Setting Boundaries — How to Be More ‘Selfish’ at Work

Do you ever feel misunderstood as an educator? Do you get comments like, “It must be so nice to get summers off and get so many breaks” or “You are so lucky you’re done with work way before five”? Though well meaning, these comments fail to capture all of the work (both emotional and physical) that you pour into your job. In fact, you might feel closer to constantly being on the verge of burnout than to having your dream job.

While others may envision you instructing your perfectly behaved students for a few hours before you drive home for a relaxing afternoon and evening, your day is much busier and more exhausting than that. From finding creative ways to keep your students engaged to moderating clubs and sports after school to grading endless stacks of homework, you’re more likely to feel like your work is never done no matter how many weekends you work.

Stressors like the ones mentioned above (and others) can rob you of the joy you originally experienced when you started teaching. Instead, you might feel stressed, overwhelmed, or have the sense that work is completely overtaking your life. In order to help you recapture the joy of teaching you once had, it can be helpful to take an honest look at how you interpret your role as an educator.

Define Your Role as an Educator

We’re used to hearing inspiring stories about teachers who spend their paycheck on meals for their students, who spend hours after school tutoring their students, or who adopt a student who is in the foster care system. These stories carry with them the message that being a teacher means that we must impact our students in a profound way and potentially at the detriment to our own financial, physical, or emotional well-being. This may be a sustainable approach to teaching in the short term, but over time, you may start to feel tired, discouraged, and resentful toward your students, parents, fellow educators, and the administration because all of your resources are being depleted in such a profound way.

Being an educator is not the same as being a parent, mentor, advisor, coach, counselor, and inspiration all in one to your students.

Instead, being an educator is about being a guide to your students. It’s about connecting them with ideas, information, and skills that can help them be their best selves. Being a connector means that you are not only connecting your students with skills and knowledge, but you are also connecting them with other people and resources as needed. For example, if you teach high school literature, not only are you connecting your students with the great authors and ideas throughout history, but you are also connecting them with writing workshops, tutors, school counselors, and other clubs that can help them flourish as both readers and writers.

How to Set Boundaries as a Teacher

Your challenge as a teacher is maintaining your role as guide and connector without falling into the habit of being every role (parent, coach, teacher, counselor, etc.) to every student. It can be so easy to slip into the all-in-one mode because you care about your students and want the best for them. And wanting what’s best for them is a good thing! It only becomes detrimental when it comes at the expense of your own well-being.

One of the best ways you can ensure that you continue to embrace your role as connector (instead of sliding into being everything to everyone) is to set physical and emotional boundaries for yourself. Boundaries are like bumpers in bowling alley lanes: They help guide us and keep us on track. Having clearly defined emotional and physical boundaries empowers you to be fully present with your students while still taking care of your own needs and emotional health.

Physical boundaries include things like having set times for when you spend time at work and for when you spend time on work after school hours. For example, you might:

  • Set a boundary that you stay a half hour after the bell rings for students and then pack up to go home.
  • Decide to grade papers for one and a half hours after school and then stop wherever you are and put the work away.
  • Set a boundary that you don’t work on weekends or that you only moderate one extracurricular club.

These physical boundaries will look different for each person based on the season of life you are in, energy levels, and other commitments. No matter what you decide that your physical boundaries are, it’s helpful to write them down somewhere (in your planner, for example) to help you stay accountable to your boundaries.

Emotional boundaries include things like taking steps to manage your own stress levels, meeting your own emotional needs (having healthy relationships, for example), and routinely checking in with yourself to assess whether or not you are getting too invested in your students’ lives. Simple ways to manage stress levels include:

  • Getting 7–9 hours of sleep a night.
  • Exercising regularly.
  • Eating balanced meals.
  • Staying connected to others.

Meeting your own emotional needs simply means making sure that you are taking care of your emotional health, cultivating a balanced life that isn’t all about school, and making time for leisure.

Don’t Let Your Boundaries Slide!

A helpful clue that you may be overly invested in your students is if you let any boundary start to slide. If you notice this happening, simply reinstate the boundary, remind yourself why it is helpful for you, and simply get back on track.

Setting simple boundaries like these ensures that you are able to be fully present as an educator to your students. Boundaries allow you to focus on what you do best as an educator rather than being pulled in too many directions while feeling emotionally and physically drained.

Boundaries help you to be the educator you want to be without feeling like it needs to come at the expense of your own well-being.

Julia Marie Hogan is a counselor in Chicago and owner of Vita Optimum Counseling & Consulting, LLC. She also leads workshops and writes on topics related to self-care, relationships, and mental health. Her book “It’s OK to Start With You” is all about the power of embracing your authentic self through self-care. She is passionate about empowering individuals to be their most authentic selves. You can find more of her writing online at juliamariehogan.com.

The opinions, representations, and statements made within this guest article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of One in Five Minds or Clarity Child Guidance Center. Any copyright remains with the author, and any liability with regard to infringement of intellectual property rights remain with them. One in Five Minds and Clarity Child Guidance Center accepts no liability for any errors, omissions, or representations.

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