Expectations to be available 24/7 is a key source of stress, exhaustion, and burnout for many educators. We want to be there for our students, but we also have lives, families, and interests and responsibilities outside of work. Unlimited availability is not realistic. Some limits are necessary to avoid disruptions in family life, provide opportunities to decompress, and refocus on other reenergizing activities.
Of course, expectations for near-universal availability are not unique to education. The growth of personal communication technology has brought with it assumptions that if a message is sent, the recipient should respond immediately, regardless of time and circumstances. This situation is also not unique to the United States. Some European countries, including France, have passed laws giving workers the right to disconnect outside of work hours and responsibilities.
What is unique to education is the experiences students had during remote learning. When students were engaged in remoted instruction they no longer had set hours for learning. Sleep schedules were no longer driven by getting to school at a certain time. Students presented their questions and requests as they surfaced. It was natural for educators to want to be as responsive as possible during the crisis. However, some of the habits and expectations that grew out of remote, crisis-driven learning have been carried back in-person learning.
Many students and families still expect educators to be responsive regardless of time of day, or day of the week, including weekends. Educators are often caught in the middle between wanting to be responsive to students and families while also dealing with personal needs and professional pressures and challenges. The key is to reset expectations for courtesy, thoughtfulness, and patience while still ensuring appropriate professional support and accessibility. Here are seven actions to help accomplish this goal.
- If possible, set schoolwide/districtwide expectations for staff availability. For example, a cutoff time in the afternoon might be set for when students and families should no longer expect a response until the next day. Consistent expectations, supported by a strong rationale can go far in addressing the situation. Of course, a set of expectations and procedures jointly agreed upon by the school board, the administration, and education association will likely be most effective while avoiding conflicts related to negotiated working hours and conditions.
- Educators, too, can reinforce expectations with a strong rationale addressing the importance of their family time and the need to disconnect to remain fresh and energized. Any expectations should include how and when it is acceptable to make contact outside of school hours and days.
- Some school teams have established “availability hours” beyond the school day that are rotated among team members, much like medical personnel “on call” hours. Availability hours might be confined to days leading up to major assessments or due dates for major projects.
- Depending on the capability of available technology, devices might be set to communicate unavailability in automatic response mode. However, this option needs to be accompanied with information about when staff members are available and how they can be contacted.
- Educators might set a standard for responsiveness during times when they are available. For example, students and families might be assured that they can expect a response within “X” hours. Of course, it is important to be responsive during the promised time frame.
- Once expectations are set, it is important that educators not violate them and risk introducing inconsistency to the practice. While there may be emergency situations that demand attention, when educators respond to some students and not others, or at some times, but not others, expectations are not likely to be respected.
- It is also important that educators respect availability expectations with each other. Questions and requests from colleagues can also add to the load.
Of course, not every option on this list will work in every school and school district. It’s important that we consider local history, conditions, and culture as structures and limitations are placed on availability. What is most important is to find a balance between being accessible and reserving time for life outside of our roles as educators.