I started teaching when I was 22 years old. As if that wasn’t enough, I taught at the school from where I had graduated five years prior. On top of that I had run out of money to finish my credential program and hadn’t even done my student teaching yet. We spun this first year of teaching as an “internship,” which was another word for, “we trust you, you are going to be great, now sink or swim.”
I was supported by an amazing mentor to whom I didn’t listen nearly enough. I wanted to do several different extra curricular activities for staff (like chairing a WASC committee) and students (like advising the cheerleading team). She told me, “Say no,” but I didn’t. To almost everything I was offered, my answer was an unequivocal, “absolutely!”
I taught three subjects that year. And the kids I taught were no easy crowd. Multi-lingual, multi-ability, over half qualifying for free or reduced lunch because of their exceptionally low-income level, my kids had as many emotional needs as they did academic. Once I asked a student why she didn’t do her homework; her reply, “I was in the hospital all night because my uncle got shot.” Understandably, learning about the plight of Native Americans fell on deaf ears to many of my kids; they had plights of their own facing them down every day.
Did I mention that I also waited tables three nights a week in order to pay my bills? And I lived and worked in the residence halls of my college as a Resident Director to pay my rent? I had a boyfriend who didn’t understand the life of an educator at all (as he called in the middle of second period to say, “Get a sub, let’s go surfing!”) and friends and family who had no sense of the fact that as a teacher, hours must be devoted long outside the 8am-3pm workday to grading and planning. With all of them I tried to maintain my pre-teaching relationships, staying up too late, expending too much emotional and physical energy, getting sick because I in trying to take care of everyone else I had forgotten to take care of myself.
In short, I was completely out of control.
My life as a teacher went on in this vein for almost three years. At the end of year three I was at a breaking point, emotionally and professionally. I was either going to leave this job I loved or I was going to have to wipe the slate clean and start all over. Undeniably problems follow us wherever we go; that said, sometimes an intentional and thoughtful clean break is the only way to get out of an unhealthy cycle. I turned in my resignation and walked away.
In that moment I knew the power of saying, “No,” just as my mentor had tried to teach me years before. People were very disappointed in me; in truth I was disappointed in myself much more. Regardless, I knew in my heart if I didn’t start over I would be leaving the profession entirely by the end of the next year. Because teaching was so important to me, there was no way I could let that happen.
By that time my credential was finished, I had married a man who was born into a family of educators, my own family and friends had come to understand the realities of my profession, and I knew things internally had to change for me, big time. I ended up exactly where I needed to be in order to find a way to set up a system of clear and definitive boundaries because my new school was at the opposite end of almost every demographic spectrum: it was white, English speaking, high ability, and wealthy. Because of how I grew up and my years spent at my first school, to me my new kids had absolutely no excuse. Not for anything.
Their privilege afforded them exceptional opportunities and there was no way I was going to allow them to milk me or anything having to do with their education. They were going to work, and they were going to work hard. I would meet them halfway, but there was no way I was going to work harder than they did. I left every day by 5pm, I never came in on the weekends, and I didn’t carry them in my heart when we were apart. I left them firmly at school and when I was at home I was fully focused on my family. I still had to work on the weekends, but not Sundays. Sundays were the days completely free of anything school related.
Ironically, in setting boundaries I set myself free.
I only lasted at that school one year. My husband and I moved, but I think I would have left anyway. Those kids weren’t “my kids.” They were amazing and smart and passionate; they taught me far more than I taught them but they weren’t the work of my soul. I knew what I had to do.
After two more years my husband and I moved again, allowing me to return back to the district of my roots. Within two years I was back at my high school, the place where I was transformed as a student and the place where I began my career seven years prior. I was a seasoned veteran by then, I had one child and another on the way; most importantly, I had my priorities straight.
What I realized in coming back was that no matter the demographic grouping, kids needed the boundaries as much as I did. No longer did I allow them the crippling effects of enabling: inflated grades because of hard life circumstances, the acceptability of missed deadlines, false hope that everything would always be ok. Kids need respect and nurturing and compassion; they also need tough love.
In a word: boundaries.
Whenever I see them start to spin out of control, I check myself: have I provided proper boundaries? Have I been honest and clear in my expectations? Have I held those expectations compassionately consistent? If they are falling apart and the reasons are not their own, then the responsibility is mine. Almost without exception, the issue is boundaries in one form or another.
Similarly, when I am out of control, I have to ask myself the same exact questions. Both for them and for me, boundaries of course need to be flexible, but they also need to be firm. This is difficult for a teacher who cares deeply for her students; it is also critical for a teacher who cares deeply about the profession of teaching. If you want to stay in it, you must get clear on your needs and hold firm in the knowledge that, as Mother Teresa used to say, you cannot give from an empty cup. If you can’t establish boundaries because you know you need them, do it because you know your students do.