Teaching has never been an easy job. If you work in education, you knew to expect the unexpected long before the nightmare of 2020. The year of COVID-19 has made life incredibly challenging for educators across the country. If you’re feeling exhausted and overwhelmed, you’re not alone. There are services through organizations like Therapy Aid Coalition available to you and other essential workers to help you navigate these trying times. But there are also things you can do right now to make your life easier – starting by setting boundaries.

Why this year feels so hard

There is no “easy” classroom setting anymore for teachers. Whether you are teaching in person, online, or in a hybrid setting, your problems are daunting: In-person teaching has the serious obstacles of physical distancing, becoming a “mask monitor” and acting as the hand-washing police – not to mention that you can’t even help tie a shoe or console a student with a hug.

Online settings raise complications around Internet connectivity, finding tech support for students – and yourself – plus the challenge of staring at numerous muted, blank squares of student faces. Your connection as a community is shaken. If you’re one of the brave souls trying to manage a hybrid model, your struggles seem impossible, as you try to be two people at once. It’s no surprise that many teachers are reporting their workloads have doubled.

Introducing your new BFF: Boundaries

A boundary is a limit or a space.  Boundaries can be emotional, mental, material, and physical.  They must be learned, and they become a vital part of self-care. Without healthy boundaries, we can come to feel highly stressed, burnt out, and even angry. With solid boundaries, we can feel emotionally calmer, safer, more energetic, and peaceful.

Setting boundaries doesn’t come naturally and takes practice, especially for caregivers and those who tend to put others’ needs first. If the idea of setting boundaries feels intimidating, remember that it always gets easier the more you practice.

Creative ways to set boundaries (and maintain your sanity!)

It might feel like you need a clone (or two!) to get your work done. And without self-care, you’re on a fast track to burnout. Here are some creative ways to implement boundaries throughout your work week:

  • Designate a time to stop working each day and set an alarm on your phone as a reminder. (If you find you’re ignoring the alarm, you can even enable some computers for an auto-shutdown!) 
  • If you find yourself answering the same parent (or student) questions over and over, create an FAQ within your email auto-reply. Feel free to include information about when you do and do not check your email (i.e. “I do not check my email after 5pm or over the weekend.”) 
  • Take breaks.  During a normal school day, you break for recess, a prep period, and lunch.  Now, you may be tempted to keep working through these – Don’t! Set another alarm to remind yourself to take self-care breaks. Get outside for a short walk, or just sit in the sunshine.  Take a few minutes to meditate or do yoga.  Talk with family or friends, or even do a little reading for pleasure.
  • With work and your personal life, trust your gut and listen to your body. Exercise may be just what you need one day, but completely depleting the next. If your body is telling you to rest, listen to it. It’s okay to park yourself on the couch and watch Netflix. 
  • Learn to say no. You are not a superhero. You are human, and you can only do so much. If you are being asked to do the impossible, seek some help.  In your personal life, if something doesn’t replenish you or bring you joy, don’t be afraid to turn it down. Your time and energy are precious, and you can’t help anyone else if you don’t take care of yourself.

When boundaries are not enough

Sometimes you can set great boundaries, have the best self-care routine, get strong support from family and friends – and yet still feel overwhelmed, depressed, or even traumatized by all the havoc the pandemic has wrought.  In this case, you may find relief in talking with a therapist. Studies show that approximately 75% of people who participate in therapy experience some benefit. 

Financial worries and uncertainty about how to find a good therapist during a pandemic can keep people from seeking support.  With that in mind, I was inspired to create a nonprofit called Therapy Aid Coalition as a response to the critical need for mental health support for teachers and other essential workers during COVID-19. Our organization provides free and low-cost online therapy throughout the United States. It’s a nonprofit with more than 3,000 participating therapists, and it’s completely anonymous. I encourage you to reach out if you need someone to talk to.

These are challenging times. Remember – nothing lasts forever. You are not alone, and support is available to help you through.