Why Setting Boundaries is Helpful for Teachers and Their Students

Excerpt from Risk. Fail. Rise.: A Teacher’s Guide to Learning from Mistakes by M. Colleen Cruz. Copyright © 2021 by M. Colleen Cruz. Published by Heinemann, Portsmouth, NH. Reprinted by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

By Colleen Cruz

As teachers, we are caretakers by the nature of our positions. Our instinct almost always is to care for our students before we care for ourselves.

This is a noble ideal.

But it is also impossible. Children will always need more, so there is no clear end to the amount of giving a teacher can do. And when teachers give teaching their all, they often end up depleted, drained of the physical and emotional energy to be the sort of skilled practitioner we’d all like to be. Let me say that another way: when educators give so much to their students that they are feeling empty, they do not have the ability to do the sort of high-level thinking and creative work, let alone have the physical stamina to be the excellent teacher their children need. The heroic martyr teacher might make for great film, but it does not make for great instruction.

This can be a hard thing to hold on to when we are not only romanticized when we act as a martyr but are also encouraged and expected to do so. Many teachers report that they are gaslighted by everyone from their administrators to their colleagues when they raise the question of addressing their own needs. They are repeatedly told how important they are and how they should prioritize their well-being, and then asked to do the exact opposite. From being told they can’t leave a professional development session to go to the bathroom to being expected to use their own money to create classroom libraries to being reminded to only take thirty minutes for lunch during online pandemic learning, these “little” things can collectively destabilize a teacher to the point of burnout. Each of these things feel normal, somewhat doable, sometimes inspirational . . . in theory. Sometimes they come with bragging rights, “I haven’t peed since I left my house this morning!” or “I can’t remember if I even ate today” or “My family conferences went so long the custodial staff kicked us out.” And administrators or peers impressed with our dedication or commiserating in good-natured ways about the lack of time for ourselves can make it hard to see just how unhealthy these practices become when they become an expected and accepted part of the way teachers work.

Teachers are told to take care of themselves, but then promptly told why they can’t.

“The students need to see your face,” a principal told one teacher who was considering taking a day off for a doctor’s appointment. “And when you aren’t around, those kids don’t learn. When you get back it’s such a mess that you’ll make yourself sicker just trying to catch them all up.” More often than not educators hear that by prioritizing their own needs they are somehow harming children or doing something wrong. Many of us are already prone to putting others first, so it does not take much gaslighting to convince us that putting our own needs off for as long as possible somehow makes us better teachers.

The Teacher Martyr Makes Mistakes, Avoids Risk, and Observes Less

I know this, preach this, and yet am also terrible at following my own admonishments. You may know that I have a disability. It’s a congenital one whose only long-term solution is two major surgeries that the doctors want to put off for as long as possible. It’s mostly manageable if I take care of myself. I need to balance between regular exercise and rest, stretches and physical therapy to stay mobile. I’ll never be a sprinter, but if I take decent care of myself, I can still be fit enough to teach. My doctors and physical therapists have always been crystal clear—if I want to stay in education and be as active as I am, I need to prioritize my health.

And yet, it is so easy to fall into the habit of doing everything else that seems more important than taking care of ourselves. Day after day on social media and in the news, we hear of teachers martyring themselves for the good of their students and their profession. Those are the teachers whose social media posts we share and inspire us. So, by ignoring my own needs and focusing solely on my students, I found myself crawling out of a New York subway train, across a Brooklyn platform, and dragging myself to a bench. It was a busy work week. There was a family night and grading and an end-of-unit celebration. I was staying at school every night until at least 7:00, then getting home and not eating dinner until nearly 9:00, doing some planning and grading before I’d finally collapse in a heap only to repeat the same self-punishing routine the next day. I did this day after day for over a week. No time for healthy eating, resting, stretching, or gentle exercise. Or so I thought. It shouldn’t have come as a shock when I stood up to leave the subway car at my stop that my leg suddenly protested with agonizing pain and an inability to hold my weight. I had no choice but to crawl off. Some kind New Yorkers who saw me crawling helped me find a bench and stayed with me until the school secretary could come pick me up. I don’t know how or when I got to the emergency room, but I do remember my principal standing over me, after he was assured I would be OK, his finger pointed in my face, saying, “You can’t do this. It’s not good for you. And it’s not helping anyone.”

You probably know all this. You have probably either lectured someone else or been lectured on how important it is to take care of yourself. Maybe you even have your own version of my subway crawling story. Perhaps for you it was pneumonia, bronchitis, or dizzy spells so bad you were hospitalized. You promised yourself you would never let it get that bad again because you saw how bad it was for everyone. But you might not have been considering how not prioritizing self-care affects the topic we’ve been considering throughout this book: mistakes.

When we are depleted, we are so much more likely to make mistakes we regret. These mistakes might just be the sloppy ones like leaving the cap off our beloved whiteboard purple marker or forgetting our keys in the teacher’s lounge. But they can also be very high-stakes mistakes—ones that can dramatically affect children’s lives. We might not have the capacity to write all of the letters of recommendations our students request. We might not carefully read the accommodations on a student’s individualized education program and miss key provisions. As you sit there reading this paragraph, you might be thinking about mistakes you have made recently, or maybe ones you made a long time ago that still haunt you. Before you begin to flagellate yourself for that error that just bubbled up again, is it possible that when you made that mistake, you hadn’t been your best self in terms of selfcare? That you might have been tired, hungry, stressed, overwhelmed, or all of the above before you made that regrettable error?

When I look back at the mistakes I made in my own classroom or with teachers in theirs, I have to admit most of them wouldn’t have happened if I had taken care of my physical, mental, and emotional state a bit more. Use the chart in Figure 3–1 to help think about your own examples.

I know that I can never hear too much about how the best defense against mistakes is a good offense. If I want to be the best educator (parent, friend, spouse, citizen) I can be, I need to take care of myself first. All other tacks and strategies will be useless without those things. I know you know this. And, if you spend any time on social media at all, you have no doubt seen the countless memes and articles extolling you to focus on self-care. If you are at all like me, you swing from rolling your eyes at people’s self- centeredness to working so hard you hit a point if you don’t do something (bubble bath, sip of tea, just one night of eight hours of sleep) you feel you will implode. That said, we are human and our souls and bodies need to be fed. We need time to laugh with loved ones, fill our minds with rich ideas and art, yes, and even time to rest and recuperate. Even lying on the couch losing ourselves in a great binge-watch can be soul-feeding self-care. Pleasure is more than a treat. As the legendary performance artist Penny Arcade says, “Pleasure is a radical value” (2016). It is a value that goes a long way toward helping us to lead meaningful and joyful lives. If we do not do the work of prioritizing our own mental and physical health outside the classroom, there might be a time where we start to look for affirmation, connectedness, and care from the students in our own classrooms. As Jaleel Howard, Tanya Milner-McCall, and Tyrone Howard (2020) wrote in their book No More Teaching Without Positive Relationships (full disclosure, I coedited this book with Nell Duke), “Teachers need to share themselves with students but have their emotional needs met elsewhere.” We should not expect our kids to make us feel good about ourselves. If educators are spending all day with students and then every waking moment preparing to work with them again, there is no way we can prioritize our other adult relationships. And that need for connection may unconsciously lead us to seek affirmation from our students.

 Even if it’s just feeling good whenever we go above and beyond. Although it might feel right or somewhat saintly to give everything we’ve got to our students, in the end if we do not care for ourselves outside of the classroom or are not bringing our best selves to the classroom, we might instead feel bitter and taken for granted. Or, even in some cases, we might become emotionally needy around students, seeking their approval, comfort, and affirmation, which sets up an unhealthy dynamic where kids are unknowingly trying to fulfill an adult’s emotional needs and also developing an unhealthy sense of what a healthy teacher–student relationship should look like.

Although it is completely understandable to realize after the fact that the likely cause of an error was that we were not taking care of ourselves the way we should, it is less understandable and yet still very common to then not try to prevent another error by taking steps to put ourselves first. It feels strange. It feels selfish. Even our own mentors and teachers were probably models of martyrdom, and although they very likely encouraged us to take care of ourselves, they probably rarely if ever modeled it. The script everyone shows us to follow is teacher martyr.

Yet, we know in our marrow that our last regrettable mistake was very likely made because of our lack of self-care. The thing is, not prioritizing ourselves doesn’t just make us vulnerable to regrettable mistakes. When we are depleted, we are also much more likely to not take the risks we need to take to make the good mistakes.

Think about it. Think about your limited energy and the level and depth of energy it takes to try something new, be creative, or take a pedagogical risk. When you do not prioritize your own health, rest, and happiness, you are less likely to have the energy to take the sorts of risks that lead to our aha moments or stretch mistakes. When you spend hours reading through summative assessments without a break, racing against the clock to get them all marked in time, you are significantly less likely to decide now is the time to try some of the latest ideas around high-quality and growth mindset–based feedback. That sort of work requires energy to take a risk as well as time to fix any trouble spots. So instead, you might do a quick online search for “great feedback for students” and click on the link that offers “100 positive phrases to use when giving student feedback.” (See Figure 3–2 for other options.)

Contrary to popular belief, stretching past our comfort zones for most of us requires a calm, rested, focused self. Very few of us are tempted to push ourselves and our thinking and to challenge our most dearly held beliefs when we are feeling bad emotionally and physically. Those stretch mistakes that we encourage our kids to make require a basic foundation of self-care to be practiced.

Excerpt from Risk. Fail. Rise.: A Teacher’s Guide to Learning from Mistakes by M. Colleen Cruz. Copyright © 2021 by M. Colleen Cruz. Published by Heinemann, Portsmouth, NH. Reprinted by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

Author photo by Nadine Baldasare (Courtesy of Heinemann Press Publishers)

Colleen Cruz is the author of several titles for educators including  Risk.Fail. Rise., Writers Read Better: Narrative, Writers Read Better: Nonfiction, The Unstoppable Writing Teacher, and several books in The Units of Study Series as well as the author of the young adult novel Border Crossing, a Tomás Rivera Mexican American Children’s Book Award Finalist. She is also co-editor of the Not This But That series with Nell Duke. She was a classroom teacher in general education and inclusive settings before joining the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project where she serves as Director of Innovation. 

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