When I was a student teacher, I noticed something eerie about teachers and their time.
As a student teacher, I often worked late. I’d be working a couple of hours after school–talking to my mentor teacher, prepping a lesson, or even helping a struggling student. I didn’t enjoy working for free for nine or ten hours a day, but I knew it was vital to learn the job and finish my certification.
What terrified me at the time was finally leaving at six o’clock at night, only to pass several veteran teachers. I had no idea what I was doing. Of course, I needed extra prep time. But why were these experienced teachers still there?!
I vowed to myself that I would not let myself become one of these teachers. In my observations, I had seen teachers who were great at their job and left after the last class of the day. There didn’t seem to be any correlation between working longer and being a better teacher. So how the heck did these teachers end up staying so late so often?
After finishing student teaching and eight more years teaching in the classroom, I learned several ways to protect my time and personal life. In this post, I hope to share some helpful tips with you!
How do I set Boundaries as a Teacher?
Setting boundaries is difficult, especially for teachers. Many teachers are natural people pleasers; they want to be helpful, likable, and seen as team players. These traits, however, also make them easy to take advantage of.
It is far, far easier to set boundaries from the beginning and stick to them than it is to later create them after things have gone too far! Before starting teaching or starting a new position or school year, think about your non-negotiables.
When are you going home each day? How long are you spending grading? How much work are you willing to do outside of school and how much is too much?
Boundary #1 for Teachers and Time: Disconnect Work Emails from Your Personal Devices
If you can’t see an email, you won’t drop your personal life to answer it. Its contents can’t cause anxiety or stress. And it will still be there Monday morning, so why bother?
Too many teachers forward their emails or phone calls to their personal devices after school or on the weekends. Why?! You aren’t paid to answer emails on your time off.
Yes, you should absolutely respond to emails in a timely manner, but they can always wait a full business day. If your school really has an emergency to tell you about, they no doubt have your home number.
There is no “on-call” for teachers. So stop acting like you’re on-call 24-7. No email is so important that it can’t wait until the next workday.
Disconnect all of your teacher accounts from your personal devices immediately.
Boundary #2 for Teachers and Time: When New Responsibilities are Forced On You, Pushback!
We all know the dread that sinks in when you’re voluntold to do something. This is where my skill at passive-aggressiveness always shone.
Once I got an email from admin welcoming me and a bunch of others to a new committee. It included a list of our new duties and meetings we’d have to attend. First, I questioned the other teachers on the email–it was totally plausible I agreed to this and had no recollection of doing so.
But, as I expected, no one had signed up for this committee. In fact, no one had heard of this committee prior to the email. So I responded back, “Thanks for thinking of me, but I did not sign up for this committee.”
After a couple of days, a response finally arrived. It said this committee was mandated by the school board for each school. Each building needed to put one together. Our school had made a list of teachers for its committee and just submitted it.
My response to this, then, was simple, “Ok, I understand. How much will the district compensate us for these extra duties and responsibilities?”
Surprisingly, all emails to me about this committee ceased and I never heard about it again.
When new responsibilities are forced on you, don’t take them. They’re not in your contract. No one can make you do them–and certainly, no one can make you do them well.
Practice saying “no.” And when that doesn’t work, practice saying “Great, how much will I be compensated?” Sure, it will feel awkward at first. But your time is yours. Teachers, don’t just give your time away.
More often than not, admin will move on to someone else who hasn’t learned to push back yet.
Boundary #3 for Teachers and Time: Stop Socializing When You’re At Work
I know, I know. This is the hardest one. Our colleagues and some occasional education-related trash-talking can really make the job less painful.
But if you want to leave right when school ends and still fulfill your contractual obligations, then you need to utilize every minute you have at school.
On in-service days or days before holidays, I loved to gossip with my team and stop into my friends’ rooms for chit chat. But on a typical day, I worked feverishly throughout my contract hours.
I preferred arriving early to staying late, so I got to work about an hour early. (The early morning also made it easier to avoid distractions for me.) I kept my lights off to deter guests and visitors. I made my copies during my prep to avoid getting sucked into early morning small talk.
Often, anyone who wanted to talk to me wasn’t even sure if I was there. That was 100% intentional.
I often worked through lunch and completed task lists during my prep. Independent work time? Makeup work time? If students were quietly working, I worked then, too.
The result was nearly nine hours straight of nonstop work, but that meant leaving right after the final bell and not touching school work over the weekend.
Yes, I probably missed some fun conversation and I never knew any of the rumors going around my building. But I got to teach and have a life. How many people can say that?
Conclusion: Your Time is Your Most Precious Resource
I know that for many, teaching is more than a job: it’s a calling, a passion, and a community. But before you volunteer for just one more committee, really think about what you’re giving up by saying yes. Is that time going to take away from your family, your mental health, a passion project?
I’m not saying that you should never work more than 40 hours a week. I almost always arrived at work an extra hour early and spent Sundays lesson planning during my first couple of years.
But creating and holding onto boundaries around your time is never talked about often enough in the profession. It’s not only ok, it’s your right to say “no” when an additional project/committee/club is going to overstretch you. Remember, you only signed a contract to teach during teaching hours. There is no overtime pay in this profession.
Looking for more information on balancing work and life? Check out this post on what your students really need most and these 5 self-care tips! I also highly encourage you to look into the work of Angela Watson and her 40-hour Workweek Club.