Work/Life Boundaries: Often Preached, Rarely Practiced

Maintaining a healthy work/life balance as a teacher requires action, not just good intentions. This year more than ever before, it would be easy to push aside self-care as just one more item on an endless to-do list - but veteran teacher Lisa has some thoughts on why that's exactly the wrong thing to do this year.

Teacher Work Life Balance

Wikipedia describes personal boundaries as, “guidelines, rules or limits that a person creates to identify reasonable, safe and permissible ways for other people to behave towards them and how they will respond when someone passes those limits.” People discuss boundaries in many realms of life, from relationship boundaries to friendship boundaries, family boundaries to work boundaries. Depending on the situation and the people involved, one’s own definition of their personal boundaries shifts and changes, and often boundaries can be dynamic and flexible with further consideration and conversation, or as situations change.

Teachers are in a unique position this school year in which the boundaries between school and home have blurred considerably, to the point where many teachers feel there is no separation at all, especially those who are working fully remotely. I’m here to say: blurred boundaries lead to stress, overworking, and generally feeling guilty. Set, specific, and stated boundaries ultimately result in a better work life, a better home life, and a more stable mindset. 

Part of the problem that teachers face in addition to a lack of separation of work and home is that teachers are notoriously people-pleasers: we are consistently working long outside of our contracted hours out of the goodness of our hearts because we truly love what we do, which is helping children. We call parents at all hours, respond to emails when kids need help, and spend extra time preparing the best lessons we can. Some teachers show up an hour before school begins to plan, some stay after, some bring home their “teacher bag” of work and grade assignments on the weekends. All of this is done outside of our contractual hours because certain parts of our planning simply must occur outside of those hours, and other parts occur because we want our kids to have the best experience in school that they can.

When we are unable to physically “leave work at work,” that is where our boundaries start to slide. “I know I said I wouldn’t check my email after 6 PM, but this parent is concerned and I can just respond right now.” “I really have to get these lessons filmed so that I can prepare my small groups for Zoom tomorrow, so I’ll work a little more tonight.” “A parent wants to schedule a conference as soon as possible, so I’ll move a few things around to make sure I can meet with them tomorrow.” When we make these small acquiesces to our personal boundaries, what we are really doing is sacrificing the ability to be the top-notch educators we know we are. 

You might be thinking that these examples are not that big a deal, that it would be rude not to reply to those emails, or of course we need to film that lesson. Here’s the thing: you will not be able to be as effective of a teacher if you do not establish clear boundaries between work and home. Work will seep further and further into the home life to the point where the guilt of not responding or not doing everything we can is overwhelming, and our mental health and ability to teach kids well will decline.

So, what can we do? Take a look at the suggestions below for how to effectively and kindly establish boundaries when we work from home to teach our kids to the best of our ability while also maintaining some sanity at home!

Set Clear Expectations and Stick to Them

Just as we set clear expectations for our students and parents each year when we teach in the school building, it is imperative to set clear expectations for our students and parents this year as we teach from home. Depending on your school’s remote schedule, you may be working a standard 8 AM to 3 PM schedule that includes synchronous Zoom calls, asynchronous lesson creation, small groups, individual conferences, staff meetings, and more. After a full day of work, it is completely reasonable to disconnect and decompress, while also knowing that emails may come in. 

Depending on your personal comfort level, decide upon a daily schedule that you know you will upkeep: maybe you tell your students’ families that you will be available to respond to emails as soon as possible during the scheduled workday, that you will check periodically throughout 6 PM, and after that time you will respond within 24 hours. Perhaps you say that you will NOT be available to respond to parent emails during the set school day itself, and that you will respond between 4 and 6 PM. Whatever you decide upon, be clear, concise, and stick to what you say. If you start emailing certain families back at 8 PM, parents talk, and you may be setting yourself up to lose those pre-established boundaries.

Find Time to Disconnect from Tech

Most of our world these days is online. Not only is this terrible for our eyes and sleep, it is extremely draining to look at screens all day. Figure out some time, ideally every day, to remove yourself from the draws of technology. Leave your phone in the house and take a walk. Leave your phone in a different room for an hour as you clean. Physically close your laptop screen. Mute notifications from email during a certain time frame and force yourself not to look. Nothing horrible is going to happen if you don’t reply until tomorrow.

Engage in Self-Care

Whatever self-care means for you, schedule time into your week to engage in it. If self-care is reading a book for fun, read that book! If self-care is watching trash television and eating chocolate, do it! If it’s exercise, definitely do it, as exercise has many proven benefits when it comes to mood, sleep, and overall health. No matter the activity, food item, or ritual, know that there are no rules to what constitutes self-care: anything that helps you pause, recharge, and ultimately feel better will make you a better teacher! Take a look at this self-care workbook for more ideas!

Give Yourself a Break

I don’t mean this one literally, I mean it figuratively. Give yourself a break. Understand that the world is very, very different than it was six months ago, and we are living through an ongoing, extremely stressful time. If you mess up and respond to an email at 8 PM, it won’t be the end of the world. If you schedule a time to work out and then you don’t, don’t beat yourself up. We are only human, and we are doing the absolute best we can.

Lisa Koplik is a fourth-grade teacher at the Greenwood School in Wakefield, Massachusetts. She loves teaching math, reading intense read-aloud books that promote complaints when she has to stop reading, and figuring out educational games to play with her students. Check out her video series on classroom management!

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