129 Setting Boundaries as a Teacher: Three Commitments I Made

December 23, 2022

This fall, Nicole returned to the classroom for the first time in five years. Based on her previous experience in the classroom, she knew she had to create some boundaries before she returned. So, she made three commitments before returning. Learn how she (mostly) kept these commitments this year.

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Setting Boundaries as a New Teacher

When Nicole started teaching, she didn’t have children. She admits, she was one of the first teachers to arrive each day. And, she was one of the last ones to leave. Also, it wasn’t uncommon for her to bring work home or spend her weekends prepping for her classes.

She believed that working extra hours was a part of teaching. And, she didn’t think working so much was avoidable because she had so much to do.

At this point, she was a self-proclaimed over-achiever and people please. Then, her daughter was born.

Nicole had to cut back her hours out of necessity. She couldn’t get to work as early because the mornings were more hectic. And, she had to leave earlier to relieve a babysitter. But, she managed to keep up with her workload.

Then, she had her second child. Teaching and having two children seemed impossible. So, she decided to leave the classroom.

Boundaries are Difficult as a New Teacher

It’s not impossible to create and maintain boundaries as a new teacher. However, many new teachers feel pressured by their administrators, other teachers or other influences to work outside of their contract hours. But, the most important thing is to make sure that your workload is sustainable.

Below, Nicole outlines the boundaries she set when she returned to the classroom and how she kept them. You don’t need to be an experienced teacher to set these type of boundaries.

Setting New Boundaries as a Teacher

Nicole made a few commitments before she returned to the classroom. She knew it was important to set some clear boundaries around her workload and her classroom environment. She was returning to the classroom after five years, now as the mother of three.

Here are some of the commitments she made to create a strong work-life balance and maintain a positive classroom environment.

Commitment #1: Not Working Much After Contract Hours

Nicole’s priorities were different now. It was important to her to spend time with her family when she left work. So, she had to create boundaries around her time.

So, she decided that she wouldn’t bring work home with her. And, she would mostly work her contract hours.

Exceptions to the Rule

Nicole admits she likes having some quiet time in the morning. And, it was easier for her to get this need met inside of her classroom. So, she decided it worked best to arrive early most days.

However, the mornings were still hectic and this didn’t always happen. Also, she didn’t arrive nearly as early as she did when she first started teaching. In addition, she almost always left within a few minutes of the end of her contracted time.

Also, she admits to bringing a few things home here and there. It was usually something like cutting or laminating that she could do while she watched TV.

This boundary worked well for her because she wasn’t relying on the time outside of her contract hours to get work done. And, she set a flexible boundary that worked well for her and her family.

How to Maintain this Boundary

This isn’t an easy boundary to keep because there is always more to do. And, Nicole admits, there are a few advantages she had in her classroom. First, she had designated prep time everyday. Also, she had a curriculum to draw from. This curriculum wasn’t ideal. But, it did work when she needed something to use.

In order to maintain this boundary, there are a few things Nicole recommends:

1- Be content with less than perfect. Often, Nicole found resources that weren’t quite what she wanted. But, they got the job done. Before, she would have re-written things to make sure they worked for her students. Now, she knows she needs to live with things that aren’t perfect in order to leave on time.

2- Focus on shifting work to students. There are several ways to do this. First, allow them to self assess when it makes sense. Also, using self-checking assessments can take a lot of work off of the teacher. Finally, student helpers are great for setting up and taking down labs.

3- Use templates that can be reused. Nicole created several templates to help reduce her workload. For example, she created general rubrics. And, she had a warm-up template that was used for several weeks. And, she had rubrics students used for self-assessments.

4- Be careful when choosing what to collect, grade and assess. Not everything needs to be graded. So, it’s important to be selective about what you collect from students.

Commitment #2: Not Rushing to Cover it All

Often, we as teachers feel like we have to cover all of the standards in our courses. Unfortunately, this leads us to rush through important aspects of the learning.

For example, we may not fully explain how to perform a certain skill. Ultimately, this leads us to have to repeat instruction later down the road.

Often, this happens when it comes to setting expectations for our students. We tend to quickly explain expectations at the beginning of the school year. Then, we expect our students understand. And, we get upset when students do not follow behavior expectations. Instead, slowing down and reteaching skills and using restorative consequences is more likely to prevent the behavior from occurring again. But, this does take away from instructional time while this conversation is taking place. However, if this time is regularly taken to explain student behavior it will ultimately save class time.

How to Maintain this Boundary

This boundary is difficult to maintain because this isn’t an exact science. But, here are a few things that Nicole did to make sure she wasn’t rushed:

1- Make yourself a tentative pacing guide. Your district may provide a pacing guide. But, if it doesn’t, it’s important to create your own. Then, you’ll have an idea of how long you want to spend on each topic. And, expect for things to take longer in the beginning of the school year.

2- Prioritize what is important. It’s important to determine what is vital to cover within a lesson sequence or unit. Prioritize those aspects. Then, if you feel like you are falling behind, you know what you can drop and what you can’t.

3- Go slow to go fast. Sometimes it feels like it’s taking our students forever to understand a topic or to develop a skill. But, consider the time you spend here as an investment. Making sure your students are developing these skills will ultimately save you time in the long run. Hopefully, you’ve allocated additional time to develop these skills when you created your pacing guide.

Commitment #3: Not using grades as a motivator.

It can be difficult setting this boundary as a teacher. So much of our current education system is dependent on student grades and the eternal motivation they create. But, what if a student isn’t motivated by grades.

Recently, we’ve seen an uptick in student behavior because the practice of using grades doesn’t seem to work as motivator. And, ultimately, we want student to be internally motivated by the drive to learn.

How to Maintain this Boundary

The focus here must be creating an environment where students are internally motivated. Here are a few practices that helps Nicole to motive here students:

1- Create a safe space. We’ve talked a LOT about relationships in our classroom. That’s because students learn more when they feel safe.

Interestingly, social and physical threats are perceived similarly in our brains. So, if a student is uncomfortable socially, their amygdala actually prevents learning from taking place. To learn more about the brain science behind missing engagement, check out this episode.

2- Choose relevant phenomena. Phenomena are so important for helping students see how what they’ve learned connects to their lives. Plus, great phenomena sparks creativity. If you want to learn how to pick great anchoring phenomena, check out this episode.

3- Focus on equitable grading practices. We talked about this a little bit when we discussed Standards-based grading. This episode is a great place to start. If you’re ready for more information, the book Grading for Equity, by Joe Feldman is an excellent resource.