The Boundary with Problems (Part 2)

I’m a Twelve Stepper.

I’m not going to share my whole story, but I’m not going to pretend unhealthy thought patterns and codependency only affect my personal relationships. Problems with boundaries, responsibility, and authority bleed into my professional relationships, too. Right before my divorce, I said to my friend-and-now-sponsor It’s like every argument I have with my husband is a parallel of a fight I had with my mother.

I started attending meetings that week.

I’ve worked on replacing a lot of my scripts: I do not engage in body talk. I am not playing that game any more. Failure to plan on your part does not constitute an emergency on my part.

One of my hardest tasks has been setting boundaries. I think this will be true forever, because there are so many boundaries to be set. The boundary between home and work and home is one that I have set and reset. This is not unique among teachers; it’s a quality many of us share. Honestly, the willingness to break that boundary (at least in regards to bringing work into our home lives) is held up as a quality of an exemplary teacher. It means we go above and beyond. We go the extra mile. We show unwavering dedication to our students.

Also, we burn out.

There is another kind of boundary I want to discuss today. The one between my students’ parents and me.

I know far too many teachers who are codependent. Codependent relationships are a type of dysfunctional helping relationship where one person supports or enables another person’s addiction, poor mental health, immaturity, irresponsibility, or under-achievement (source). We think we’re helping. Helping is what we do; it’s why we became teachers. If we can help parents while we help their children, all the better, right?

This is in the front of my mind right now, in part because I am taking a course on parental engagement in schools. The dominant paradigm for parental involvement is heavily school-centered–the school plans the activities, invites the parents, and decides what constitutes adequate involvement. This paradigm needs to change if we genuinely want to improve and transform our schools; it is critical to change the boundary between parent and teacher. This kind of transformation involves deconstructing the power hierarchy between school and home. It requires seeing parents and teachers as equal allies in a community of change. It’s about empowering parents and families. It requires the opposite of a codependent relationship. 

Home visits can be a part of a powerful school program. It can be included in the conversation when we talk about teaching the whole child. In my field of deaf education, it is a critical component of helping parents understand their child’s hearing loss. It is instrumental in demonstrating language-modeling activities and coaching parents in how to include a deaf or hard-of-hearing child in daily activities like baking or doing the laundry.

Phone conversations have long been part of my repertoire of parental engagement techniques. Also meetings and conversations with parents and PSR (psychosocial rehabilitation) counselors. Some of my most successful brainstorming sessions happened during my first two years of teaching with a parent and a student’s PSR worker. We saw each other as partners, we respected each other’s experience and expertise, and we honored each other’s contributions to the conversation. We tackled some pretty uncomfortable situations together. It was helpful to be part of a team.

In the same environment, with the same teacher (me), but with a different parent, home visits, phone calls, and meetings can become unhealthy very quickly. I have been asked and/or expected to cross my personal boundaries in several incidents. I had typed them out, but I decided against posting them. I am honestly not sure how much I can or should divulge, even though it would be anonymous. The Readers’ Digest version: I used to make any and every attempt to do whatever was needed for my students to show up and be successful in school. Now I see that by over-helping, I was disempowering the parents, and that some of those things could garner me a screen credit under the title Enabler. It makes me very uncomfortable, as I now understand it runs contrary to the work I’ve been doing in ACA; one of the characteristics of Adult Children is that we have an overdeveloped sense of responsibility and it is easier for us to be concerned with others rather than ourselves. It makes me uncomfortable because I now understand that I was reinforcing power hierarchies, which is the opposite of what I want to do with my graduate program.

Part of doing recovery is anonymity; I get that. So is being in recovery like having an invisible disability, similar to my migraines? I don’t know. I imagine there are people with opinions on both sides of that question. Do I have a right to ask for accommodations or considerations in regards to my recovery? Can I tell a supervisor that I need to maintain boundaries, even though I used to be willing to cross them?

If I draw the line and refuse to enter into a codependent dynamic, or in some cases, choose to scale back a relationship to eliminate codependency, I may very well be viewed as no longer going above and beyond. My evaluation may look less shiny if my supervisor decides that I am no longer performing satisfactorily in the area of parent involvement.

So where is the line? Where is my boundary with parents who have mental health diagnoses that impact their parenting? Where does my influence end?

How can I teach the whole child if it means not caring for the whole me?

Photo description: A close-up photo of a pencil tip drawing a straight line on a white backdrop.

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