[Lara Casey wrote this amazing post about creating boundaries and inspired this post about my former boundary-less self. If you aren’t a teacher, you can read on and I’d click on her post to read about how boundaries are needed in your life too!]
When I saw this above graphic on Lara Casey’s website, I immediately replaced the word “client” with the phrase “parent of a student” but you may use “colleague” or “boss” or whatever stresses you out. Because how many of you are afraid of your teacher email? I was. Every time I opened it up, I feared another meeting to add to the schedule, a “disgruntled” parent email, or something else that would cause me anxiety. Don’t get me wrong, not all of it was bad! Most of it was good, but would add to my “to-do’s” and that stressed me out. I formed some fabulous and amazingly supportive relationships with my colleagues and the parents of my students. But I created a “cycle” from day one that I couldn’t break. Read on…
My first year of teaching, I made myself available 24/7 to my colleagues and the parents of my students. I was answering emails around the clock and I even gave out my cell phone number!!! (what was I thinking?!?!) So imagine my surprise when I had a parent call me on that cell phone at 9 pm on a Friday night to gossip about another parent or 5 am on a Tuesday morning to let me know their child was sick. It was terrible. So I quickly learned my lesson and stopped giving my cell phone out after the first year of teaching.
But what replaced that immediate cell phone communication? Email. Parents would contact me via email and expect, sometimes demand, an immediate response. I was answering emails at all hours of the day and night. Because I was always so available, parents would come to expect a response from me, usually within the hour of the initial communication. I felt that if I didn’t answer them right away, they’d be “mad” or they would speak ill about me at the next birthday party (gasp!) and it was tough. Now I’m not saying every parent was demanding… sometimes the emails were as simple as “can we bring cupcakes tomorrow?” but I felt pressure to answer right away. And every time I opened my inbox, my heart would pound. So many times, the parents (or I) didn’t realize that by answering their in-depth emails, I was spending time away from their children. I wasn’t being the best teacher I could be when they were expecting me to respond during the day. So after year two of teaching, I started to say “I wouldn’t be answering email during school hours, except during planning”.
Well, that kind of backfired in my face. Again, most parents were cool with this because their emails didn’t need an immediate response. But when do you think the parents that wanted immediate communication expected me to email them back? Yep. After school and on weekends. I’ll never forget a particularly challenging parent relationship that I had one year. This parent was very demanding of my time and constantly questioned my experience, training, and all decisions I made in the classroom (we all have at least one of these relationships in the classroom every year). This parent would “request an electronic receipt” of when I read my email so that she could see the exact time that I opened it up. If I didn’t respond within the half hour, she would email me again in a very disrespectful tone. If I still didn’t respond, she’d call the school in order to speak with me. Typically her emails were very detailed and they took a lot of time and the proper PC wording to compose and respond to. She was a school administrator in a neighboring county and used this “authority” to intimidate me… and it worked. As a non-tenured teacher, I was quite fearful of losing my job because of a parent complaint, so I was always trying to please her. One particular night, I heard my phone buzz with a new email at 3:30 am (email being linked to my phone was another mistake). It was from her and I opened it, thus sending her a receipt that I read it at 3:32 am. She was emailing about something trivial, but I had opened it!!! Ugh! My heart started to pound and I woke up, drug myself half asleep to the computer, to reply. My husband had had it. When he woke up for work at 6 am, I was still awake, worrying about whether or not my response was satisfactory to her. He explained to me that this had to stop and I had to do something about it. He was right. I was exhausted and a crying mess. But I had let her do this to me. I had essentially given her the permission to email me at all hours of the night because I had proved that I’d be at her beck and call, by ACTUALLY RESPONDING AT 3 AM. So, that same morning, I sent out an email to all the parents in my class letting them know that I would no longer be answering my emails before 7:30 am and after 4:30 pm, period. If they had an emergency, they needed to contact the office. Then I took my work email off of my phone and started to leave my school laptop at school. I removed my school email bookmark from my computer and absolutely stopped looking at my email after 4:30 pm. To my surprise, everyone was fine with it (well almost everyone). They respected these new boundaries I set and respected that my school-time was for their children, not email. I realized I should have done this way sooner! [Oh and what happened to that difficult parent? Well, she did come storming into my principals office, having a fit over my new email policy. She shouted to my boss that I be available to her “at all times” because if I wasn’t then obviously I didn’t have the children’s best interest at heart. Luckily I worked for the most amazing principal who backed my decision 100% and politely told her that she supported me. I was not reprimanded by my administrators for my decision whatsoever. That parent never discussed anything with me again and in the summer, she pulled her child out of our school system all together.]
So, what’s the point here? My email inbox was affecting my teaching and my marriage because I didn’t know how to set boundaries (and I didn’t even have children yet – imagine what I would’ve been missing out on in their lives if I did). I let other adults and their emails run my life both in and out of the classroom. Although it took a pretty big wake up call, my policy never changed from there on out. And each year, parents were more accepting of this policy and actually appreciated that once I left school, my mind was on my family and not on my inbox. I was a better teacher for it. My heart didn’t pound any more when I opened my inbox and I didn’t feel the need to respond right away or even at all to some emails. So what do I suggest you do if you’re in this constant heart-pounding, anxiety producing cycle? Read on.
I’ve heard Lara say this to me twice now. Every time you open your inbox, you have to make decisions. Will you respond? Delete? File it away? Or let it sit there and bother you every time you open your email? Let me offer some inbox tips here.
1. Make a Snap Decision.
Don’t treat your mailbox like a to-do list. When an email is read, make a decision about it immediately – respond to it, delete it, archive it, snooze it – just do something (see “Mailbox App” below for more information on this). And only check your email when you have time to make these decisions. If you don’t have ample time to respond, then don’t check it. Do I still get emails that leave me feeling anxious or nervous? Sure. But now I have a plan. Once I get an email, I immediately do something with it so that if it is a difficult email, I take care of it and move on. Make that your policy from here on out.
2. Schedule Your Emails.
Sometimes you may have to get to your email after school. But you don’t want to establish that habit of sending emails at all hours of the night, right? That’s when you need to use an email scheduling system. I like Boomerang or Follow Up Then. Both of them provide a scheduling system for you, so that you can write an email at night and schedule it to send in the morning. That way you’re able to work outside of your boundaries on your own time, without tipping off the recipient of your email. Both systems can also remind you of an email that you may not to deal with at the minute, by taking it out of your inbox and re-delivering it at a scheduled time. For example, get an email about the school book fair in a month? Feel too overwhelmed to deal with it now but don’t want it crowding your inbox space? Then schedule it to show back up in your inbox in 4 weeks. Done. The same thing can be said for the Mailbox app on your iPhone. I do NOT advocate putting your school email on your phone, however, if you feel you must, this app will help you manage it and get it down to zero. Just beware… there’s a waiting list to gain access to the app and it only works with Gmail. But hey, maybe it’s better suited for your personal inbox, right? That’s what I use it for. (Another tip for email on your phone is also to turn off “auto-load”, that way the little red notification circle isn’t calling you to click on it at all hours of the day. This feature is turned off on my phone and I really forget my mail is on there half the time.)
3. Streamline Your Emails
Create folders to hold all of your email correspondence. It’s always smart for teachers to leave a paper-trail. Every time I had a disgruntled parent to deal with, I usually had a he said/she said battle that ensued as well. When I was able to pull up an actual documented email to show them or my administrators, the debate ended immediately. For example, I had a parent who claimed not to be receiving my newsletters that were delivered by email, thus not getting important class information. As it turns out, she had replied to one of my newsletter emails and I had saved it. That gave me a direct paper trail to her inbox and even showed that she had to open the newsletter email to respond to me. Slam dunk for the teacher! But in order to recall these paper trails, you need a place to put all of those emails. That’s where you need to create folders. Organizing your inbox is as important as organizing your classroom. Here is just a sampling of the folders I have for my C. Jayne Teach email:
My teacher inbox had folders for each child so that I could quickly recall an email that was in regards to a particular student. You can even color code your email in some platforms. By creating folders, you’ll be able to recall information quickly and gather emails up if they need to present themselves.
4. Respect The Boundaries You Set
If you don’t live within your boundaries, no one will. As I said before, change is hard but so worth it. It may feel uncomfortable to only make yourself available from 7:30-4:30, especially if you are an involved teacher, but respect the boundaries you set. Don’t make email access easy for you. Fill your free time with the people you love and the things that fire you up. If you’re feeling burnt out during this school year, examine where the root of it is coming from… it may be your inbox! So decide what you’re boundaries are, stick to them, and don’t look back. Because once you send the message that “I’m sending emails at 9 pm again”, the cycle will start all over. So try it out. You’ll feel more energized, restful, and more dedicated if your mental space isn’t filled with anxiety and fear of what’s lurking in your inbox.
You can do it. Ready, set, go!