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Finding Balance: Establishing Respectful Boundaries and Cultivating an Open Heart

Open Heart and RBOne of the most challenging aspects of teaching is the ongoing practice of establishing respectful boundaries while cultivating and maintaining an open heart. I am reminded of a high school teacher in a workshop in the Midwest, who, when we described the foundations of Social and Emotional Learning exclaimed—“I feel like you are trying to make me into someone I’m not. I mean, I’m just not going to be one of those teachers who hugs kids.” This became a wonderful opportunity for all of us to delve into our beliefs about what it means to show care and to build healthy relationships. Each of us expresses care in different ways – whether that be through humor, storytelling, sharing our passion for our subject matter, or inviting students to make connections between their personal and academic lives. But however we express our caring, healthy relationships necessarily include the willingness to draw a boundary, call out a difficult truth, say no to an extra commitment when we are overwhelmed, or expect “excellence” from a student who everyone else has given up on.

When we do not hold clear boundaries, when the “container” of the classroom gets leaky and unsafe, students cannot safely open their hearts or take the intellectual risks they need to take to allow real learning to happen. When we do not clearly convey our limits, colleagues and students cannot know what we need and expect. And conversely, if we focus only on our limits without taking the time to establish trust, or approach a conversation with a closed heart, or set our boundaries without compassion and respect for the other, we are likely to cause hurt, elicit defensiveness or reactivity, or miss an opportunity to deepen our relationship with another. In this way, respectful boundaries and open heart are like two wings of a bird. Without both of these “wings” of our practice, the bird cannot fly well.

As we enter these last months of school, when spring fever hits and end-of-year-itis often erodes motivation and incites wild behaviors, it is perhaps even more essential to consciously cultivate these capacities in ourselves.

Below are some tips to support us to open our hearts and establish respectful boundaries. We’d love to hear what you discover.

Practices for Cultivating an Open Heart and Establishing Respectful Boundaries:

  1. Notice, without judgment, what tends to open your heart and what tends to close your heart with students, colleagues, and parents/guardians.
  2. For a week track the moments in your day that you get emotionally “triggered”—that is, when you have a strong emotional response or reaction to an event or experience. Use inquiry to discover if this trigger is related to a “boundary” of yours that has been crossed. OR whether this trigger relates to other times in your life when you felt a boundary has been crossed. Explore ways you can respond rather than react to your triggers.
  3. Revisit your classroom agreements with your students. If you have not done a shared agreements process (see The Five Dimensions of Engaged Teaching, Chapter 7), consider a shared agreements process for the last weeks/months of school.
  4. Invite students to create 4th quarter Social, Emotional, and Academic goals. Create a forum for students to share these out in some way. You may also wish to ask students to identify one action step in each of the three categories that they can take this week.
  5. Next time you feel you need to create a boundary with a student or colleague, see if you can use this as an opportunity to deepen and strengthen the relationship between you.
  6. Next time a challenging or difficult situation arises, “lean in” and “welcome the unwelcome”. Invite your own curiosity about the opportunity this situation could be offering you. What can you learn about yourself, someone else, your own teaching practice?
  7. See if you notice a relationship between your yes and your no. When you are willing to create a boundary and say no, does your yes become more authentic?
  8. When you feel you need to establish a boundary—remember that you have a worldview, perspective and inherent biases that may color the way you see this particular situation. Ask yourself what assumptions or beliefs you might have about the situation that may influence how you are interpreting it and responding to it.

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