In the world of education, a popular quote rings true. "Relationships before rigor, grace before grades, patience before programs, love before lessons." Dr. Brad Johnson typically knows best. Relationships are the foundation of any high-functioning organization, and those relationships are built on healthy dose of trust. In a school setting, until our kids trust us and feel safe with us, both inside and outside of the classroom, they can never reach their true potential. Relationships are the starting point of excellence at any level within a school.
One of the hardest things to establish within our relationships as educators, however, are boundaries. We are weak in this regard, friends! We want to be all the things to all the people all the time. That's typically why we become educators to begin with. There are a lot of Enneagram 2's within our teams. So, how do we strive to establish healthy and flexible boundaries within our relationships so that when a crisis strikes, we can remain emotionally and socially stable and in tact? Let's take a look at what flexible boundaries are, and what are not through the lens of an educator.
What are flexible Boundaries?
So, just what are these boundaries? How do they function and how do they help us operate? What does it mean for a boundary to be flexible and why does it matter so much?
First, healthy boundaries can be flexible boundaries. I use flexible as a term here, however, because once a crisis strikes, the ability to navigate relationships with flexible boundaries will be a gift beyond measure. If we start practicing flexible boundaries within our relationships from the start, we will more readily adapt when a crisis arises. To better understand, let's consider what flexible boundaries are versus what they are not.
Flexible boundaries are:
Flexible boundaries are incredibly healthy in that they recognize that boundaries are necessary in any relationship (especially in the workplace), but they allow us to still meet one another in our humanness as we navigate life together. Have you ever had a boss who left the office at exactly 4:00 each day? This person has a set boundary, which probably benefits him or her in several ways. He/she knows when the work day is shutting off, and when to make the transition to personal life at home. Perhaps the boundary is even necessary given a spouse's work schedule, or a time when the kids need picked up from school. It isn't bad to have a set boundary; however, in most school scenarios, such rigidity may not be realistic. I would be hard-pressed as an administrator to commit to always leaving the office at 4 PM, for example. Thus, a flexible boundary is necessary. Instead, I might commit to leaving no later than 4:30 PM three days a week, and I know I will stay late for an on-campus event once. I still have boundaries, but they are flexible given the demands of my relationships (which are strengthened by attending a play, a basketball game, etc.). My husband will understand when I occasionally come home late after staying after to problem-solve with a colleague if most nights I make it in for dinner by 5 PM.
Flexible boundaries do not just occur in person. It is also important to note that we should incorporate flexible boundaries with our cell phones and inbox as well. While most of the time it is okay to say, "Past 7 PM I will be spending time with my family," it is also okay to take a call at 8 PM from that staff member who never calls. While my family appreciates that I attempt to honor my 7 PM deadline for work-related calls, they will also understand if I occasionally need to answer the phone or an urgent email. My flexible boundaries have allowed them to know they are a priority, but that sometimes my staff members require my evening attention, too. In turn, my staff member feels cared for and is appreciative of my additional time if/when they do need to call. Everyone will feel valued all around, and no relationships have suffered in the process.
These boundaries will particularly come in handy when a crisis emerges. When we transitioned to distance learning last spring, for example, it was necessary for me to spend more hours on my laptop and on my phone than I traditionally would in a normal school day given the number of people and situations that demanded my attention. I had the energy for the task, however, because I simply flexed my boundaries. I let my staff know I was available, and my family understood that I had to re-prioritize throughout those first few weeks. Then, when I needed to take a few days to regroup, the world around me became respectfully silent to allow me the time I needed to concentrate on my health and my family at home. I try to respect that for my colleagues as well. I understand that my urgency can't always be their emergency. They aren't being dismissive, but sometimes, they need to be able to tell me no.
As you evaluate the current state of your relationships with your staff, how are your boundaries? Are there places where that feel too rigid? Are there places that seem too loose? Boundaries should feel liberating, not restrictive, so perhaps a quick journaling activity about your relationships is the ideal place to start. Assessing our boundaries and how they are currently working for us can help us make adjustments in the present so that when a crisis arises, we already have appropriate and adjustable boundaries in place. The people who love and live with you will thank you, and those you lead will happily fall into alignment with you as well.
Linger a Little Longer:
1. Assess the current state of your relationships. Where do you need a boundary that doesn't currently exist? Are there places where you are being too rigid?
2. Comment on the ideas that boundaries can actually be liberating. How might this idea work for you?
3. How do flexible boundaries allow you to engage fully in your relationships while still keeping "no" on the back burner in a time of need? Is there a time when "no" is a helpful option to keep in your back pocket? Why or why not?