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Setting Boundaries to Stay Sane

Saying ‘no’ can be difficult but you do need to say it at times. Cate reflects on what she wished she had known when she first began teaching.

Cate boundaries

I know how hard this can be. I was the one who said “yes”. I accommodated everything possible. I stayed late, worked hard and told myself it was “for the kids”. I was lying. It was a combination of anxiety, guilt, fear and martyrdom. I was worried that If I didn’t put in 110% someone would point at me and say:
“She’s not good enough!”

I watched colleagues burn themselves out and thought: “I can’t leave it to anyone else! They’re all swamped!” I worked myself into a frenzy by placing far too much importance on things that were non-life threatening and were NOT MY PERSONAL PRIORITIES. But more importantly, worryingly, I bought into the game of “who is most exhausted?”. This is a nasty, insidious competition within the sector where we feel the need to prove how good we are by breaking ourselves on our workload. It’s dangerous, unhelpful and, above all, utter nonsense.

My mentor during PGCE used to say at the end of the lesson; “Did anyone die? Set the class on fire? Require first aid? No? Then you did ok.” And she was right. Whilst teaching is a truly important job, we are not brain surgeons. A slip on our part would not completely disable a child. We need to be careful, of course, with vulnerable young minds but not to the point of imbuing our lives with habitual anxiety and stress.

So, how do you break the cycle? Working in mental well-being has given me a remarkable opportunity to view this situation from another perspective, one I wish I had had during my NQT/ETC year. I can now look in at the experience and say “there! That was a trigger point!” Or “here! Here is where compulsive behaviour took over from rational thought”.

I’m not saying I would have the strength or control to do differently were I faced with it all again but, perhaps I can help some of you to adapt and set boundaries in order to stay sane.

Step 1: Discover YOUR priorities

These are not determined by the government, ingrained culture, school leadership or even HoDs. These are YOURS. What do YOU believe is important in education? @VandVLearning wrote a brilliant book that can help you with this part!!

List 5 non negotiables that are your priority. For me it would be:

  • The relationships
  • Mental well-being of all
  • Personalised goals
  • Kindness and ethics
  • A sense of wonder

Nothing there about grades or attainment and I know many will scorn me for that but I don’t mind. These are MY priorities.
So they need to be high up on my list.

Then think about the GENUINE priorities of your community.

  • Parents
  • Leadership
  • Government
  • Learners
  • Society

These are next and some may need to be placed alongside or just below your own values. If there is a continual clash between one of these and one of your own then you have a big decision to make: be true to yourself or compromise to conform. I have found it becoming easier for me to say: “I’m not comfortable with actioning that”. This is because I am certain of the values that I WILL NOT compromise. For example, I will not lie to children anymore. Unless there is a very valid reason, I see dishonesty as a bad example to set and a way of disrupting the bedrock of relationships.

Step 2: Know your boundaries

Do you know how many times I have been accidentally locked in a school by a caretaker? Dozens of times!! Because I would stay late and work, well beyond any reasonable time. I made a vow not to take work home at weekends so working in school became the compromise. Except it didn’t work. Because being at work actually produces MORE work!!! Now I am aware of how much time is mine and how much I am willing to give away (paid or for free). I know I only get one life and I’m nearly half way through. I do not want to wonder where all those moments disappeared to. I’m taking back the bits that belong to me.

To do this I have:

  • Removed work emails from my phone.
  • Muted notifications from work colleagues after the end of shifts.
  • Set an out of office stating explicitly what my paid working hours are and explaining that I WILL NOT be responding outside of work hours.
  • Having a priority “intray” which only ever has 5 things in it. If someone brings me something more I ask them which item they wish to “deprioritise” in order to make the new item a priority. Or I explain that I will do it but it will be going in my “amber” tray, not “red” as I already have a full schedule so they may wish to ask someone else. (This doesn’t mean I don’t help out people who are genuinely struggling!!! I will ALWAYS do this! It means people need to stop and genuinely think about whether something is “urgent” or not).
  • I book out FREE time in my diary as something. In my private and work calendar I will book and free slots as “admin” or “well-being”. This means they don’t get absorbed by people. I can choose to take meetings or attend something in these slots but initially, they are ring fences FOR ME!
  • I genuinely take wellness time. Don’t use all your free time on work. Make time to go for a quick stroll outside, make a cuppa and watch the birds.
  • Learned various ways of saying no.

> “Can you email me and I will let you know if I am able to do it when I have a chance to look properly?”
> “I have X, Y,Z and Q to do but if you are ok to wait until they are done then I can do it after.”
> “Can you look at my calendar and book a time to talk about it fully (like NOT when we are in a corridor rushing to get somewhere and where sheer panic will make me say “yes!”).
> “I’m so sorry but no, not at the moment, I’m managing to balance things but I need to maintain that equilibrium”
> “I’m afraid I don’t feel comfortable/able to do that”

Step 3: Guilt is a redundant emotion without action

Feeling guilty is no use to anyone unless you plan on doing something differently. So, bin the guilt. Remind yourself that this is your life. You hold the control. “Is anyone going to die? Are they on fire!? Do they require medical assistance?! No? Then you’re ok.” Reassure yourself that time invested in yourself is time invested in all those connected with you. Your health, happiness, and fulfilment is paramount to you being able to do a brilliant job. So prioritise yourself. Know where it is coming from. Is it your guilt or unseen pressure to comply?!

Step 4: Handle the tricky questions

  • So, what if it doesn’t all get done?– Ok. Who is going to be impacted? How? Look at Step 1. Does it directly contradict your values? If so then maybe you need to shuffle your priorities list or agree to adjust the calendar (temporarily!!).
  • What if people judge me?– People will ALWAYS judge you. Or at least some people will. Others will admire you. See you fighting for yourself, wish you luck or even follow your lead. Those who judge are falling prey to the Martyrdom Game!
  • What if I lose my job for not doing enough?– Unlikely. Most jobs are never-ending. There is no finite cut-off. We have to determine it ourselves. Look at your contract. Are you fulfilling it? The probable answer is yes. If in doubt, join a good union and keep them updated with the measures you’ve put in place. They will support you.
  • “But, the children! Won’t SOMEONE think of the children?”– The children will be fine. Believe me. Young people are bombarded by trauma left right and centre in this modern world. You not photocopying pages 11-26 for them will not scar them for life. Honestly, they’d benefit far more from a teacher who is calmer, happier, and less pressured. It means you aren’t inadvertently transferring your stress and pressure onto them!

Boundaries are hard to build but, like the foundations of a house, they are necessary and worth the effort. They provide a physical and emotional shield between you and a vampirical job. Think of them as garlic that stops your job sucking the life blood from you!

Good luck! My DMs are open (during slotted hours! Only joking!!) if you need extra support!

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The author

Cate has been a teacher for 20 years. She has worked internationally and across all key stages in the UK. Her secondary specialism is Performing Arts with a keen interest in PSHE/RSE. Cate is recently married with two cats who keep her busy and an allotment that requires more time than she can give it!

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