Teacher Self-Care is About Boundaries, Not Luxuries

As teachers we are inundated with others telling us that we need to practice self-care.  “Don’t take your work home”, “Don’t answer emails after school hours”, “Get enough sleep”, or my favorite, “try meditation”.

Well-meaning school leaders, professional development speakers, friends, and family continuously offer us advise on how to manage the stress and exhaustion that stems from being a teacher.

After 25-years in the classroom I’ve learned from experience that, while certainly helpful strategies, these are not the answers to teacher burnout.

So, what is?  There are two fundamental things teachers must do to strike the balance they need to sustain them through a satisfying career: set boundaries and learn to say no.


Why is this the answer?

Teachers, by nature, are givers.  We continually give to our students, their parents, and our school communities.  Often, we give more than we have, and our families feel the effects of this as well.  Regardless, we continue in this manner at the detriment to our own personal health and happiness.

Rather than add more to our plates, as is suggested by others, we must first take stock of our priorities and determine what can be eliminated to allow us time to implement these other strategies.

So, how do we do this?


Here are 7 tips for setting boundaries and learning to say no that will get you started:


  1. Acknowledge the role that guilt plays in driving you to sacrifice your personal needs. Everyone feels guilt. However, once you understand that guilt is a self-imposed emotion you can take back control and lessen the effects.  Stop allowing self-imposed guilt to drive your decisions.
  2. Acknowledge what is sustainable for youand what is not. This is different for everyone.  Consider your age and stage in life, your other competing priorities, and eliminate anything that is not sustainable.
  3. Readjust your self-imposed standards of what it means to be a “good” teacher. Not only do we set the bar high for our students, but also for ourselves.  Many teachers I know are guilty of comparing themselves to other teachers in their school community or online, and are often left feeling like they aren’t doing enough. Regularly ask yourself these two questions: Is it best for students? Is it the most effective use of my time?
  4. Take stock of your priorities and give yourself permission to let go of those that are less important - both at home and at work.  Just because something has always been a certain way doesn’t mean it still needs to be.  Priorities change and it’s okay to re-adjust as necessary.
  5. Recognize that the optional activities you’re compelled to take on at work are preferences, not “must-dos.”  Each school year looks different both personally and professionally.  At the beginning of each new school year determine which, if any, extra-curricular activities you will realistically be able to participate in for this school year.  Each year may look different and that’s okay.
  6. Learn to differentiate between real and perceived expectations.  Often, as teachers, we create “must-dos” for ourselves where they simply don’t exist.  If you’re feeling like there are too many expectations being placed on you, spend some time determining where these expectations are coming from.  If you are putting them on yourself, then you are in full control of removing or altering the expectations.
  7. Set boundaries around your working hours that work for you.  As we are all aware, our entire workload does not fit into the school day.  However, we get to determine when we will carve out time for these tasks that don’t.  Set a routine that works for you, whether that be coming in before school or after school daily, or just a few days each week, or whether it works best for you to allocate some time on the weekend.  Also, ensure that you set boundaries with students, parents, and colleagues about when you are available for phone calls, meetings, emails, and so forth, and stick to them.  Others will adjust to your availability if you are consistent.

Only once you’ve started setting boundaries and saying no, can you begin to—guiltlessly—prioritize your own physical and mental health.  By implementing these strategies and remaining consistent, you will then have time to incorporate things into your life that full under the umbrella of “self-care” and, in turn, find the balance you desire between your personal and professional life.


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