Setting Boundaries by Meggin McIntosh, Ph.D.

Sep 16th, 2013

Swimming lanesWhere are your “edges” or your “boundaries”?  Where do you draw the line?  Do you?

boundary is “something that indicates or fixes a limit or extent” (Merriam-Webster).  As a teacher, you need to define what your limits are with respect to email, parents, administrators, your family, colleagues, grading, and so on.  Ten tips to assist you in defining and setting your boundaries include:

  1. Set boundaries with email.  Decide to whom you will give your school address and only check your school email at school or during pre-determined times at home.
  2. Set boundaries with parents.  You need to be responsive to the parents of the students you teach.  Delineate these boundaries with parents:(a) times you are available to meet;(b) advance notice required to schedule an appointment;(c) best ways to contact you (via email, phone, or note) and(d) what your off-limits times are (e.g., immediately before and after school and/or between classes).Most parents want to operate in a civil fashion and you just need to communicate what your boundaries are.  Gain clarity in your own mind and then offer the information to them in a variety of ways.
  3. Set boundaries with students.  You are a teacher for your students.  That’s clear.  And you cannot be available to them 24/7.  Ask students to respect your boundaries…once you establish them.  This involves time, energy, and space boundaries that need to be established.
  4. Set boundaries with colleagues.  Teaching colleagues (just like colleagues in every profession) sometimes think they can just burst into your classroom or office when they have a question or want to tell you something.  Make it clear that when you are teaching or during your prep period, you can not be interrupted.
  5. Set boundaries with your family.  This might involve making sure that they know not to call you at school or it might involve setting boundaries around the time you spend grading at home.  As you know, grading goes faster when you are not interrupted.  Encourage them with that news.
  6. Set boundaries with grading.  If you let it, grading can consume your life.  Set boundaries for when you will do your grading.  One good friend (an English teacher) designates every third weekend as her grading weekend for large projects and papers.  Daily papers are dealt with…daily…but the big grading takes over one weekend–but not the other two.  That’s a boundary.
  7. Set boundaries with administrators.  You know which boundaries you need to set with your principal, dean, or other administrator(s).  Possibilities include interruptions; hastily-called meetings (that aren’t emergencies); volunteering you for something; expecting to be able to contact you anytime day or night with an “issue;” putting all of the most difficult students in your class; and so on.  What are your limits?
  8. Set boundaries with friends at school.  It is wonderful to have friends who are at our same school.  And, sometimes those friends at school cross professional lines and it is essential that you establish the boundaries that the two of you need to have at school vs. outside of school.  This is not an easy one if the other person is somewhat boundariless.  It needs to be done, however.
  9. Set boundaries with friends who are non-educators.  It depends on who your friends are what kinds of boundaries some of those friends may violate.  For example, if you have some friends that go on a rampage about the state of education and teachers, etc., etc….with no regard for you and your profession, then you need to call them out on that.  If there are other examples where you have felt your outside-of-school friends are crossing the line with you, then make it clear what you would prefer in terms of their respect.
  10. Set boundaries with neighbors or other community members.  Being a teacher is one of those professions that instantly brings out all the questions that people have related to schools, their children’s struggles, which books their kids should read, etc.  Sometimes, it’s fine to be seen (and accessed) as a resource, and sometimes you just want to turn it off.  Whatever the boundaries are that you need, get clear on those and have ways of letting others know whether “The Doctor is In” or “The Doctor is Out.”  (My friend, Sue Vaughn even gave me a sign I could put on my door for that!)

If you don’t have any boundaries, then nothing is off limits.  Be clear about where you need to draw the line.  This is the first step in putting in place all the other “pockets”  you need to be an effective, energized educator.

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