How Small Boundaries Help Me to Preserve Energy as a Professor

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Elizabeth Catanese is an Associate Professor of English and Humanities at Community College of Philadelphia. Trained in mindfulness-based stress reduction, Elizabeth has enjoyed incorporating mindfulness activities into her college classroom for over ten years. Elizabeth works to deepen her mindful awareness through writing children's books, cartooning and parenting her energetic twin toddlers, Dylan and Escher.


I had been teaching for about 12 years before I realized that a pink tote bag would make me a better professor. Before this point, I had been bringing my personal belongings right along with my teaching materials to each class. I teach with a lot of props, so sometimes a giant plush hamburger I use to model quotation sandwiches was packed in my backpack on top of the real hamburger in my lunch bag, or my meditation bells would tangle with my keys, red pens falling into a change of socks. If there was time, I’d separate out my personal materials from my teaching materials before going to my classroom, but sometimes there just wasn’t time. The lack of separation between church and state, so to speak, was making me feel disorganized, not to mention what an extra heavy backpack was doing to my back. Additionally, there was a lot of extra energy spent sorting once I got to the classroom, which distracted me from plunging into the lesson.

The idea suddenly dawned on me one day about three years ago: If I kept a teaching bag already in my office, I could leave my personal belongings in my backpack and leave the backpack under my desk, grab my teaching bag, add a few necessary materials, and head to my classroom with ease. I selected a pink and black Rareform bag (made of recycled billboards) to use as my teaching bag since the Rareform brand’s mission brings me joy. When I feel joy, I feel more energetic, and not having to sort through my materials also gives me more energy for my students.

The author's pink teaching bag.The author's pink teaching bag.

Separating personal materials from teaching materials is a pretty small gesture, but I also see my pink tote bag as a reminder that it is okay to set small boundaries to gain energy. In addition to placing a separation between my teaching materials and my personal materials, there are other small boundaries I’ve set during the transitions that happen in any given work day.

One example is a five-minute space that I have put in place before I start teaching in person. There are two paths to get to my Monday and Wednesday morning classroom and, much like Robert Frost, “I [take] the one less traveled by.” It “has made all the [positive] difference.” The path I take adds five minutes to my walk, but it also means that I don’t run into students in the hallway, which allows me to make the mental transition from being a parent who just dropped her children at school to being a professor. During that time, I am intentional about giving myself positive affirmations, taking some deep breaths, or allowing myself to still think about home matters if needed. Once I’m in the classroom (always a bit early), I can tend very well to the needs of students, with more energy and less frazzle.

The two examples I’ve spoken about both relate to the boundary between home life and teaching life, but I have put others in place as well. Instead of making sure my office door is always open to be welcoming to students, there is now a “please knock” sign on the door. The knock gives me a second to transition from whatever I’m doing in the office to what I need to do in relation to my students. It’s not about shutting people out, it’s about helping myself be in the most ideal state when welcoming them in.

For some, small boundary gestures feel obvious, so much so that they may not even be understood as boundaries. However, boundaries often make me feel guilty; I’m in a field where always being available is considered excellent and blurred boundaries are sometimes read as a sign of commitment. Exerting energy is seen as a much better way to reach and connect with students than preserving energy.

If you have a few moments, it might be helpful to reflect about a several questions on this topic. What boundaries have you built in your teaching life? Are there any boundaries that are not serving you or your students? Are there any more you can create? What can your institution do to support you in constructing the space you need? Taking an assessment of the small boundaries that can be built into our pedagogical practice can help us to become more focused professors and more joyful humans.