The Problem with Boundaries (Part 1)

I do not have a good record of setting and keeping boundaries.

Work bleeds into my home life. My personal life bleeds onto the roller derby track. Roller derby sometimes makes me literally bleed (or, you know, sit on an ice pack at my desk for a week). I take on the problems of my friends when my own issues should take precedence. I even helped two friends resolve their needs to find new roommate situations by helping them move in together when I actually needed a roommate, too.

It’s a sickness, I tell you.

For real. I’m in a 12 Step program and everything. Sometimes I think it’s too little, too late. My first year of marriage, I worked between 50 and 60 hours a week. I also read the books Teach Like Your Hair is On Fire and The Freedom Writers Diary; I was definitely in my Idealistic Teacher Saves the World phase, and the hours I racked up in my classroom were a demonstration of that. I came early and I worked late, every day, all year long. I knew in my gut that’s what it would take. Rafe Esquith (the teacher who wrote Teach Like Your Hair is On Fire) came early and stayed late, too. My classroom observations were pretty solid that year.

Work was my life. I had no friends; my husband and I were homebodies. My husband asked me to talk about work less at home. And I read that Erin Gruwell (the Freedom Writers teacher) ended up divorced because of her above-and-beyond devotion to her job (though now I can’t find a credible source for that). So I stopped talking about work. But I didn’t stop bringing it home, so it festered in the form of major relapses in my reflux and weekends of long sleeps.

Spoiler alert: I ended up divorced, anyway.

One of my big goals in my 12 Step group is setting boundaries. We call our list of characteristics The Laundry List. There’s a more specific list that delves into our workplace behaviors, and one of them specifically says We become workaholics. The culture of our schools encourages this tendency, and the language surrounding school reform is very black-and-white: there are good teachers and bad teachers. “Increased accountability” is meant to separate the wheat from the chaff. We are expected to do more, with less. We spend our own money on books, materials, manipulatives, and craft supplies. We have profiles and projects on Adopt-a-Classroom and DonorsChoose. Our certificates and licenses must be renewed with a specified number of additional credits after an interval of years (currently in Idaho, it’s six credits every five years), but many of us have to pay for these credits out of pocket. So it is easy to see how it might be difficult to leave school at school.

Esquith said that other teachers cannot be expected to adopt his model of teaching. But it seems like any time there is a teacher who writes a book about how he or she transformed lives by rejecting the system, someone tries to turn it into the next system. Esquith’s mantra “Work hard. Be Nice.” became the slogan for the KIPP schools. KIPP was founded by two Teach for America alum. TFA prides itself in upending the “status quo” in American schools, but its model is hardly without critics. A quick trip around blogs and articles reveals that the TFA model includes a heavy workload and long hours; KIPP teachers (often TFA corps members) work 60 to 90 hours a week. The only way that can happen is to bring work into the home life. Work is the home life.

During my divorce, my supervisors had a conversation with me about leaving my home life at home because it was affecting my job performance. I understood what they meant, but I had no idea how to execute such a feat. How do I forget that between the hours of 7:30 and 4:30?

I readily admit I dropped back to 80% functioning during my divorce. I was a mess, I couldn’t focus, and I cried a lot. Eighty percent is a far cry from putting in 120% every day. It’s noticeable. I don’t ask my students to leave home at home, but I understand the need for me to do so, at least in some situations. My students know a lot about my life: my migraines, my backyard flock of hens, my daunting list of eating restrictions. But I didn’t tell them about the divorce until this August, even though it was finalized in January 2014. I didn’t even change my name back until this summer, because I didn’t want there to be a big change for them mid-year. As far as it affecting my job performance, I don’t know what the solution could have been, besides setting boundaries. But, alas: I am a workaholic, and it’s a safe guess that boundaries that bleed in one direction (work —> home) are probably permeable in the other direction, too (home —> work).

I don’t have a solution right now, but something about our school culture has to change. If we teachers are expected to put in as much effort as we do on a daily basis, to come in early and work late and procure extra funding and plan outside learning activities and use our own money to purchase supplies and take advantage of opportunities to continue our education (usually at our own expense), how are we still supposed to have the energy to maintain relationships and sleep and eat and exercise? How do we make it past the 5 year mark in our careers or our marriages? How do we not get ulcers? Because my wall between home and school is not the only permeable boundary affecting my health these days.

I get my 18-month chip in February. I still have a lot of work to do.

Image Description: A stick person pushing a black pencil across a white space, drawing a line upon which the person is walking.



  1. “But it seems like any time there is a teacher who writes a book about how he or she transformed lives by rejecting the system, someone tries to turn it into the next system.”

    I don’t have anything to add, but I want to give you a virtual high 5 for this.

    It takes some time to find that balance. Once you find it you’ll lose it every once in a while then you’ll find it again; it’s the nature of the job. And the job is pretty cool so there’s that.


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