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Teachers Aren't Supposed to be Selfless

May 2, 2018

At the start of each school year, many teachers spend a reasonable amount of time establishing policies, procedures, and protocols intended to ensure better learning and collaboration inside of their classrooms.


Is this you? It was me, too. 


I wonder: How much time do we take to define our boundaries, though? And why does that matter, anyway?


I'll be honest: I didn't take any time at all to do this when I was in the classroom, and it had everything to do with the skyrocketing levels of stress, anxiety, and even depression that I once experienced there. The silver lining of those dark days? I've become a good listener and a solid confidant. I know hundreds of teachers who are struggling in the same way right now. You might be surprised to know who they are. And while I'm not telling, I can promise you this: It's quite a few people you know.


It took many years for me to learn the important distinction between policies, procedures, protocols, and boundaries. Had someone....anyone...been able to help me appreciate this sooner, I would have saved myself years of struggle, too. 


It's not that people didn't try. I just wasn't ready or able to appreciate the message yet. Why? Well, because I was eager to please and I lacked confidence in my ability to teach well, let alone be a good colleague. Worse? I was also raised to believe that good humans are selfless humans, and it was clear that many in my system expected this from me. Back then, I thought that boundaries were for selfish people, not for teachers who intended to make a real difference for their students. 


Is this your unspoken belief?


You don't need to believe that.


In fact, it's important that you do NOT believe that, if you truly intend to be a great teacher. 


Boundaries matter. They matter because they prevent overwhelm, resentment, and eventually, disengagement. 


Let me tell you a story. 


Once upon a time (very early in my teaching career), I was so eager to impress a certain set of colleagues that I arrived to work at least an hour ahead of my students each day, stayed long past dinner time each evening, signed up for every voluntary endeavor offered to me, and made myself the poster child for progressive practices inside of a system where quite a few people were not so happy to be under that particular pressure. 


Were these choices made with good intentions? They were. In fact, nearly everyone I admired in the field implied or even told me directly that this kind of selflessness was the hallmark of teacher heroism. 


In short, the teachers who made the most difference for kids were the ones who sacrificed as much of their free time as possible, in service to them. Free time was all about self-indulgence, and self-indulgence wouldn't serve my students well. 






Here's what happened as a result of that misguided thinking: I gave up my decade long dedication to walking after dinner each evening. I stopped cooking and eating real food. I stopped reading for pleasure. I stopped writing entirely. And the more narrow my life became, the more anxious I grew. 


Did you know that anxiety and depression are often caused by anger? Think about that, if you need to. 


I didn't realize how angry I was back then (mostly because anger was about as acceptable as free time). I know that I rarely felt that I was doing anything right. I also bought into the toxic levels of competition that existed between some (to be fair, not nearly all) of my colleagues.


I became more judgmental, just as they were toward me. And then I became.....resentful. 


This taught me many hard lessons.


If I had to do it all over again, right here and right now? I'd be able to balance things a bit better. 

But I wasn't able to do it all back then, and no amount of shame and blame made my reality any different.


The most important thing I've learned? Boundaries build better teachers, and we need to have enough courage to set and protect them as well as we support other policies, practices, and protocols. The distinctions matter. 


These simple definitions might be clarifying, courtesy of Merriam-Webster:


A policy is a definite course or method of action, selected from alternatives and in light of given conditions. Policies guide and determine present and future decisions. Common examples include homework and attendance policies. 


A practice is one of many continuous exercises, relevant to our profession. Formative assessment is one example of a practice. Teaching to a learning target is another.


Protocols are formal procedures that ensure equity. Teachers often establish protocols for peer review and accountable talk. 


Boundaries are very different. Boundaries are about limit setting, and it's been my overwhelming observation that while teachers use policies, practices, and protocols to help students respect the boundaries between themselves and other students, they rarely set boundaries for themselves. Those who do struggle to make those boundaries transparent to their students, their colleagues, or their administrators. This was one of my greatest flaws as a young teacher, and it caused no end of turmoil. 


I'm wondering: How might we begin to set better boundaries? How might we communicate them in ways that help others appreciate our desire to become awesome teachers rather than assuming we are simply selfish or lazy?


My first steps included noticing when weak boundaries were depleting me and beginning to cause resentment. Often, the first indication of this came in the form of irritation. Then, anxiety. Then, a strong desire to detach from people or situations.


In extreme cases, I would feel myself compelled to ignore or worse, shame or silence those who were asking way too much from me or from others that I cared about. This made me feel terrible about myself until I learned that I wasn't alone in my struggle. Compassion fatigue is a very real thing, teacher friends. And we are the only ones who can control the influence it has on our psyche and our behavior. If we don't actively manage it, we'll often find ourselves ending relationships and walking away from otherwise fabulous opportunities. 


Building a non-judgmental awareness of our own limits can help us prevent problems entirely or better respond when we've missed the chance to be proactive. We need to know our triggers and our symptoms. We also need simple interventions that help us respond.


I've found that the acronym--S.O.S--helped tremendously. Every time I begin feeling waves of anxiety or irritation, I call on it now. It helps, but only because I've given myself permission to pause and reflect rather than responding immediately. When we're eager to please or anxious about controlling outcomes, it's difficult to summon this kind of patience, but practice makes perfect. So does trying it once and realizing that the world won't fall apart if we chose to move with intention rather than offering a quick reaction. 




The more aware I became of my need for better boundaries, the more courage I had to practice in setting them as well. It was hard to find the words, and sometimes, things came out all wrong. I'd let my fear or my certainty that I would not be respected drive the conversation, and this would compromise my tone and make the entire situation worse. This is how our first attempts at boundary setting often go. It's important to get better, but know this: Even your first, imperfect efforts are worth recognizing and even, celebrating. I've learned that using protocols like The I's Have It make my efforts at boundary setting far more successful, though. 



Tools like these have deepened my self-awareness, helped me set better limits where I need to, and enabled me to craft a professional life that is still way too busy and way too stressful but far more rewarding than I once imagined it could be. I hope that help you, too. And if you have other ideas to share, drop a comment here or share your thinking with us in our Facebook group. 


One important caveat: It's one thing to find yourself disengaging because you're overwhelmed and the situation calls for better boundaries. Boundaries keep us in the game. They help us persevere. They help us grow. It's quite another thing to find yourself disengaging because you no longer care to engage. Setting better boundaries won't help you feel better in these situations, and it's important not to pretend that you're boundary setting when what you're really doing is giving up on yourself, your learning, your colleagues, or worse--your students.


When you begin to set boundaries with those who would rather exhaust you, they may use shame and blame and guilt to make you feel as if you're merely lazy or apathetic or a quitter. They may even say these things about you. Some of my colleagues did this to me way back when, and rather than distancing myself immediately, I made myself vulnerable to them. This was a mistake, but it taught me another important lesson. Perhaps it will be of value to you: Your truth is the only one that matters, and if you're brave enough to live it, the people who matter most will see the true you, too.


How will know if you're being honest with yourself? Well, if you're setting boundaries with integrity, you'll likely feel an increasing sense of mastery and calm and growth even as you grapple with discomfort. And if you're not setting boundaries with integrity, you'll like find yourself making excuses rather than amends whenever you need to. You'll likely feel an increasing sense of anger and entitlement that prevents you from seeking opportunities to grow, too.


Trust your gut. Trust your ability to know yourself better day to day, and listen hard when that small voice inside of you suggests that you can or cannot trust someone who claims to have your best interests at heart.  


Finally, and perhaps most importantly, if you're one of those enlightened people who naturally sets and protects your boundaries, I admire that gift. I wonder: How might you serve as a far more visible example for other teachers in your system without shaming them for being very different from you? How might you take active steps to ensure that the assumption that teachers are supposed to be selfless doesn't grip your colleagues too tightly? 


Once we've found a better path, it makes sense to shine a light for others, right? How might you do that?



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