I probably don’t have to tell you that, as much as we love doing it, teaching can be physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausting work. By the time I get home from a day of teaching and office hours, I tend to feel completely wrung out. There is a lot of pressure on faculty, especially on women, gender expansive, and racialized sessional instructors, to be responsive and attentive to students’ needs. What’s more, as sessional instructors, we often lack the institutional support that we need to take on these additional expectations.
So while I am wholeheartedly in favour of an educational approach that emphasizes empathy, I think that it is equally important that we start by taking care of ourselves. The recent University Affairs article by Natalie Samson has some great suggestions on how to maintain well-being throughout the year. But for me, one the most important things that I did to take care of myself was to establish clear emotional boundaries while teaching.
The term “emotional boundaries,” refers to the specific and clear limits that individuals set when it comes to interactions and relationships with others. To put it another way, emotional boundaries are the guidelines that we establish about how we would like to be treated and how we would like to treat others. They are essential when it comes to protecting our emotional well-being and empower us to put ourselves first; they are also necessary in both our personal and professional lives. For example, you may have solid boundaries in your personal life, but you may not know how to translate those boundaries into an educational setting.
I realize that this is easier said than done. Along those lines, I thought this would be a good opportunity to share some of the concrete strategies that I employ to establish and enforce emotional boundaries when teaching. While I am speaking as someone who has worked as a sessional instructor, these guidelines can also be helpful for other folks as well! I recognize that many of these suggestions sound simple. And they are. But so many sessional instructors do the bare minimum of self-care, and sometimes we need someone to give us permission to take care of ourselves. So, consider this permission!
Schedule email time
This is a bit of a two-part solution. Email can be super overwhelming for professors, and there is considerable pressure on professors to respond as quickly as possible. In order to prevent myself from becoming an email-answering machine, I do two things. First, I dedicate specific time to checking and answering emails, and limit myself to these times. I usually check once in the late morning and once in the late afternoon. And that’s it. Second, I do not check my work email on the evenings or weekends.
Allow for cool-down periods
A wise senior professor taught me this trick: I place a 24-hour embargo on student email on days when I return graded assignments as a cool-down period. It makes space for people to feel angry or upset about the grade they received, but also enough space for them to calm down. Once the embargo is over, we can have a constructive conversation about the assignment in question. This also allow me to be able to respond to the emails rather than reacting to them.
Recognize that your time is precious
Many of us are wholeheartedly dedicated to our students, but we also need to honour the fact that our time is precious. So, in general, I stick to my office hours pretty closely, and I refuse to come up to campus on days when I am not teaching. Instead, I offer to meet with students on Skype. If you want to go a step further, you can even schedule administrative tasks for specific blocks of time, setting aside the time you need to complete them without letting them take over your day.
Create a buffer
This idea came from Laura Ishiguro at the University of British Columbia: I provide a list of resources for students in need of assistance right on the syllabus. This list includes such resources as the writing centre and advising, information on counselling services, Indigenous student resources, disability accommodation, sexual assault centres, and crisis lines. Providing this kind of information on the syllabus is useful because it creates a buffer for when students approach you. They can feel supported in a vulnerable period, while professors can empathize and defer to the support systems outlined in the syllabus. What’s more, this means that students can get the help that they need from experts.
Establish clear expectations
One of the most important steps to setting strong emotional boundaries is to be clear about what those boundaries are right from the beginning of each course. So let your students know about your email, office hours, and other policies. One of the ways that I do this is by including a diversity and inclusion statement in my syllabus, outlining my policies for safe and brave learning environment. This establishes clear expectations for my students about their conduct in class. The statement acknowledges that the material that I will cover in class may be intellectually or emotionally difficult. This is a call for students to recognize and retain their own emotional boundaries. So by making my expectations clear, I support my students as I support myself.
Set a defined endpoint of the day/week
This is something that I still struggle with. Left to my own devices, I will keep working right up until I’m too tired to keep my eyes open. But increasingly, I’ve been setting a limit on how late I keep working. I tend to be a night owl, so while 10:00 p.m. may seem late for most people, it still gives me several hours for rest and relaxation before bed. I also try to take off at least one full day on the weekend.
Maintain a life outside of work
You are not your job. Work is not your life, and your life is not work. You may feel like you have no time for outside pursuits, but they are essential when it comes to maintaining strong emotional boundaries. So embrace a life outside of work. This can be exercise, hobbies, or travel. I’m personally fond of textile crafts and have been a long-distance runner for over five years. There have been many times when these activities have saved my sanity. And if you have trouble finding time for these activities, try scheduling them!
Lean on your support network
Academic work can be extremely isolating, and many of us feel terribly alone. But we don’t have to be. Your friends and family are there to help you, and you honour those relationships whenever you ask for help. But don’t forget about support groups as well. Some universities have sessional support groups, but you can also look for support groups in your wider community.
I hope that you find these tips useful, and I’d love to hear about the strategies you use to maintain emotional boundaries while teaching in the comments below!
Hi! These tips are definitely useful reminders. My only comment is that I wonder whether a 24-hour embargo for students to email might increase rather than decrease the intensity of emotions because it gives time for concern to escalate into worry, even panic. Can we really know how students are feeling, and assume that the impact of the embargo is beneficial for everyone in the same way?
I might be inclined to allow students to respond by email immediately, and I would respond as quickly as I could to let the student know that I take their concerns seriously. But the embargo itself would be between when the concern is communicated and when the discussion and resolution meeting takes place. This time-in-between would give educators the chance to de-escalate emotions and guide student reflection while also planning a thoughtful response.
I absolutely agree with the usefulness of a post-exam email embargo. In my large lecture courses, I get pelted by such emails and they are in no way productive for either party. Students sometimes even take a rather rude tone that I suspect they regret after cooling down.
The policy can be paired with a message, repeated just before the exam, that students can be assured that you’ll go over the test statistics and make any required adjustments if a test question proved to be misleading, for example. It also helps to have a form by which they can formally request that you reconsider an answer.
The only difficulty with the embargo, for me, is finding just the right language to describe the rationale for the policy in a way that lets them know it is every bit as beneficial for them as for me. This is one of those cases where it would help to have other faculty also adopt the policy, so that individual profs don’t feel they are setting themselves up for negative evaluations.