There's never a bad time to start prioritizing your self-care as a teacher and asking for what you need from others. This #TeacherAppreciationMonth, follow these tips to reclaim your peace.
Let’s talk about the B word.
No, not that one.
I’m talking about boundaries. A word that conveys clear and concise meaning in a professional field that can be anything but. Teachers struggle with boundaries for a variety of reasons. Maybe it’s the viral Instagram Martyrs on their feeds who, “Do it for the kids,” even pushing so far as holding remote circle time from a hospital bed.
Maybe it’s the eight million emails from parents in their inboxes. Maybe it’s the insecurity you feel as a teacher that you’re always falling short of what’s needed from you. The key factor in how much these variables impact educators is often juxtaposed to the health of their relationship with their administration.
Administrators are in a unique position of being ultimately disconnected from the lived teaching experience while also being somewhat responsible for it. Sometimes, you’ll get really lucky and find yourself with an administration that supports you, respects your time, and effortlessly creates an environment where you are set up for success.
However, if this sounds like complete fiction to you, particularly in the year of a pandemic, you’re not alone. Since administration loves to tell teachers to practice self-care so much, why don’t we practice the biggest one of all? Setting some B-words: beautiful boundaries!
Much like attempting new classroom management techniques too late in the year, it’s challenging to set boundaries with an administration that is accustomed to hearing a big, fat yes every time they come running. However, challenging doesn’t mean impossible. Here are some actionable boundaries you can begin practicing right now.
1) Set the standard for how feedback is communicated to you.
Feedback is important in the teaching profession. We can all use different perspectives on our work from time to time. However, it’s more than okay to set boundaries on how this occurs!
I remember I once had an administrator who liked to wander over and talk to me about my teaching performance whenever I was on lunch duty. This made me anxious, as I was not prepared to hear out their perspective while I was overseeing a cafeteria full of kids, in front of other teachers and colleagues.
If your boss or another admin often gives feedback to you in circumstances that throw you off your teaching game, you are allowed to express this. Have a direct conversation where you highlight what makes you uncomfortable (I’m not comfortable with being pulled from my teaching to have a conversation about my performance during class time) and a clear way for how you would like to move forward (Moving forward, I would like to propose scheduling a meeting outside of class time so that I can be prepared to fully address and understand any of your concerns.)
Ensure you follow up this conversation with an email documenting your agreement on how feedback will now be given to you, and politely remind them of this agreement when similar circumstances arise.
2) Ask for actionable items when feedback is given.
Administrators often have big-picture ideas and sweeping statements about how teaching should look, but expect you to bring their vision to life without a lot of specific guidance. If an administrator is giving you innocuous feedback like, “Make it more fun!” or “Be more innovative!”, you need to push for clarity, without outright disregarding their feedback. But how?
First, explain what you are understanding from their feedback and ask for confirmation (You’re saying you want my lessons to be more fun, does that mean you’re concerned about student engagement?).
Next, list the steps you already feel you specifically take to address this in your classroom (To keep students engaged, I already incorporate a variety of games that complement the curriculum).
Third, ask them to help you lay out tangible, actionable steps that you can take to improve, and document them (Now that you know what I’m already doing, what are some other steps you feel I could take to achieve higher student engagement?).
Finally, make sure you set a date for when you will discuss the results of these action items (Thank you for your feedback and working with me to understand how I can implement it in my classroom. I would like to schedule a meeting in two weeks to discuss my progress on this issue.)
3) Listen to your gut feeling and honor it. No means no.
Every teacher has a gut that they know to listen to when it comes to the well-being and growth of their students. You know, the feeling that tells us when we’re pushing too hard, when we need to push more, when we know we’re heading into a topic or lesson that will truly excite them. Think of yourself with the same mindset.
If administration approaches you with an opportunity that excites you and gets your teacher heart going, follow that feeling! If an administrator approaches you with a task outside of your job description and current capacity, check in with yourself. If the request is bringing up anger, fatigue, or resentment, say a polite and firm no thank you.
For example, Thank you so much for thinking of me for this opportunity, but I do not currently have time for this within my workload and will have to decline. This tactic equally works for the dreaded being “volun-told” to do something. Just because they are volunteering you, doesn’t mean you have to comply if it isn’t within your capacity. Keep your response short and sweet, and honor your emotions.
4) Your time is valuable, and only you know how to protect it.
In a perfect world, administration would norm how teachers spend their time. If teachers were compensated for their overtime, only then would administrators truly stand up and take notice of this issue.
Realistically, this looks different for every teacher, but the sentiment remains the same: you’re allowed to value your time outside of contracted hours without judgement. You don’t need to have a reason to be at home and enjoy your life outside of work. If you want to get home to spend time with your family, amazing! If you want to get home to scroll through TikTok with a glass or two of wine, great!
If you try to live up to the world’s expectations, you will always fall short. If this is a boundary you struggle with (and I know we all do), you need to ask yourself if you have over-committed yourself (see above), if you're struggling with time management, or if you're struggling with your teacher-ego.
If it’s a time management issue, take a look at your daily schedule. What is feasible for you? What can you get done if you structure your teaching day differently? What is necessary and what is not? What support can administration offer? Set a routine and stick to it.
If it’s an issue with ego and feeling the need to go above and beyond, even when you’re burning out, set firm boundaries with yourself. Most computers have the ability to set a daily time they shut down. Use it. Write a to-do list on Friday in your notebook and close it for the weekend. Do not answer emails that don’t require an urgent response. Make that the last thing you do and forget about work until you step back into your classroom the next morning.
You cannot be your best teacher self when you don’t give time back to YOU. Your students will thank you for it, but most importantly you will thank yourself for it.
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