Teaching Boundaries, Part II – Time

Picture if you will: I’m wearing a pencil skirt and pumps, and I am dragging a luggage cart behind me. I’m bobbing and weaving through corridors to get to my destination. Am I a flight attendant? No, I am a first-year fourth-grade teacher circa 1986, and the luggage cart is full of books and papers. The destination? Home, where I will grade papers and write lesson plans. All weekend.

I wish I could say that so much has changed since then. But I constantly find myself needing to set time boundaries around my teaching. Case in point just a few years ago when I was teaching fully online for the first time: My husband would be stunned to come home to a completely dark house, save the beam of light from my home office door. Day would turn into night without me leaving my desk.

Maybe you’ve never had days like these. Maybe you have figured out the secret. Maybe it’s just me who has to remind myself to find work-life balance, but I don’t think so. Teachers are reporting increasingly higher levels of stress, and feeling like there aren’t enough hours in the day is a definite stressor.

In the early years of our marriage, my husband would suggest that it was all a matter of “time management.” (It really is a miracle we’re still married.) But then years later when I was a professional development specialist, I encouraged a group of teachers to take two minutes out of the day periodically to breathe with their students. One teacher snapped back, “I don’t have two minutes to breathe!”

Yes, the words “time management” almost escaped my lips. But, it’s really not about time management, rather it’s boundary management. It’s deciding what I want my life to be like, and the structures that need to be in place in order for that life to happen. It’s reflecting on what is important and acknowledging that I can’t please everyone. It’s accepting that good is most often good enough.

One boundary I put up a few years ago is letting students know I am unavailable on nights and weekends. This is more of an issue with online students who have a vision that I’m chained to my computer at all hours, waiting for their burning questions. I make a big show of this in a regular Friday e-mail reminding students that I am unplugging for the weekend and perhaps sharing any fun activities I might have planned.

Not only does this put up the stiff-arm for weekend meetings, but I believe it is good modeling for students. After all, our students are watching us closely. What do I want them to see? Someone ever-available-but-frazzled or someone who practices healthy self-care? Even if I have to fake it sometimes, I choose the latter. And my students know and accept my boundaries. One of my stats students remarked in a mid-term survey this semester: “You seem to have a great work/life balance and an overall positive attitude and I really like that.” A student in another class wrote, “I enjoy the weekend reminders and hearing about how you are unplugging for the weekend.”

Beyond just telling students I don’t work on nights and weekends, I have to actually follow through with this plan. This is challenging because there is always something else that can be done to make my class run better. My work could eat up every hour of my day if I let it, and the line has to be drawn somewhere. So 6pm at night and the weekend are boundaries I set for work. Now, I do break a boundary occasionally, but  my boundaries serve a purpose of (mostly) keeping my over-work tendencies in check.

Because I have set boundaries for work, there are times when I make people wait. I disappoint people every now and then. I definitely don’t accomplish all that I want. I drop the many balls I’m juggling with regularity, but somehow the world keeps spinning and my students keep learning, and that’s what will keep me teaching.

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