Issue #9: Let the Teachers Teach (Part 1)

When parents treat teachers like personal assistants

Dear Kristin,

I am wondering how we reestablish boundaries and adjust expectations with families in this "post-COVID" world. During the pandemic, parents were literally watching us teach their children from the comfort (discomfort?) of our own living rooms. They had a window into the ins and outs of the school day, and for some schools, this lasted for another year after the initial onset of the pandemic. Now that we're back into the swing of in-person, we still have parents expecting that level of access to teachers. The constant need for progress updates, inquiries about how we're helping or challenging their child, if we can help with their bedtime tantrums, if we can make sure they eat their apples at lunchtime, and can we look for the mitten they might have misplaced . . . ?? It's overwhelming and takes away from the time and energy we need to plan and implement high-quality instruction. Not to mention it leaves you feeling less like a veteran teacher of 20 years with a master's degree and more like a personal assistant.

This leads me to wonder: what is the expectation for the role of the school now that we know that the country depends on us to provide not only education, but breakfast, lunch, mental health services, and other basic needs? We, as educators, want to do our jobs and do them well. The stakes are high, the pressure is on, but in order to do that we have to re-establish boundaries and redefine our role in this system. How do we do that?

–Leave Me Alone and Let Me Teach Your Kids

Leave Me Alone,

A lot is going on with your letter. When I read your first paragraph, detailing what parents are asking of you and how you feel about it, well, it brought up visceral memories of my last year of teaching. I felt like my job was drawing and quartering me, or attempting to, daily. Somehow, I would survive a day of getting pulled in every direction but the direction I wanted to be pulled in – which was to be left alone to teach inside my classroom, same as you. Then I would attempt to reset overnight so I could come back the next day and do it all over again.

Just another day at the office. Source: Britannica.com

Mentally, emotionally, and even physically, the demands of my job wore me down so much that I began to hate it. It feels like you are grappling with your place in education, looking around at this post-COVID landscape and wondering if you can stay. I hear this same sentiment from many educators with many degrees and many years of experience. If this is what it’s like now, can I keep going?

You need to find a way to protect your peace. I hope it’s not too late. I fought like hell to protect mine, during my last year. I worked with a therapist and psychiatrist to get my brain chemistry stabilized, so that I could get out of bed in the morning. I worked to restructure my systems, and my policies so that they were centered around my well-being. The result should have been a saner, more balanced teacher, who was happy to come back. (Spoiler alert: I did not succeed. More on that at the end of next week’s newsletter.)

As for the two questions you asked:

What is the expectation for the role of the school now that we know that the country depends on us to provide not only education, but breakfast, lunch, mental health services, and other basic needs?

The expectation seems to be exactly that - schools and the people who work inside of them are more than just educators. Which is why you feel the way you do. Because you signed up 20 years ago to educate. And the job has evolved to much more than that.  

Your rate of pay didn’t increase to keep pace with the demands. You didn’t have anything else taken off of your plate so you could accommodate the new demands. The expectation is you keep up with what your community needs of its educators, which seems to grow, every year.

I have research to support what you are seeing, of course. Not that you need it, you are living it. But, The Atlantic agrees. From their article, “Parent Diplomacy Is Overwhelming Teachers”:  

Still, many parents (understandably) want to talk—seemingly more than ever before. According to a 2021 Education Week survey, more than 75 percent of educators said that “parent-school communication increased” because of COVID. Similarly, just under 80 percent of parents said that they became more interested in their kids’ education during the pandemic, a poll by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools found

—Chaves, S.

How do we re-establish boundaries to redefine our role as educator, primarily?

Advice time!

Boundary work is some of my favorite work because it’s as easy as telling people no, over and over. It’s only work if you are a people pleaser who can’t stand to let others down. It will be much more difficult for the people pleasers. It will take a lot of practice. And a lot of telling yourself, It’s okay if they are upset at me. I need to set this boundary for my well-being. Over and over and over. 

I am going to summarize a psychotherapist’s advice on how to set boundaries. In addition to her work as a psychotherapist for 35 years, Sarri Gilman also ran a shelter for teens for 10 years. She understands how one can overextend themselves in the name of a good cause. I will link a Ted Talk she gave at the end of today’s letter, if you want more from her.

Step one: Figure out your boundaries.

This one is hard for teachers. Teachers say yes before thinking things through and realizing that they should be saying no. They are conditioned to support and give and give and give, no matter what. Because it’s for the kids! What about the kids?! WHO IS GONNA TAKE CARE OF THOSE KIDS?!!!!

Most teachers don’t realize they have taken too much on until they are at the point you are, Leave Me Alone - burnt out and disgruntled. Some teachers didn’t say yes to anything and their boundaries are still breached. I know you didn’t tell your parents, Hey, email me a million times a day and ask me to spend what little energy I have on things that don’t really matter! And yet, here you are, mired down with requests.

Leave Me Alone, I can tell, you know what is making you mad. You have your boundaries figured out. You just haven’t implemented them yet. For you others thinking, Yes, I like the sound of this boundary setting, but I don’t even know where to start. I am worn down by it all. You need to decide where to begin building some walls to protect yourself.

Think about the duties of your job. What duties put your stomach in knots? How about those tasks that raise your blood pressure? There must be issues that perpetually rub you the wrong way. Maybe it’s the meetings you keep showing up to because you feel like you should. It can be that thing you do and while you are doing it, your mind is elsewhere. Or its tasks that make you furious because you have many other things you should be doing with your time, so you can’t focus because of your anger.

Your list might include but is not limited to:

  • Collaborating with that one co-worker

  • Emailing that parent who is going to suck you into a days-long back-and-forth

  • Lunch duty

  • Bus duty

  • Hallway duty

  • Bathroom duty

  • Recess duty

  • After school duties

  • Working with that one kid

  • Needing something from that one custodian

  • Staff meetings

  • Department meetings

  • Committee meetings

  • IEP meetings

  • Your administrator

  • Your administrator’s administrator

  • Your administrator’s secretary

  • Decorating your room

  • Decorating your hall

  • Cleaning your space

  • Providing maintenance on a space that keeps breaking

You should start to be aware of how your body feels, and how your thought process changes when you are taking on a task that you do not like. It’s where your positive mindset becomes negative. (HAHAHA, positive mindset! AT WORK! Sure, Kristin. Okay, fine, it’s where your neutral mindset falls off into the dumpster.) You should start to have a more accurate, detailed list of the parts of the job that you could do without. When you imagine those things magically being taken off your plate, you should feel relieved and even energized, picturing this new worry-free (haha AGAIN) work landscape.

Now that things are starting to come into focus for you, hopefully, it’s not something like grading. Or, whole group instruction. Or, talking to students. Something integral to your job. Parent relationships are a necessary part of teaching, right, Leave Me Alone? However, it’s an area where you can make boundaries. It’s an area you need to make boundaries. Because what you are up against are people who can accommodate you. You aren’t pushing back against something like state testing, which is not accommodating.

I will conclude my advice to this writer next week. I had so much to say on the subject, I needed to break it up into a two parter.

—Kristin

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