If Work Seeps into Personal Time, It's OK to Set Boundaries

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January 10, 2023

Are you one of those teachers who gets to school before the sun comes up and are often the last to leave the building? Do you have to have the most “Pinteresting” room in the building with the most perfect bulletin boards? Are you on ALL of the committees and have the most exciting lesson plans written in your plan book? Well … this can be a surefire way to burn out.

I used to be a teacher with NO boundaries. I worked 12 hours every weekend in my classroom creating amazing centers, lessons and bulletin boards. I responded to every parent request or correspondence as soon as humanly possible, I took part in many committees and extras within my district, and this came at the cost of being with my own family during those weekends.

This is an easy path to burnout! I am not going to lie, being Michigan Teacher of the Year has again really pushed my boundaries. However, here are a couple of the things that I have learned over the last few decades of teaching that I’d like to share.

Setting Boundaries Is OK

Why do teachers need to set healthy boundaries so they don’t burn out? With the lack of funding, lack of autonomy, unrealistic high stakes standardized testing goals, COVID-19, fatigue, resentment, feelings of being demoralized … and the list goes on, teaching is sometimes stressful, and teachers need to make sure they are able to prioritize their health and well-being!

If you feel like you are underappreciated, undervalued, overworked and misunderstood, you are more likely at risk of burnout!! Teachers are known for working hours and hours of overtime, and are not compensated for these hours. Remember, prioritize the importance of tasks so that you are sure to finish.

Saying No Is OK

Create boundaries that work for your mental health, learn to say NO, prioritize the things that you have control over and that matter to you the most.

Teachers care so deeply for the students and families they work with it is often difficult for them to say no to anything. Teachers want to do it ALL because we are helpers and doers. We have taken on more and more responsibilities, many of which are done well beyond the contractual hours. I recently read a statistic in an Education Week article that stated, “Teachers work long hours, far more than what’s required of them. Even still, 17 percent are also working second jobs outside the school system.”

I am not saying that teachers should never go above and beyond or work outside our hours; I think we can all agree that will never happen. What I am saying is that we MUST prioritize our mental health and well-being and remember that it is OK to do so. Remember, teachers, there is no need to feel guilty or be fearful that you are not a good teacher because you make time for your physical and mental health.

Administrators Can Help

LEADERSHIP is critical in combating teacher burnout! Fostering peer support with SEASONED, PASSIONATE mentors is critical to their success! Leaders need to invest time in understanding their teachers and making sure they feel cared for. An easy way to do this is to set boundaries schoolwide. Communicate to all that it is OK to set boundaries, to say no and define personal limits. Leaders can stop in and see if a teacher needs a bathroom break, and offer to cover while they use the bathroom, offer to cover a recess time and or any other small coverage where the teacher can enjoy some bodily autonomy.

We MUST give new teachers the support they need to feel successful in their position. They need to feel prepared, supported and able to ask questions. Veteran, passionate teachers need to be partnered with the new teachers, but mentors should never be expected to do more when they are already mentoring. An easy support for this important role would be to offer to take another responsibility off of the plate of a mentor teacher.

Additionally, allowing teachers to be the professionals they are by giving them autonomy over the professional development they participate in is critical to their success. By allowing teachers to expand their knowledge and strengths, and work on their weaknesses in ways that are important to them, it offers them opportunities to delve deeper into topics that are meaningful to them.

One idea would be to offer professional development such as how teachers can critically reflect on their craft by using reflective practices. I feel that this is a better use of a teacher’s time as there is a great deal of research that points to the importance of reflective practice in teaching. However, not all teachers understand the importance of reflection in their teaching, so offering professional development that teaches educators how to deeply reflect and implement this in their everyday practices will expand and enable their learning processes.

Reflective practices help teachers uncover their own personal bias and assumptions that are grounded in their beliefs, and they allow teachers to create space for discovery and inclusion of other ideas. I think we can agree that there is a benefit in reflectively looking at one’s own beliefs and making sure that they do not exclude or marginalize any one group.

Teacher Burnout Has Many Different Faces

As I mentioned earlier, many things lead to teacher burnout, and we need to be very careful with the idea that teachers just need to perform “self-care” routines, and they will be fine.

What we need now is to recognize what burnout looks like for ourselves, identify the causes and learn to find healthy solutions that work for each individual teacher. If you notice some of these things happening to you – depression, withdrawal, fatigue, feelings of being overwhelmed, frequent headaches and stomach aches, or other unexplained physical ailments – you may be showing signs of teacher burnout. Consider setting boundaries and talking with trusted people within your support system.

Remember, if you are experiencing symptoms of teacher burnout, you are not alone. Many teachers, both new and veteran alike, experience burnout.

Remember to ...

Get enough sleep, eat food that fuels your body, make the weekend all about you, spend time with friends and family and be present, don't think about work. Set BOUNDARIES! Boundaries create more control for teachers, better relationships and more peace.

I’ve set boundaries, and now I try to leave within 45-60 minutes after the bell rings. I still come to school before the sun comes up, but I use that time to do all of my planning and copying. However, I now spend my weekends with friends and family, and if I need to do extra work within my classroom, I schedule that into my week, and I stick to my schedule.

For me, learning to maximize the time I have at school alleviates any additional stress. It’s important that we take care of our own well-being so that we can be our best selves both personally and professionally!

Stay well, my friends, and remember it is OK to prioritize yourself first!!
About Nanette Hanson: I am a proud teacher with 20-plus years of varied teaching experiences in several teaching positions, from alternative high school through first grade. I work each day to build safe and supportive relationships that help kids grow and flourish while embracing each child’s needs and individuality. As Michigan Teacher of the Year 2022-23, I will strive to continue to build relationships with educational stakeholders to work toward building systems that better offer equitable, inclusive educational opportunities for all students across Michigan.