need to give ourselves a pat on the back and yes, use the bathroom inside of our instructional time if we have to.

Heather Riera's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I'm glad to hear someone else feels this same way about bathroom breaks! I have to make the embarrassing call down to the office in front of my 3rd graders to ask if I can use the bathroom, like I'm one of the students! Or I send a note with one of the kids, which of course they read. I've learned to be open and honest with them, in all areas, even my "potty" breaks. My students know and appreciate all my hobbies, who is important in my life and even get to listen to my favorite music. I completely agree and felt the same way growing up that my teachers lived in the classroom, why else did they need a microwave and refrigerator in their teacher's lounge? I want my students to understand who I am since I take a lot of time to understand who they are.

Chris Hendricks's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I remember not too long ago thinking that teachers lived in their classrooms, sleeping on their various pieces of reading furniture. The best part is that my mom taught kindergarten, and only used a rocking chair for her classroom.

I liked your thoughts on "re-charging" the batteries whenever possible. My mom always told me that I had to have a social life outside of my teaching profession. I will be going into my fourth year of teaching, and unlike quite a few of my fellow teaching friends, I do not get all that burnt out. I think it is because, not only do I like what I do, but I also do things outside of school not related to whiteboards and dry erase markers.

Along with your post, I get a kick out of seeing kids out and about. This past winter I saw one of my more "out spoken" students in the mall with her mom. It was maybe the most embarrassing things that happened to her all winter break. And of course, there was no mention of her seeing me at the mall when school was back in session.

Thanks for your post.


Marcie Blamer's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I enjoyed reading through this blog; it reminded me of the year I was pregnant. As one (hopefully)knows, a bladder when pressed upon by a 10 lb baby waits for no one...
I agree that those who do not teach (this includes administrators and those who make up schedules, duties and planning periods) do not understand that teaching is a 24 hour a day job. There are no days off; weekends, evenings and breaks are spent planning and grading. Summers are spent in school, re-organizing plans or classrooms etc. I agree with what was said above; that eh "great" teachers are thought of as those who martyr themselves for the cause. I remember my mentor teacher saying to me, "If you are the first one here and the last one to leave, that means you are not planning or grading effectively; you must have a life outside this classroom or you won't be a teacher for long." She was right-- Now, I take my breaks when I need to, I close my door and run to the bathroom if I must, and I put down my grading until my son goes to bed. As a matter of fact, A book "On being a teacher: The human dimension" says that by being human in our classroom, we are becoming more effective teachers ( Kottler, Zehm & Kottler, 2005). I think that includes taking bathroom breaks when we need them.

Laura R's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This blog reminded me of a book I recently paged through while in a bookstore waiting for the people I was with to finish their browsing. It was a small book in the comedy section about things kids say about their teachers.
I'm pretty lucky in the bathroom matter myself. I happen to have a neurological disease that gives me bladder retention and often the lack of feeling of needing to go as well, if anything I can't go when I need to even without the school time restrictions. Although enedibly I do still need to make a bathroom run on occasion and well I guess I'm pretty lucky in that matter too. My principal is pretty understanding about leaving hall duty posts to use the rest room between passing periods, just likes us to coordinate so that at least someone is able to see our section of hallway. We also have 10 minute passing times which gives us a pretty decent amount of time to get to the restroom and back and tag team our hall duty mate to allow them the restroom run as well. On rare occasions I do need to slip out during class time, but I share a storeroom between classrooms with my teaching neighbor and we can easily prop open the store room doors to join our classrooms. I do on occasion, if I have a well behaved class busy watching a video find myself able to slip off through the store room and the neighboring classroom for a trip to the rest room without my students even realizing I left or went farther than my storeroom. I once even had a student ask to explore my "secret passageways" that he was sure I must have being that he had noticed I sometimes disappeared from one location and reappeared from another, not only in my own classroom, but getting into the computer lab, to unlock the door for the students I would go through a back entrance that was unlocked rather than try to track down someone with a key. I got a great chuckle out of the "secret passageways" exploration request. The same student suggested that I should have a secret mad scientist lab underneath the classroom floor with a secret entrance through one of my cabinets giving me another good chuckle (I'm a high school science teacher by the way).

Jeff Vela's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Yes, teachers are human too. They use the restroom like eveyone else. Sometimes a classroom can feel like a cage that only opens it doors every fifty minutes for ten minutes and then the door is slammed again for another fifty minutes. This occurs seven times a day, five times a week for nine months of the year. Why do we put ourselves through all this? The answer is simple. We love teaching. We are willing to sacrifice our time to make a difference in a child's life. That reward is greater than any temporary pleasure like the ones that get us through the day. Yes, we are human but it takes a special human to show their human side. If it helps a student keep their interest in a class than it is worth it. Teachers look at the big picture and the ultimate reward of touching a student's life.

S. Gross's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Although my goal this year is to leave school by 4pm, I find it extremely difficult to accomplish everything. I have in mind the images of who my great teacher were: people who were excellent in class and who had hobbies I could emulate. One of my favorite teachers was a runner. Even though I agree with a previous comment on being efficient at grading and making the best use of class time, I feel that finding time to do everything necessary is our greatest challenge in teaching.

krystiana B's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I love this blog! I agree with it completely, because as educator we do give up so much without even realizing it. If is because we care and it can be draining. I can't stand when people ask about "my summer off" becasue in reality during the school year it seems like the rest of my life has stopped. The summer is the time that I get to pursue thing that I want to do or go to workshops that I want to attend, spend time with my son and get a chance to fully recharge.

krystiana B's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree with you completely. I know that as educators were are told that organization is key but even organization takes time. You may not get everything done on the days you want to get them done but as long as you have achieved a few goals each day, that wil help you in the long term

Judy Johnson's picture

I enjoyed your blog. There are so many expections from a teacher. At times I do think we are made out to be superwoman! I have found out to that this will lead to teacher burnout very quickly. I do agree the teacher must find some time to get away and be "human". I agree that there must be time for manicures, pedicures, massages, etc. just to rejuvinate and be ready to teach our angels

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