During my nine years of teaching, I faced my fair share of students who grew annoyed, even a few became irate, that I didn’t reply to their middle-of-the-night or weekend emails. They would frantically message me that their printer failed to work or their computer glitched and deleted their essay. Their e-mails were full of all-caps text and exclamation points, letting me know just how upset they were. When I didn’t reply, because I was sleeping or spending time with my family, they would get even more up in their feelings.
As a former teacher and now a mom of four, I greatly respect my kids’ teachers when they don’t reply to e-mails on the weekends, in the evenings, or on a holiday. When I e-mail them—which often is during one of the times I mentioned—I always add that I don’t expect a reply that day, just in case they feel a sense of obligation to get back to me. It’s admirable that they value their time enough to have created boundaries surrounding their job responsibilities.
I know many parents get annoyed—based on their Facebook rants in parent groups—when teachers don’t reply within five hot minutes of a parental e-mail being sent their way. My response: good for the teacher. They are overworked and underpaid. They signed up to teach because it’s their passion, but teaching isn’t their own life responsibility or purpose. Parents (and older students) often feel entitled to all of the teacher’s time and energy—which is pathetic. The only clapback a teacher has is to not respond.
Now, more than ever, teachers—and really all of us who work—need to protect our peace. In order to do this, we have to create a good work-life balance and create healthy boundaries that we strictly adhere to. Otherwise, it’s just too easy to go down the rabbit hole of responding. There’s a cost to every choice, and too often the cost is missing out on moments with our family and friends, practicing self-care, or taking care of other responsibilities.
I checked in with Dr. Rachel Goldman, a psychologist and clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at NYU School of Medicine, to get her take on work-life boundaries. She shared with me that boundaries matter because we need to feel “fulfilled in different areas” of our lives and “prevent burnout.” We need to remember that we cannot “do it all,” and with boundaries in place, we can be successful.
There’s another major perk. When we set clear boundaries of what we will and won’t do, when, and how, we are “setting an example for others,” whether that be a teacher showing their students or another person showing their family. I have noticed that whenever I choose to put up a boundary in my own life, my kids have taken note. For example, I have taught my kids that when my bathroom door is closed, they must knock—always—and wait for a reply before entering. In turn, they have learned that when they want some uninterrupted chill time, they can also close their bedroom door.
We know that boundaries are healthy and helpful, but what do they look like—practically? Dr. Rachel, as she goes by, shared some helpful tips with me. She says we can “turn off all electronics and don’t check your e-mail after a certain time.” I’ve even seen fellow writers put a notice in their e-mail signatures that they only respond to e-mails during certain hours and on certain days of the week. Brilliant! This let the other person know that they shouldn’t expect a reply during the writer’s “off” hours.
We can also set a boundary by leaving work at a certain time every day. There’s always, always more to do, so don’t use that as an excuse to burn the midnight oil. Take back your time.
She also shared that we need to embrace saying and respecting the word “no.” She adds that “sometimes saying no means saying yes to you.” We too often offer up a “no” with a wordy justification as to why we’re saying no, almost as if we’re apologizing for having boundaries. You’ve probably heard before, but I’ll remind you here, the no is a complete sentence.
Another tip Dr. Rachel offers is along the same lines of saying no. We need to be willing to communicate what we need to the people who need to hear those needs. Mainly, a supervisor at our job. If you’re marching full-on toward burnout, you’ve made all the changes you can on your own, then it’s time to see what else can be done.
Teachers often socialize with teacher-friends, but Dr. Rachel wants to remind us that breaking out of our work cycle, even if it’s during leisure time, is a good idea. Inevitably, when I used to hang out with my teacher friends, we’d “talk shop,” which did nothing to reduce my stress. Expand your circle of friends, or be ok with some time with just your partner or solo.
Dr. Rachel empathizes with teachers, because she says the pandemic has taken a major toll on them. Not only do teachers (and all professionals) have their “regular stressors,” but also COVID-19 stressors. Many professionals have to wear masks at all times, as well as take many other precautions to keep themselves and those around them safe and healthy. With this in mind, it’s even more important to establish healthy boundaries.
She wants us to ask ourselves, “What do I need right now?” Adding, “What’s working? What’s not working?” Doing some self-reflection and honest self-evaluation can go a long way in sustaining a work-life balance. She shares, “Answering these questions can be helpful to see if there is anything small that you can change to help you feel better.”
I find that my kids’ teachers are excellent role models in their e-mailing boundaries. They are teaching my kids that they have lives outside of school, which deserve respect and space. My children, in turn, are learning that they also have the right to create healthy boundaries and listen to their own needs. Now, if we can just get the rest of the world on board, we’ll be much better off.