It’s practically common knowledge by now that great leaders are open and emotionally available with their teams. Most excellent school leaders I’ve worked with have learned to skillfully and diligently admit mistakes, seek input on decisions, and go out of their way to show up for their people. It was hard for me at first, yet the more vulnerable I was, the more lasting trust that I created with my team. This kind of brave, crucial leadership is hard.
Without boundaries, being open, vulnerable, and available can quickly turn into becoming resentful, overwhelmed, and even inauthentic. Boundaries are self-imposed limits that teach others how to interact with us in healthy ways. By defining what we can and cannot do, we protect our energy so we can be truly present when we are most needed.
Schools are at least somewhat aware that teachers need boundaries, since their time and energy has such a direct impact on students. Good school leaders should be protecting their teachers’ boundaries, but they also need to do the same for themselves. Here are three hard-learned, proactive ways that school leaders can set boundaries with their school teams.
1. Maintain a predictable schedule of when you are available and unavailable
Keep times in your day like arrival and dismissal predictable, so everyone knows that these are times when you can be reached. Refer conversations for these times, such as “I’m on my way to a classroom, but catch me at dismissal and tell me all about it.” Make it clear when your “door” is really open and when it’s really not. That might mean teaching your staff what certain codes on your calendar mean or using a green/yellow/red sign on your actual door. When it comes to texts and calls after school hours, communicate a guideline and stick to it. Tell people you will respond during those hours so you can be present when you’re outside of work, too. They will appreciate it when you apply the same courtesy to them.
2. Build a team with many shoulders to lean on (and not just yours)
It sure feels good to be the hero, and that’s precisely why a physically present and emotionally available leader falls for this trap. Sure, you *can* swoop in to help in the moment (and it might give you a momentary sense of control amidst the chaos) but try not to step in all the time. Before you know it, people will assume that you will stop whatever you are doing to meet their immediate needs. Refer requests to other people and build them up for it (“Mr. Carerra in the office is always happy to help you with that after the morning rush”), offer alternatives (“While I can’t cover your class right now, I can help you find who’s available”) and create structures that get people to rely on each other as a unit.
3. Don’t say yes when you (really) want to say no
This one is really hard because leaders want to empower others and let them try things. Say yes with conditions if they are necessary (“Yes to the field trip, but make sure you secure the buses, please”). However, if you say yes when you *really* want to say no, you will form a resentment and those resentments could spread to your team (and that is no bueno!). This is especially important for things that will demand a lot of your time or anything that will have a lasting impact on students, teachers, or your school culture. If you need to say no to that afterschool program that requires your daily presence or to a curriculum that you don’t trust, say no or at least no for now. Don’t dwell, apologize, or back peddle.
These lessons are simple but tested. Often times, when I was a school leader, I didn’t get them right, but when I did, I noticed that I was more positive and effective. It isn’t easy to set boundaries, but remember that as the leader, no one will set them for you. Ultimately, if you hold space for yourself and your needs, you will be a more consistent, compassionate leader for the people who rely on you.