In the Newsletter Teaching Practical Boundaries (31st July 2017) I outlined the process of establishing effective boundaries. The work described how you know your boundaries are being threatened and how to protect yourself. This simplified approach is useful to either protect yourself from harm or to teach students how they can protect themselves and to develop independence.
Of course, boundaries are not that simple in the complex world of a teacher and the following will help create more professional boundaries that allow you to stay ‘in control’ in the most challenging situations.
Let’s start with a more realistic description of how we create our boundaries. In a pure form your boundary is the interface between your-self and non-self. As we grow we constantly build a connection between incoming stimulus, how that affects us and what happens if or when we act in response to that stimulus. Eventually, after a number of trial and errors a set of rules will develop; those rules will be our reality. The more consistently the impact of the stimulus and/or the consequence of our behaviour is interconnected the stronger will be the accepted reality. The link is why we really start to believe we know what just happened or what will happen in any experienced situation.
The day to day correlation between our experiences of the physical world is considerably robust. We soon learn that if we jump off a wall we fall to the ground or if we go out into the rain without protection we get wet. But, people are biological beings and our experiences are dependent on the environment in which we develop. Therefore, the correlation between what happens in my reality and yours is not so consistent.
However, there is enough of a matched response to situations between individuals to allow a broad sense of a shared reality. This is particularly true if the development of our reality is within a homogenous group. When we grow-up in a neighbourhood with shared socio-economic and cultural norms, the links between actions and consequences are more likely to be alike. The chances are that you and the person with whom you experience an event will share the similar beliefs about that incident. This shared reality will allow you to predict what is most likely to happen in a given situation and that is essential in building a safe and secure environment.
What are the complications for teachers?
The first is that there is a probability that you will be working in a community where the cultural expectations you learned are not the same as the culture you are working in. The expectations of families, for their kids may clash with yours. What you expect to happen may not be what they expect to happen. To compound this problem, even within communities over time traditions change; the older you become the more out of touch you are with those pesky teenagers who grow-up in a ‘modern’ environment. So again a clash of customs will occur. It is this clash which will create a level of tension. To protect yourself from that tension the likely thing is to defend your view of reality which by implication means you reject the other view. You’re right and they are wrong!
The second professional consideration is that you are dealing with children who are just developing their sense of reality. Because of their limited experience very young children are still learning the stimulus-response/action-consequence connections. Also, many of these lessons belong on the developmental path they are age dependent and so their reactions you expect for a given situation may not be present. Say you are annoyed at something they have done, it may well be that they just didn’t know what to do. Your ‘annoyance’ may provide the correct feedback they need to create this reality!
Finally, the kids we are focused on, those with damaged childhoods will most likely have an interpretation of any situation where there is a disagreement. Their idea of what should happen, their reality may well be very much at odds with yours. One example of this clash of realities is that many of these kids are comfortable in a noisy, chaotic classroom while such a classroom will/should strain your sense of ‘safety and security’ this situation will violate your boundaries. But, when you get the class under control, achieve a state of calm this situation will threaten the abused child, it is not their reality.
One of the great impediments to having strong and effective boundaries is the faulty belief that your reality is another’s reality. This can never be the case (see Newsletter - Theory of Mind, 7th August 2018) your internal world, your reality is yours, it is unique and has developed in response to your perceptions and the environment in which you developed. Too many people take for granted that their reality is the only reality and when there is a clash in the response to a situation they believe the other person is deliberately taking an action that annoys you.
As a teacher, you have a professional duty to understand that the children you are dealing with may have a very different view of the world so it is worth repeating the third step in setting those practical boundaries.
Ask the Questions
- ‘What is really happening’? This is often not the obvious event.
- ‘Who is responsible’?
If ‘me’ then I must take responsibility, take action to address the cause of the stress.
If not ‘me’ then I ask a further two questions:
- ‘What is causing the attack’?
- What do I have to do to change this situation in the long run’?
Boundaries are extremely important in every part of our life but it is no more important than when you are in charge of a classroom. This is where your skills define you as a professional teacher! Remember reality is just a set of rules learned to live in the environment you first develop and continue to live. These children need the reality that will help them change their reality and so you need to create a structured and supportive environment that will facilitate this.
This change takes time so you have to rely on your own boundaries to allow you to hang in with these most deserving kids. Understanding their reality, how it damages them, how to help this change should be your reality and this will give you the resilience to turn up each day.