Boundary setting for busy teachers

Boundary setting for busy teachers

The education sector can be a difficult field for achieving a healthy work-life balance. After all, teaching is a deeply vocational job. And when you’re passionate about your job and emotionally invested in your students, it can be hard to say no and feel like...


The education sector can be a difficult field for achieving a healthy work-life balance. After all, teaching is a deeply vocational job. And when you’re passionate about your job and emotionally invested in your students, it can be hard to say no and feel like you’re letting people down.

But a poor work-life balance can have serious repercussions on your health, stress levels and general sense of wellbeing. So, how can you achieve a better balance in your career? It’s all about learning to set boundaries.

Why boundaries are important in a teaching job

The Education Support Teacher Wellbeing Index found that an inability to switch off from work is the major contributing factor to a poor work-life balance for 74% of teachers. Excessive workloads and the lack of a work-life balance are key ongoing issues within the education sector. There are big, structural problems – but there are small actions you can take to redress the balance.

If you find yourself constantly being asked to manage extra-curricular clubs, take on big projects outside of your normal workload, or create lots of additional resources for your department, it might be time to consider setting some boundaries with your colleagues and managers.

Boundaries are important. They are a crucial way of safeguarding your time and energy, protecting your health and ensuring your wellbeing, to enable you to be the best teacher you can be.

How to set boundaries at school

It can be hard to set boundaries, especially if you’re used to saying yes to people. We live in an always-on culture, and it’s normal to fear disappointing people. So, here are some tried-and-tested techniques for establishing boundaries in your teaching career:

Take your lunch break

This is a small but powerful way to prioritise your wellbeing. Regular breaks throughout the day help you to work more productively, and feel less stressed. So, no matter how much work you have to do, don’t fall into the trap of eating lunch in your classroom while you mark homework. Make sure you take a proper break. You’ll have more energy for your afternoon classes, and your colleagues will see that you’re unavailable for that short period at lunchtime.

Don’t accept an unrealistic workload

If you are struggling with your workload and having to work into the evenings and at weekends, it’s important to communicate that to your department head. They might be able to reassign some tasks and suggest some shortcuts or ways to work more efficiently. You have a right to evenings and weekends free of schoolwork in order to recharge and rest, so if you find that additional work is creeping into that free time every single week, it’s time to talk to your line manager.

Don’t check work emails once you’ve left school for the day

You might have physically left the school building, but you’re still working if you’re checking emails and responding to messages into the evening. And if you’re still thinking about work, you’re not giving yourself the down time and rest you need to recharge. A simple way around this is to remove your work email from your smartphone, and resist the temptation to open your laptop once you get home for the evening.

Don’t automatically say yes

When you’re met with a request, instead of saying yes and piling pressure on yourself, ask for more information. What is the scope of the task? How long will the task take? What’s the deadline on it? Once you have all the details, you can make an informed decision about how much time it is likely to take up, and whether you can manage it. If the answer is no, then honesty is the best policy.

How to say no

Saying no is one of the most powerful ways of setting a boundary. It can feel awkward, uncomfortable or even scary to say no to your department head or headteacher. So, here are some diplomatic ways to communicate a refusal:

1. “I’m afraid I won’t have time to do this project justice while I’m working on X, Y and Z.”

When saying no, give your reasons. Explaining your refusal will give your boss an insight into the different factors that make up your workload. That way, if they really want you to undertake a specific task, they’ll be able to reassess or prioritise different things.

2. “Thank you for thinking of me, but I don’t think I have the skills to make a good job of this.”

It’s important to be clear about your capabilities. If a task goes beyond your abilities, then you won’t be able to complete it to the right level or in a good amount of time. It also gives you an opportunity to ask for additional training, mentoring or support.

3. “I’ll need to check what I’ve got on for the next couple of weeks – I’ll email you once I’ve had a chance to look at my to-do list.”

If you really struggle with saying no, you can use this phrase to buy yourself some time. It’s reasonable to see what else you’ve got on before agreeing to something. And, communicating via email can help you to find the words or the courage to say no. But it’s important to send your response quickly– otherwise it can seem like you’re avoiding the issue.

Further reading

Learn more about evolving your teaching practice to meet the challenges of 2022. And let us know your tips for setting healthy boundaries when it comes to work. Is it possible for teachers to achieve a good work-life balance?

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