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?



Boundaries for people who have a hard time with boundaries, Part 4. (Limit happy hours with coworkers.)

To maintain separation between work and home life, limit happy hours with coworkers.

I think that SOME happy hours with coworkers is a good thing.  It is a nice way to bond with people that perhaps you do not have informal interaction with throughout the day, and it is fun to have friends at work that you share more than just the work day with.  However, I believe that it is healthy to keep them limited.

In my first year of teaching, I was invited into the “happy hour” crew, which actually went out for drinks pretty much every single Friday afternoon of the year.  I really didn’t do anything else on Fridays because after I left happy hour, I felt so disgusting from the long work week and too many drinks and terribly greasy bar food that I just wanted to sleep for 10 hours and feel normal again.  I cancelled a lot of Friday evening plans that year due to the endless happy hours.

I went to so many happy hours mostly to get to know Handsome US History teacher, who is now my husband (and, I found out later, he went to so many of them to get to know me…we stopped going to so many once we stated dating).  I also wanted to get to know people at my school, and in a new city in general.  I was flattered to be asked out and have a way to meet friends.

After awhile, though, I kind of dreaded these happy hours.  I still went, because that was my social group and the typical way to spend Friday evening.  But that was the problem.  That was now my primary social group, and pretty much the only way I spent Friday evening.  I felt very isolated if I didn’t go out with them one week, because I invested so much of my social energy in that group of people.

The other problem is, when you go out with work people all the time after work, what do you end up talking about mostly?  Work.  The one thing you all have in common.  The conversation may go other places but it always inevitably comes back to work, and even on Friday afternoon when you all have escaped the place you spent all week, you really haven’t left work.  In fact, sometimes new work ideas sprout up and partnerships are formed and you find yourself invested in MORE work.  And you can’t really turn it down, because these are your friends, and you don’t want to create negative vibes.

Moreover, going out with the same people and talking about work with the same people tends to develop a sort of inbred mentality towards work that you find it hard to escape.  Perhaps you never felt hostility towards your boss or a coworker before, but now that you are hearing gossip of what they said or did to someone else, you begin to form an idea in your mind of how they are without even realizing it.  Maybe you felt excited about implementing something new in your class and seeing how the kids will respond, but slowly the pessimism of the group erodes your enthusiasm and you begin to view the students as lazy and indolent.  It could, of course, work the other way around, and your negative views could be made more positive through interacting with your peers.  However, coworkers who go out to happy hour every Friday are usually not the most optimistic about work, and this positive energy transfer rarely happens.  I think that it often works negatively, and negative energy is all too easily absorbed.

To keep a healthy perspective on work and to maintain some mental and emotional distance from work, don’t spend every Friday at happy hour with coworkers.  Some weeks, sure.  But then do other things, see other friends, cultivate other interests.  As they say, “absence makes the heart grow fonder,” and if you are never absent from work, your attitude about it will likely deteriorate quickly.

Boundaries for people who aren’t good with boundaries, Part 3. (You don’t always have to check your work email.)

You don’t always have to check your work email.

At some point, during each school day, you should check it.  But don’t have it linked up to your phone so you get alerts each time you get a new email on your work account.  How many emails do you get related to work that are great news that makes you feel less stressed?  I would venture to say none of them.  You don’t need that stress constantly interrupting your personal life, your sleep, your time off.

I personally am kind of an email-checking addict.  Or just a stuff-checking addict.  It is the curse of the smartphone.  I do not, however, have my work email set to alert me every time I get a new email.  It’s not even one of the apps on my phone.  If I want to check it from my phone, I have to manually open a new browser page and log in on a tiny screen.  If an alert popped up on my phone every time I got a new work email, I would never be able to mentally escape it, because people send all kinds of emails about various things at all hours.  Get some rest, take some space, and choose when you want to be alerted of all things work.

I also personally do not check work email until Sunday evening on the weekends, just to keep abreast of what my co-teachers are doing the next day and to see if there is any urgent thing I need to know about for Monday.  If I need to make copies of a handout, it is good to know on Sunday night so I can plan accordingly on Monday morning.  However, this is the only time that I check work email after I leave work on Friday afternoon, except in the case of some very special circumstance.

I also do not like to check emails on days that I stay home sick, because I probably stayed home sick because I need to recover from work.  I send the email in the morning letting the school know I will not be in, and then I do not check it until the next day.  We all need mental as well as physical breaks.

This is a pretty common problem with work emails nowadays, and I think that this could be applied to anyone.  If you don’t have to teach a lesson on Monday morning for your job, I would suggest not even checking work email until Monday morning.  Work when you’re at work.  Be home when you’re at home.

Boundaries for people who aren’t good with boundaries, Part 2. (Realize that you care most about you.)

Realize that you care most about you.

We are all our own harshest critics, but we all have our own best interest at heart, most likely more than anyone else.  In other words, you are responsible for making you healthy and happy.

The students are young and self-absorbed.  The other teachers are busy and self-absorbed.  The administration is distracted by data and self-absorbed.  The school board/city/state is focused on numbers and headlines and self-absorbed.

No one cares more than you that you didn’t sleep well last night, or for the past month, for that matter.  Or that you’re in a long-term fight with your spouse that seeps into all of your home life.  Or that you fell down while running four times in the past two weeks and bruised your ribs and can hardly breathe without wincing.  Or that you feel kind of bored and depressed with life and can’t seem to care about anything.  (Yes, this has been me at various points this past school year.)

Most likely, no one at school is going to make accommodations for you.  If you need them, make them for yourself.  Ask for help, or tell people your situation and what you are going to do about it.  Go to the doctor.  Take a few days off work.  Set up an appointment with a therapist.  Go on a short-term leave of absence.  Drop a committee.  Switch schools.  Or, adjust and be content.

The point is, I think that sometimes we wait and expect others to realize how miserable we are and change things for us.  Now, this has happened for me a few times in the past few years as a response to prayers, because I was too timid or indecisive to do anything about the issue, and God is gracious.  But it isn’t the norm, and I believe that there is a point at which God won’t necessarily change circumstances for us when we need to change them on our own.  Sometimes, we know best what we need.  And it’s okay to do something about it.

Boundaries for people who aren’t good with boundaries, Part 1. (Set your “hours”)

My first boundary discovery is that I can and must set my “hours.”

I say that in “parentheses” because, as a teacher, my hours are set, but not really.  I am sure that most teachers would agree that there is always more that you could do at the end of each day.  Even if you are pretty good about getting out of the building soon after the school day is over, this is not always in your control.  There is a staff meeting, or a team meeting, or a department meeting, or a parent meeting, or a student club, or a committee, or any other endless number of time-consuming obligations after work.

First of all, I would say that you can and should limit the number of things that you are involved in, to limit the number of days in the week where you experience this issue of not having control over when you leave after school hours are done.

However, some of these things are unavoidable, and it is definitely expected that you are involved in at least SOMETHING extra in the school community.  On these days, I find it helpful to mentally set my “hours,” and do everything within my power to adhere to those hours.  Lots of professionals have office hours, and if you want to do business with them, you must do it during their set office hours.  I try to do the same thing for myself.  For example, if I must stay after for a committee that I am on that is extracurricular to my teaching duties, I determine beforehand how long I will stay, and I make it clear at the beginning of the meeting that I have to leave at that time.  Some meetings go on and on and seem like they aren’t getting anything done.  If the meeting is still going on after the time I have set for myself (within reason and the bounds of tact, of course), I ask if there is anything else that I should do on my own to help the work of the committee, and I excuse myself.  Remaining for too long at a meeting that is not very productive or useful only perpetuates the wasting of time.

Sometimes committees meet every single week, and they don’t have to.  For these kinds of situations, I sometimes prioritize other important things during that time, such as going to the doctor or exercising or running an errand.  The “extras” after school hours can suck your time and energy and will to liv..I mean, work.  Set limits on them, to the best of your ability.  Focus your time and energy on the work done during the school day, with and for the students, and don’t allow administration to use you to simply boast on paper about how many committees they have.

Some may say this is selfish.  I say, we are people first, teachers second.  It can be hard to remember this sometimes in the school environment, which encourages teachers to give everything and more, without a thought as to how the teacher is balancing the rest of their life.  I also believe that a teacher who shows up for several years to teach classes is of more value to the school and the students than a teacher who gives every waking hour to the school just because it asked and then finds out it is unsustainable and burns out in a year or two.  Do few things, and do them well.

Boundaries for people who aren’t good with boundaries, Introduction.

Boundaries are challenging for anyone.  Boundaries at work are particularly a challenge, because technically you are being paid to give up part of your life, and it can be hard to determine how much of your life that constitutes.

I think that boundary problems are epidemic in teaching and other professions that are considered “helping professions” (nursing, counseling, social work, etc…).  This happens for a lot of reasons.

First, the people who are drawn to these professions tend to want to help people–that’s why they got into the work.

Second, if they want to help people at work, they probably help a lot of people outside of work, as well, as it is their nature to want to help, and so they most likely have a hard time saying no to people who need help (or who have a perceived need for help…).

Third, administration (wittingly or unwittingly) plays with the hearts of teachers when they ask them to do extra things or very hard things because they are there for the children, and the children have it so much harder than you (especially in inner-city schools), and don’t you care about the children?

Fourth, society projects an image of teachers as selfless superheroes who can and should give up everything, if even for the sake of one child, and this image makes it all too easy for teachers to neglect their personal needs yet again because they feel like they are the only selfish ones who need a break.

I have problems with boundaries.  Moving to NYC, being in a church for over a year that manipulated a lot of my time and personal life, and teaching in an inner-city school have all tested and formed my boundaries over the past few years, out of absolute necessity.  Since I don’t think that I am the only one who struggles with boundaries, I wanted to start a mini-series on this blog about some things that I have learned that I must do (or should do) to maintain healthy boundaries for myself as a teacher and human.

Stay tuned for boundary lesson #1.

Life is too short to be miserable.

Thinking a lot about the time we are given and how we use it.  Yesterday, we found out that one of my husband’s high school friends committed suicide.  He wasn’t a super close friend, but my husband had seen him only two weeks prior at a social gathering, and he was way too young and one of those cases where no one saw it coming.

Life is too short to be miserable.

We don’t know how much time we are given, even if we live out our natural days.  Cliche, but true…and so I have been thinking a lot lately about how I am using my time on this earth, which we are all given in equal measure each day to make something of.

I have never been one to “waste time,” in the stereotypical sense.  In college, one of my roommates told me incredulously, “You’re always DOING something!  How do you have so much to do?”  My problem is actually often that I try to do too many things and start too many projects at one time, and then I get overwhelmed and have to let it all go.  They are not necessarily important things.  But they are busy things.  I like to be busy.

However, being busy is not the same as using time well.  I think that using time well probably actually means being less busy than the “average” person.  Being less busy, savoring everything that is being done.  Nothing is really that unpleasant and unbearable if it is savored.  Reality is not actually that bad.

The problem with depression is that it is not in touch with reality.  It is a long dark tunnel that the person cannot see an end to, and it is isolated, and it allows no other way of seeing the world.  Depression can be surrounded by friends and feel empty.  The one who learns to savor can be alone for days and yet enjoy every moment.  It’s all perspective.

A quote that I always hear about prayer is that “prayer works because when you pray, either the circumstances will change, or you will change.”  It doesn’t really matter which.

Time to change stale perspectives.  Time to slow down and savor everything, even when nothing seems enjoyable.  ESPECIALLY when nothing seems enjoyable.  This young man’s life and death is a sad reminder to get back in touch with ultimate reality.