Self-Care for Instructional Coaches: How to Set Boundaries When Working from Home
Working from home can be as challenging as it is comfortable. As an educator, I never thought I would be working from home. That’s just not the way our industry was designed. Teachers are social creatures – even the introverted ones. We thrive on the ability to connect with our students and coworkers and we yearn to be present during life-changing learning experiences. Unfortunately, those opportunities have been taken from us and the future is uncertain.
If you have been following the news during this time of COVID-19, you know that there is a lot of discussion about what learning will look like for the near, and distant future. With online and remote learning keeping education afloat, there is some argument for completely redesigning the way we educate students. Now I’m not saying that remote learning will be the new norm, the socialization of children is an essential part of their growth and development, but this period of remote learning has shown that education is possible in any context and there may be opportunities to expand upon that context in the future.
If you have been in education your whole life and career like I have, then you are a rookie at working from home. I’m sure at one point or another you thought to yourself how wonderful it would be to work from home – no commute, staying in your pajamas, eating and using the bathroom whenever you want, and not hearing that dreaded bell every 42, 57 or however many minutes. Now that we have been forced to work from home, we realize it may not be as advertised. It took me several weeks to adjust to working from home, a few of those weeks coming with depression periods in which the only things I wore were my daytime pajamas and my sleep pajamas. After some learning and growth, however, I was able to establish some boundaries for working from home that have helped normalize my life during this time.
What I’m not going to do in this post is give you the same generic information every other speaker of this subject gives. You know that you need a designated space to work. You know that you need to get out of your pajamas. You know you need to take brain breaks. This is not anything new or unconventional. What I want to share with you are some of the smaller details you may not consider. I want to share ways to get over those emotional hurdles of discomfort and lead you to feelings of productivity and a sense of calm.
Tip #1: Create a Schedule and Stick to it
Working from home has plenty of perks. Your schedule can be more flexible, you can design your office space however you’d like, you have the ability to cook yourself a fancy lunch that would never survive the microwave – and take more than 10 minutes to eat and enjoy it. You can use the restroom when you want, and every day is a jeans day! Okay, I’ll be real – every day is a sweatpants day! While working from home can offer a lot of advantages in maintaining a work-life balance, if you do not have boundaries in place, working from home means that work can overwhelm your life and create a lot of feelings of anxiety.
One of the greatest challenges about working from home is separating yourself from work at the end of the day. When working from home, you can get caught in this feeling that you’re always at work. If you are a workaholic like I am, that can be a difficult mindset to break. I felt like I had to check my emails every time I walked by my computer. I thought I had to be available for teachers 24/7 because I was stuck at home and had nothing else to do. I saw a meme on social media that stated, “We are not Jake from State Farm. Do not call, message or Remind App me at 3 am and expect a response.” While I know the meme is exaggerating a little bit, it was not uncommon to get questions at 10 pm that I thought I had to address right then. Pro tip: Don’t.
Setting your hours of availability and sticking to them is imperative to creating a healthy work-life balance. Now I know what you’re thinking – I said I wouldn’t tell you anything obvious – but this one has to be stated because the hardworking teachers of America don’t know when to stop, even on campus. Think about how many hours teachers put in on a normal school day – get to the building early to get your classroom and lessons set up, teach a full day, sponsor or coach extracurriculars at night, provide tutoring before and after school. Teachers have a hard time with work-life balance when conditions are normal, this balance becomes even harder when working from home. I guess when students always joke about teachers sleeping at school, they didn’t realize that would actually happen one day.
Tip #2: Stick to the Same School Day Hours
Another thing to consider when setting your hours of availability is to think about your routine throughout the course of a school day. If you had to get up at 6 am for your commute to work, that doesn’t mean that now you get up and begin working at 6 am. Try to stick to the same school day hours you had before. Use the time you’d usually reserve for commuting and do something else. I know I have enjoyed cooking balanced breakfasts to have before my first meeting of the day. I no longer have to eat peanut butter toast in the car or grab a protein shake on my way out the door.
Speaking of food – remember to take a lunch break. If you were at school you wouldn’t be working for eight hours straight, you’d have passing periods, PD periods, conference periods, lunches, etc. Working from home doesn’t mean that you now fill all those gaps with work. Take those breaks. If your typical day at school included the occasional gab with coworkers, keep doing that too. You can schedule these activities throughout the day, or just pick up the phone and call someone. Get up and walk around when you feel like it. This is your chance to not live by a bell.
That being said – remember the joy students would have watching the clock at the end of the day just counting down the minutes until that final bell? Remember that feeling of the last class being over, packing up your stuff and heading home? Just because you aren’t commuting back home, doesn’t mean you can’t pack up and leave work alone. Most of us had a set time in the afternoon that we would pack up and head home no matter how far along we were on our work. When working from home it’s easy to get caught in the “one more thing” mindset and before you know it, you’ve spent the entire day working.
When working from home, you need to develop cues that will help you wind down and let the work go until tomorrow. Decide on a time every day to close out your email. Write yourself a note of things to do tomorrow and plan out your tasks for the next morning. Making a to-do list will help alleviate some of that guilt you might feel about stopping work. Keep weekends sacred. If you simply can’t – workaholics I understand – then choose one day a week as a day off. On that one day, you need to unplug completely. Don’t answer emails, don’t check-in, just spend that day resting and recharging for the following week.
If this is something that will be difficult for you, consider finding yourself an accountability partner. My first few years in the classroom, I was often the last teacher in the parking lot after school because I wanted to finish everything before I went home for the night. After a while, one of my coworkers would walk by my classroom around 5 pm and yell, “Go home! It’s time to go home!” Having someone gently remind or nudge you when it’s time to wrap things up for the day can help you separate work and life.
Tip #3: Celebrate Yourself
One of the other challenges of working from home is the feeling of isolation. When I first became an instructional coach, I loved not having 200 kids a day giving me excuses about their homework, or bugging me about grades, or redirecting student behavior. After some time, however, I began to miss those things. People would often ask me if I liked what I do more than being in the classroom. I would tell them I love the work I do, but I also miss building those relationships with the kids. It never mattered how unappreciated I was by admin or the public, the kids would always make me feel special. Whether it was sharing an inside joke, getting a Starbucks gift card, or just hearing a student say, “That was a really cool lesson” made everything worth it.
As instructional coaches, we don’t have the same opportunities for recognition or fulfillment because our job is about recognizing the achievements of those we coach. We are celebrating our teachers, but who is celebrating us? Especially now that we are working from home and are physically isolated from our staff, it is important for us to create our own fulfillment. It is up to us to make our work experience pleasant and to keep ourselves feeling appreciated – even if you are the only one that appreciates you.
One way you can create this feeling of fulfillment is to break down your daily tasks into small goals and reward yourself for taking each step. I remember when I first began teaching, I was incredibly overwhelmed whenever it came time to grade essays. I was always jealous of the math teachers who could give multiple-choice tests or use scantrons. (Please don’t hate me math teachers, I know that’s not all that you do) When it came time to grade 200 essays – or especially 9th grade essays – I was one of those, ‘for every 10 I grade, I get to eat an Oreo’. Believe it or not, that was enough to keep me motivated to power through. Rewards don’t always have to be food related. Perhaps you reward yourself for completing a few tasks by taking a 30-minute break to paint your toenails. Maybe your reward is to schedule a 30-minute nap, to take a bubble bath or watch ONE episode of your latest Netflix binge. This will help to keep you motivated and excited to continue working despite a monotonous routine.
Tip #4: Feel all the Feels
My last piece of advice for setting boundaries when working from home is to not ignore your thoughts and feelings. It is okay to feel tired, overwhelmed or even frustrated. It is important to acknowledge those feelings and then let them go. If you have trouble doing this, schedule yourself some worry time each day. When a worrisome thought arises, write it down and continue about your business. You can come back to that thought during your scheduled worry time, and once that is over you have to agree to just let that thought go.
While working from home is incredibly difficult when you aren’t prepared for it, it can be a great asset to maintaining a work-life balance that will best suit your individual needs. Working from home allows you to be flexible and tailor your schedule and your environment to what works best for you individually. If you are struggling with working from home, start with the basics. Create norms, develop a routine and stick to it. I know it can be tempting to treat every day like Saturday, but that only increases anxiety in the end.