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Boundaries

by Kristina Kauffman

Cloud and Townsend (1992) offer the following list of boundaries, the examples are mine:  

Skin   

older couple embracing

This could include everything from self protection against germs or allergens to appropriate physical contact, affection or abuse.  Examples for faculty include:
  • Ensuring that your work environment is safe for you and that you ask for support if equipment is out of safe reach, or if you are allergic to a substance in the room.
  • Avoiding any inappropriate contact with students.  Some students may find even a pat on the back or shoulder an invasion of their space.  Unless the curriculum necessitates touching a student you should refrain from doing so and always ask their permission.
Words

two screenbeans talking through cans and a string

This includes the ability to say no, to express likes and dislikes, and to set rules for appropriate conversation.  Examples for faculty include:
  • Establishing rules for classroom conversation including informal conversation during class time, the use of slang or obscenities, and protecting against sexual harassment or attacks on the ethnicity or religious beliefs of others.  
  • You are legally obliged to protect your students from harassment in your presence or that has been brought to your attention.  Seek advice from your Dean of Students if you have questions about a particular situation.
Truth Truth relates to knowing who you are, what you believe, and respecting others.  Examples for faculty include:
  • You may have strong beliefs about a subject.  Some faculty can do an outstanding job of covering various perspectives on controversial topics without disclosing their bias.  Others are better served to acknowledge their bias and to carefully explain how they came to that conclusion.  Those who have a bias must be careful to present alternative perspectives on topics where controversy exists and respectfully explain why reasonable people may differ.
  • Students can tell when you lie, and they lose respect for you.  If you don't know the answer, say so.  Ask a volunteer to find the answer and report back, or be sure to research the answer and report back at the next class, giving students both your research process and your finding.  Students will often learn a great deal from this exercise.  They will learn how to find the information, and they will learn that experts in a field don't have all the answers.  
  • If a student points out that they think you may be wrong about a fact, and you think there is even the slightest possibility that they are correct, respect the courage it took to point this out.  Follow up to find out the facts and discuss it when you have more information.  You might encourage the student to bring their research and supporting evidence to the next class.  Never argue with the student or belittle them.  You will appear out of control and immature.
  • Take responsibility for what is your responsibility.  If you didn't get something done you committed to doing, or recognize that you won't be able to finish it, own that.  Be honest about it and inform those it effects right away.  Waiting will only make you feel worse and make them more angry or distrustful of you.  
  • Don't take responsibility for things outside your sphere.  You can't save every student.  You aren't responsible for their arrival in your class unprepared.  Don't waste precious time being angry about it.  Help them if you can and know where to send them for assistance you cannot provide.  
  • Recognize that nearly everyone you work with is probably working very hard to do the best job they can.  Often administrators are doing the best they can with little or no training in how to be an administrator.  Help them succeed if you can.  Don't enable bad management by giving them unclear messages about your boundaries (or values), but don't undermine weak managers either.  Most will learn with time.  Don't denigrate or disrespect administrators.  Community Colleges are suffering a significant shortage of trained administrators, and often those who are quite capable are asked to perform tasks beyond the capacities of nearly any human with scarce resources and little help.  If an administrator forgets to do something they said they would, assume they forgot and gently remind them.  Don't assume its about you or a lack of respect for your needs.  If you sincerely believe you can do a better job, apply for your department chair position, a position in Senate or union leadership, or an administrative post.  Remember that many administrative positions exist only to serve you and your students.  Those individuals do not have power over you.  Don't fall into the us against them trap. We need to retain good administrators.  Let those who are doing well know it.    
  • Always be confident about what you know, but remember that most people read arrogance as a cover for insecurity and wonder what it is you are hiding.
Geographical Distance

treasure map with both skull and treasure

Geographical distance refers to the ability to remove oneself from situations that can cause harm or undermine one's self worth.  Examples for faculty include:
  • Keeping your distance from colleagues who are always negative.  You can't fix them, and they usually can't help you;
  • Getting away from the college for a vacation, or long weekend.  Leave town, leave your papers, give yourself permission to experience other aspects of life.
Time

hour glass

Time refers to the ability to take time off from work, give a spouse or child space to grow, set limits on what you are able to do in a given time frame, and know when you can do your work most effectively.  Examples for faculty include:
  • Respect that not all students learn at the same pace;
  • Know that for some students the positive impact you have made on their education may not be apparent for months or years.  Don't expect appreciation now;
  • Value what time brings to your teaching life.  You will likely be better equipped to relate to your students social lives and maintain energy and enthusiasm at the beginning of your career.  At the same time, you won't know as much about your field as you will in 10 years.  You won't know how to get things done on campus as easily, and you won't be as emotionally wise.  Your students will learn something valuable about life from you if you are 23 or 73, if you bring the best of that experience with you into the classroom;
  • Know the limits of your own physical, emotional and mental capabilities and recognize that these will change over time.  Generally as your physical limits become apparent with age, your emotional and mental capabilities will increase, and you'll be equally or even more productive in less time.  Life is not a race against a colleague who can do more this year.  Those with self-confidence and self awareness will value the contribution they can make, do the best job they can in the time available, and NOT overbook.
  • Get away from the college for a vacation or long weekend.  Leave town, leave your papers, give yourself permission to experience other aspects of life (yes I know this is repetitive, but many faculty need to be reminded).  If you truly cannot get away, turn off the phone, computer and pager and take a vacation at home with a novel, religious work, video or other no stress, no performance-pressure activity you enjoy. There is a reason that most religions advocate a Sabbath rest.
  • Take time to laugh.  Don't take yourself, your class or your profession so seriously that you lose sight of the humor in campus situations.  Having a hard time with this one?  Ask students who they think is the funniest professor and visit their class.  Watch how engaged the students are likely to be.

screen bean skipping through field of flowers  

Emotional Distance This is a temporary boundary drawn to ensure that you maintain self-control.  Examples for faculty include:
  • Ask an angry or tearful student to take some time to think about what you have brought to their attention and talk about it in a few days (set a time and appropriate place);
  • Avoid an angry colleague for a few hours or days until they have had time to think more clearly;
  • Remember that while you have the power to improve yourself, you don't have the power to change another person.  It is important not to need the emotional approval of students, colleagues or administrators who try to undermine your value as a person or as a professional.  You can't fix the other person.  Stay away from them as much as possible and focus on those who do want your help.  By the same token, if their comments are professional in nature and appropriate to helping you succeed at the college, pay attention and follow up to learn how to make necessary adjustments.  You may need to ask for a bit of reflection time to clarify which analysis of the situation is most appropriate.  If you feel yourself becoming emotional (angry, hurt, etc.), give yourself a bit of emotional distance to digest the conversation.
  • Stop yourself from getting angry with a student, faculty member or administrator.  If you believe you may lose control, excuse yourself politely and leave the room.  Losing your temper will undermine others' respect for you and your respect for yourself.  If you have continuing problems with anger, be courageous and seek advice from a professional.  Don't risk your career.   
  • Don't confuse your department chair or dean with mom or dad or a sibling rival.  Their role is not to comfort you or punish you.  Their job is to create a college where students learn.  If either of you think the relationship is parental or competitive, you will lose sight of your professional responsibilities.   Stay focused on serving students.
  • If you find yourself romantically or sexually attracted to a current student, avoid being alone with them.  If they come to see you during office hours, ask them to walk to the cafeteria with you and buy yourself (not them) a soft drink or coffee, or go get a library book.  Avoid any situation that heightens the opportunities for emotional or physical intimacy.  It is true that many faculty members are married to former students.  If your attraction is to someone you might consider as a life partner wait!  Ask them out or allow yourself to be approached only after the class is over and a few weeks or months have passed.  Be self confident enough not to rush.  Don't allow yourself to become the victim of a manipulative student who is infatuated with you.  Don't risk your job by setting yourself up for a harassment charge.
  • You also need emotional distance from your work.  Avoid taking campus problems home unless your partner is a saint, a psychologist and a real problem solver (humor intended).  Be sure to cultivate other social circles that support you as an individual or your family relationships.  Religious institutions often perform this function very well.  Maintaining close ties to old friends can help keep you humble and provide critical support when things at the college aren't going as you had hoped.  Nearly every faculty member has a bad class or a bad semester when little seems to go as you hoped.  It is important to have people who value other aspects of you, or who remind you that you are a fabulous teacher even if this semester you are saddled with illiterate students.  
Other People We are social animals.  People need the assistance of others, and we need to help others too.  We need relationship, input from others and teaching (or mentoring) by others.  We need support networks in our professional lives and outside them (particularly outside them).   Some people have significant boundaries problems in their relationships with others.  Some have good boundaries, but could clarify them to increase their emotional well being and personal success.  Boundary problems in relationships often occur in one of four areas:

Can't Say

Can't Hear

No The Compliant person feels guilty and/or controlled by others; they can't set boundaries. The Controller aggressively or manipulatively violates boundaries of others.
Yes The Nonresponsive person sets boundaries against responsibility and relationship. The Avoidant sets boundaries against receiving care from others.
Source:  Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend, Boundaries: When to Say Yes, When to Say No, To Take Control of Your Life, Zondervan Publishing House, Grand Rapids Michigan, 1992.

Examples for faculty include:  

  • Faculty members who lack confidence in themselves or their position in the college often feel they must do it all, or they won't measure up.  Within a short time they are exhausted, frustrated and beginning to do less than their best work.  Don't allow yourself to be controlled by what others might think.  If you don't know what is reasonable in terms of workload or other campus involvements, put your academic research skills to work and find out what is common in your campus culture.  Consider how this matches your abilities, family commitments and energies.  Allow yourself to commit to only what you can do well.  While you might be willing to "burn the midnight oil" for a few months, remember that your career is not a sprint; its more like a marathon, and you want to enjoy the exercise and be smiling at the finish line.
  • If you are asked to do things by your department chair or administrator that you sincerely believe are inappropriate, beyond your capabilities or your formal responsibilities, you need to respectfully share your perspective with them.  If you have doubts, withhold making any commitments until you have consulted with other faculty or administrators who may be more knowledgeable about what is appropriate.     
  • Some faculty members don't want to risk failure or loss of friendship, and fear commitment to campus responsibilities over and above those directly related to their classroom.  In fact, many people are attracted to academia because it allows them great autonomy.  Within certain limits (class assignments), faculty have tremendous control over when they work and the physical environment in which they do that work.  Faculty can choose to work summers or take them off.  Often they can supplement their income with an overload class.  Most departments are able to schedule classes for faculty with children in such as way as to make it possible to be home when children arrive from school.  Teaching can be a good life.  However, faculty who set their boundaries too high and focus on their personal needs to the detriment of their reasonable professional responsibilities abuse this position.  Sometimes this is not simply a function of self indulgence; it may reflect a lack of recognition of the value of one's contributions.  It is important to stay in balance over the long run.
  • Faculty members who dominate class time with constant lectures and belittling of students who ask questions  have boundaries against others.  It is very important to think carefully about how people learn and about how one can best reach their students.  Students are not here to serve faculty.  We are here to serve them.  While it is imperative that we set high standards, we should not set barriers against communication.
  • Faculty live in the world of education, yet a few of us seem to think we can no longer learn from others.  Most young faculty will learn as much from their students as their students might from them.  Mature faculty need to be careful not to set boundaries against continued education be that in the form of on campus professional development activities or formal education.  Even if it turns out that we know more about the topic than the speaker, we might learn a new teaching technique.  Being the student again can make us feel vulnerable.  Many faculty don't spend much time feeling vulnerable by mid career.  Sometimes, reminding one's self what it feels like to be a student can be a huge help in relating and connecting to our own students.  Most faculty love to show off what works for them.  If you are feeling a bit stale, visit the class of a colleague who seems at the top of their game and be inspired.  Remember a boundary is not a wall.
  • Faculty with healthy boundaries will know what they need to be responsible for and what they aren't.  Don't confuse being self-protective with selfishness.  We must all be good stewards of our health and self-respect.  Often these are not things we learn overnight.  Be patient with yourself as you figure it all out. 

A final thought on boundaries - In my experience some of the best faculty see their teaching as their life's work.  I think this is fine.  Where we need to be careful, however, is confusing what we do with who we are.  While we can teach how to die from our death beds, we can not and should not be college professors 24 hours a day.  We are also children, spouses, friends, parents, hikers, lovers, housepainters, gardeners, grandparents, celebrants and mourners.   We will learn far more than we will teach during our professional lives.  We can't do it all or have it all.  But, we can be delighted with our choices and comfortable, even joyful with what we get.  

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