Boundaries for people who have a hard time with boundaries, Part 5. (Don’t take on the incompetence of others.)

Don’t take on the incompetence of others.

Or, I should clarify, don’t take on the consequences of the incompetence of others.

There is a poster that I see in a lot of teachers’ rooms, that I really like:


Or something to that effect.

Unfortunately, we cannot always control how much we take on the incompetence of others.  There are entire organizations built on covering for the incompetence of others.  But we should not feel OBLIGATED to take on the consequences of poor planning of someone else.

Sometimes it is the right thing to do, even when it is not right or fair.  For example, this year on the afternoon before the first day of classes, I was told that the sub for the 10th grade English class fell through due to clerical oversight, and I was now the 10th grade English teacher all day long for an indeterminate amount of time.  I could have acted like the class wasn’t really my responsibility (because it really wasn’t).  I could have gone home that afternoon when my contracted hours ended, rather than staying at school for hours afterward trying to track down furniture for the barren room that was covered in dust from lazy construction, and planning and preparing materials for a lesson that would engage the students the next day.  I could have gone home every day when my hours were over and come into school only when my hours began and acted like I was a sub for a class that wasn’t mine, because that’s essentially what the situation was.

No administration ever initiated communication with me about the class, to see how it was going.  No one checked in to make sure I had everything I needed (I had nothing that I needed).  No one followed up with me to inform me of the status of them finding a new sub to take the class.  They just assumed that I would take responsibility for this mistake, and sacrifice my time and energy researching materials and setting in place systems for a class that really wasn’t mine, and put effort into keeping the classes together and disciplined so that the new teacher wouldn’t walk into absolute chaos.  If I hadn’t emailed and gone into the principal’s office every single day, asking when the new sub would arrive, I probably would have had the class for two months, and without a word of recognition or appreciation.

I was angry.  I got so angry I got sick.  But I still took on the class and did my best for it, because I felt like the students should not have to bear the consequences of administrative apathy.

Sometimes, however, it is NOT right to take on the consequences of the incompetence of others.  After a few weeks, I was finally told that a long-term sub would be taking over the class on Monday and I could go back to the schedule that I was supposed to follow as a Special Education teacher, included going back to my contracted schedule of teaching periods 2-9 rather than periods 1-8.  I had been told that the substitute might come several times before, but now they were definitely coming, and I could go back to my own schedule.

When Monday came, I did not go to 1st period.  I was not supposed to go to 1st period, because I no longer had a 1st period.  This is what I was explicitly told on Friday.

The sub never came.  The students got in trouble for being in the hallway.  I was yelled at for not going to 1st period, even though I was explicitly told that that was not my responsibility anymore.  I was yelled at for not doing the duty that I was no longer supposed to do.  But when the person who was supposed to do it did not do it, it was my fault.

I protested that I was not teaching a 1st period class when I no longer was supposed to have a 1st period.  I went back to teach the rest of the classes for that day, because the school had no plan, and no one had gone to check if the sub had arrived in the morning, and the students needed to have a teacher.  But guess what happened the next day?  The new sub arrived, and after acclimating him to the classes, I was back on my regular schedule.

Here’s the thing.  If I had arrived at 1st period to check if the sub was there, and found that they were not, and taught the class immediately, no one would have ever known.  I still haven’t been thanked for taking on that class.  No one cared what happened to it, as long as someone was taking care of it.  No one cared what happened to me, as long as they didn’t have to worry about the class.  I might still be teaching it, for all I know.

The school was not happy when I did not cover for someone else’s responsibility (the sub’s to show up, HR to make sure he got there, the administration to check if anyone came…), because it caused inconvenience.

But it worked.  It got their attention.  It showed them that I would not continue to take responsibility for something that was not my problem, especially with no communication about it.  Had they explained to me that the sub did not come again and they needed me to continue covering the class, even though it was not my job and even though they had told me otherwise, perhaps I would have taken it on…although after awhile I may have to take further action.  But with no communication, to expect me to pick up the slack unquestioningly day after day, week after week?  Nope.

Did I make some people a little angry, and get some people in trouble?


Did I feel like a bit of a jerk?


Was setting the boundary worth the freedom of no longer being responsible for 5 periods of English classes that had been thrust on me at the last minute, and the dignity of asserting my worth?



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