Professional Learning

Setting Boundaries Can Mean a Happier Teaching Career

June 18, 2009

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  • An outdated compensation system.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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