Issue #10: Let the Teachers Teach (Part 2)

When parents treat teachers like personal assistants

This is the second part of my response to letter writer, Leave Me Alone and Let Me Teach Your Kids. You can read about her experience in part one and why she’s seeking advice on how to set boundaries with her students’ parents. In part one, I discuss the first step in the process — figuring out your boundaries.

My experience. Like I said in part one, there are some parts of the job that you can’t say no to. I would have loved to have said nope, not going to hold my IEP meetings this year, not feeling it. But I couldn’t.

What I did find is that I could set a boundary for myself, within a process that I did not enjoy — the IEP process. I decided that I would not stay after my contract hours to work, in my last year of teaching. No matter what, I wasn’t going to do it anymore. Working longer, after a full day of work, to keep up with a process that I truly did not like — I knew it was one thing that was going to push me over the edge of what was already a grueling, demanding school year. That’s usually what my after-contract time was devoted to — keeping up with my IEPs.

Now, I made sure to hold all of my IEP meetings on time. I knew those deadlines were not to be trifled with. And then, by the spring, I started getting emailed notices that my IEP revisions were late. Once you hold an IEP meeting, you have to revise it again, so it can be finalized. I pushed back. I told my bosses that I was behind on my paperwork and I would stay behind unless they could grant me sub coverage for a day. I simply didn’t have enough time in the workday to catch up. I asked two different supervisors for help and was denied by both. So, I told them the revisions would be later than they already were.

It’s worth noting that this was a move I felt comfortable making because it was my last year. I had already turned in my resignation. This is not a move I would have made earlier in my career. But, not caring about the consequences freed me up to put myself first. I never explained why my paperwork was so late, nor was I asked. I gave my bosses a solution to my problem, and no one jumped at it. So, I assumed they didn’t care. And I was right. Not one lecture, not one check-in to see when I would get it done.

In doing so, I discovered that the deadline for revisions to get the IEP finalized was much more liquid than I had been led to believe. How I wish I had set this boundary for myself earlier on in my career! Instead, I spent 12 years prioritizing the paperwork over other tasks that I cared about much more, tasks that better served my students, tasks that made me a happier teacher, all because I had paperwork deadlines that I felt pressured to meet. Turns out, my district counted on me to care about the paperwork more than they were willing to support me so I could meet their deadlines. It’s always that free labor they are trying to get out of us, isn’t it?

Leave Me alone, you will need to do the same. You will need to decide how to set a boundary for yourself with an integral aspect of your job. Your parents will always be there. They will always need something from you. How you move forward with them will directly affect how you feel about this job.

Step two: Set boundaries.

This boundary work is important for all teachers. Teachers are used to shouldering an unbalanced workload, silently suffering while they do it. They have to stop doing that. They need to get more vocal. They need to say, This isn’t working for me. I need help. I want to last in this profession, but I don’t think I can, at the rate I am going. I need this, this, and this off of my plate, or I need support when I make changes to my classroom policies.

By now, you should have a list of areas that you need to change because they dredge up stress, overwhelm, or just generally put you in a shit mood. So, now it’s time to put in the actual work part of this process – time to tell people no.

Boundary setting is a formula of you stating the new rule you want others to abide by plus the reason why (usually along the lines of, It’s best for me, I need this to support my mental health, I need to focus my attention/energies on other matters, etc.). Sometimes, though, you can choose not to give a reason. You can simply say, This is how it will be for me, moving forward.

Leave Me Alone! Before you do any of this! This is important! When setting boundaries with parents, run your options by your principal. Explain where you are coming from. Your building probably has a timeline for responding to parents. Make sure you have support in changing the communication rules with parents. Cover yourself from the top before you get that angry parent going off on you. A good administrator will support your boundary setting in this area. Beware of one who does not.

You have some choices here on what you communicate. These three options should work in most situations when you are boundary-setting, whether it be with another co-worker or your boss. Decide who needs to be informed about your new boundary. Ask yourself who will be impacted the most? I will give examples using Leave Me Alone’s situation, however, each option can apply to other boundary-setting scenarios.

  1. The direct/blanket statement. You can go with an open message to all parents/guardians that you have decided that fulfilling the many types of parent requests you receive has become overwhelming. Your focus needs to primarily be on teaching and meeting the needs of the kids in your classroom. The extra requests are taking away from your ability to do your job well. Moving forward, you have decided that you cannot fulfill every parent's request. Ask parents to be more mindful about what they ask of you — is this crucial? Is it necessary? Can someone else in the building help me?

    To protect your time with your students, you could tell them that you will not be responding to emails while the kids are in the building. If it's an emergency, they can contact the office. Otherwise, let them know it will have to wait. You may want to give some black-and-white examples of what type of communication you are okay with vs. what you do not want to service any longer.

  2. The targeted, one-at-a-time response. If you have a few parents who are the worst offenders, you could choose to set the boundary on a case-by-case basis. You hopefully have some great parents who don’t wear you out with requests all day. You can keep them out of it.

    Wait until you get that request that you don’t want to fulfill. Say no, sorry, I cannot do that for you. Tell them why. Use the formula!

    Warning: This option could result in a longer back-and-forth, which is another kind of time suck/energy drain that you need to avoid. (Pro tip: @Ms.Nickell on Instagram recently shared that she uses AI to draft her boundary-setting emails. Sounds like a great way to use technology to deal with an issue you don’t want to waste your brain power on.)

  3. Boundaries via ignoring. For those less important time-sensitive things, don’t respond. Miss the time window to respond and don’t think twice about it. This applies to those requests that you deem not consequential. Claire getting her meds on time isn’t the same as Thomas eating those apples at lunch, obviously.

As for those parents asking for constant grade checks and progress — ask your principal to support a response where you state that you provide grade updates when grade cards/updates are due. Remind parents that they had the opportunity to meet in person for parent-teacher conferences. You will not be available to provide updates outside of those designated windows. However, you will reach out if you feel the need to discuss issues with performance before the final grade cards come out. 

Step three: Stick to your boundaries.

Once you draw your line, you will find people who will come out to test your resolve. These are called boundary pushers. Education is full of them, ready to prey on your goodwill and altruistic nature.

There’s also the issue that the bar for expectations is always moving in education. It’s likely that once you set a boundary and think you have a problem solved, you will have to set a new one.

The truth was, with my IEP revisions, I could have caught up pretty easily, in two or three days of staying after my contract time. I contemplated it. When I pictured myself going back on my boundary, I got so enraged that I knew I needed to honor the promise I made to myself. In my situation, I wasn’t even faced with an external boundary pusher. I was internally questioning myself, only because I had a few emails asking about my paperwork. Again, I am so glad I fought against my compliant nature because I found out that a major stressor, these deadlines, was basically in my head. FOR TWELVE YEARS.

Leave Me Alone, I think you are going to run into some trouble as it sounds like you might have the kind of school community that is used to running their teachers ragged with requests. You will have to restate your boundaries, most likely. Some parents won’t get it. They will complain. They may bad mouth you to other parents, even your bosses.

You need to be secure in the line you are drawing. You need to focus on the outcome you are pursuing. It is not your job to please everyone and be everything to every parent. If you make a broad declaration in an email to your parents of new boundaries formed, keep it handy. You can do that bitchy thing where you reply, Per the email I sent on April 4th, I will not be accommodating that request any longer thing.

Above all, I hope you get the relief you need. It’s going to come down to parent receptivity. Unfortunately, you might be in a place where the parents are always going to steamroll the teachers. Some administrators create a parent-first culture and won’t go to bat for teachers. If that’s the case, if you are looking around and feeling like it’s going to be more of the same next year, you might need to consider a new building. A new position? A new district? Self-promotion time: I have a newsletter on how to look for a new job! I do believe there are schools out there that will support your desire to set boundaries around protecting your role as an educator.

And who knows, you might even get a flood of support, once you draw this line. That can also be a consequence of boundary setting. Your co-workers might take notice and do the same. You could precipitate a culture change in your building. Parents might start asking, Hey, how can I help? Instead of, Hey, I need you to do this for me. Here’s to hoping!


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