In a world of remote and hybrid instruction, there's lots of talk about boundaries. It comes up in professional development, during staff meetings, on blogs and Twitter: boundaries, boundaries, boundaries.
And the topic is a worthy one. As I've said, constraints make us better. The path to freeing ourselves up to doing our best work is marked by self-imposed mechanisms for restraining the impulses that we do not want shaping our lives. And you can't solve the workload-pressure paradox without making work behave itself and stay within its borders. Boundaries are good.
The trouble is that a lot of this boundary talk ends up being just that: talk. We talk about them, we share them with a friend, we say we'll do them, we make sure students or parents know about them… and then we transgress them or we behave in ways that allow others to do so. We say, “I only check emails between X times each day,” and then we check email compulsively later that night or in the checkout line. We say, “I want to do better at not taking work home this year,”” and then we keep jam the teacher bag full before we leave each day, or we pull up Canvas or Classroom or Teams or Schoology as soon as there's a quiet moment in our evenings.
In other words, we make sandcastle boundaries. They're pretty — but wimpy, too. A bit of self-indulgence rain, a rogue crashing wave of workload, and whoosh — bye bye, boundaries.
And by the way, there's no shame in that. But gosh, it does turn life into a pressure cooker when we say one thing and do another.
What we need are Himalayan boundaries: the kinds of things that life can't move so easily, that require Herculean effort to overcome. South Asian history is in some ways the story of how a boundary like the Himalayas made possible the development of a unique set of human cultures. History can't move those mountains, and so over the millennia the mountains have ended up moving history.
Let's bring this idea back to email.
- Sandcastle boundary: Telling students and families when you will check your email.
- Himalayan boundary: Setting a rule for yourself that you'll check email only one time per day, and when you do, you'll OHIO — only handle it once. Deleting email apps off your smartphone and then asking your friend or spouse to password-protect app downloading on your phone so that you can't add the email apps back in a week once you've forgotten why this boundary matters to you, why you want to live a less distracted, less reactive life. Notice that you don't even need to tell people when you'll check email when you do this — they will learn that you respond in a timely fashion when a response is needed (OHIO enables that), but that you don't respond at night. It's just not something you do. And if you seek to love the people who you are emailing, guess what? They'll tend not to mind that they can't access you at all hours of all days. (And when they do, remember: it's not personal, and even if it is, you need not take it to heart.)
But what about “Not bringing work home?” That's quite a bit harder. After all, so much of our overwork is wrapped into the skill and clarity with which we think about our workloads. (I'm making a whole course on this — see below).
But from a boundaries perspective, it looks like this:
- Sandcastle boundary: I'm going to start bringing less work home.
- Himalayan boundary: I want to work these hours each week, and I've told my most trusted friend or my spouse that this is what they can expect of me and this is what I want for myself. I've told them that limiting my work to these times is a most serious matter to me — it's what's keeping me from realizing my potential as an educator, from getting the breakthroughs that I need for “more learning, less stress.” And so I beseech them, please — will you ask me a few times per week whether or not I'm working when I said I wouldn't? Will you give me a bit of a hard time about that? Will you help me think about ways that I can find more efficiencies? And in the meantime, I'm going to keep my laptop at school, or set up a filter on my home computer to block our Learning Management System after a certain hour each night.
In all of this, what you and I want is to look back on well-shaped careers and well-shaped lives. But the default modern life isn't one that works like that: instead it's frantic, frenetic, self-indulgent, crazed. And so is the default modern teacher's job.
But they don't have to be. They don't.
So: sandcastles won't work for what we're after. It's time to find some mountains.
I've got a mini-course that helps us do this. It's out now, is totally asynchronous, and includes lifetime access. Learn more and register here.