By Erin Spampinato
I recently saw a sign outside a posh Brooklyn gym that read “You have as many hours in the day as Beyoncé.” While strictly speaking, this statement is true, for all practical purposes, it is false. Beyoncé has a staff who support her, physical trainers who design her diet and meet her where she is, people who make her delicious vegan cupcakes, and access to the world’s best physicians and health care. I get my cardio running across Central Park between tutoring gigs, only eat what I can bring with me all day without refrigeration, and carry my personal assistant on my back in the form of an extremely overloaded backpack full of supplies for various emergencies. (A MetroCard, tissues, allergy pills, deodorant, tampons, extra utensils, and anxiety medication are just some of the things you might find in there on any given weekday). So while Beyoncé and I have access to the same literal number of hours in the day, she has many more functional hours than I do.
The sick thing about that sign is that it plays on the damaging and perhaps uniquely American brand of perfectionism which holds that no matter what your odds or context, you can do anything. Let me disabuse you of this notion! You are probably very good at many things, but that doesn’t mean you can do “anything.” More practically speaking, you certainly cannot do what Beyoncé does in a given day, not only because you are not a creature of nearly mystical beauty and talent, but also because you don’t have access to the kinds of privilege that allow Beyoncé to be so successful and productive.
For me, developing the ability to set boundaries with my students was directly related to giving up the ghost of this kind of perfectionism. When I first started teaching, I wanted to be incredible. Like many new instructors, I wanted to give my students all the attention they needed, wanted, and deserved. Unsurprisingly, I quickly burned out (and didn’t get any of my own work done) when I tried to teach like this. In his 1956 essay, “Mind and Its Relation to the Psyche-Soma,” D.W. Winnicott famously theorized the “good enough” mother: the caregiver who is an “ordinary good mother” who tries her best to love and care for her child, while also acknowledging the limits reality places on her ability to do so. (Alison Bechdel’s 2013 memoir Are You My Mother? also offers a fantastic illustration of Winnicot’s theories for the non-specialist.) As I’ve gained experience in the classroom, I’ve set a new goal for myself: I strive to be a “good enough” teacher. I try to teach in a way that, as I suggested in my last post, acknowledges the limits of my own power, capacity, and situation.
The most helpful boundaries you set for yourself will be the ones based on your own self-reflection. It took me a long time to realize that my biggest struggle around boundaries was saying ‘no’: it is genuinely hard for me to disappoint others, particularly my students. Once I realized that, I designed boundaries for my classroom that would help me say ‘no’ more effectively. For instance, I sat down and asked myself how many hours I could devote to my teaching each week, and then I mapped out time on my calendar to do so. I told my students that I would be responding to their emails on particular times on particular days, so they would know when to contact me and when to expect a response. I was transparent with them about why I was setting this boundary, and told them explicitly: “I wish I could respond to you 24 hours a day, but I’ll never get my degree done or get any sleep if I do, so I’m committing to checking my Queens email every other day at x time. You can always count on hearing back from me if you email me by then.” Clarifying expectations in advance has meant saying “no” much less frequently.
Setting a limit on your own capacity also benefits students: it challenges them to step up and meet you where you are. When you tell them that you can only speak to them at certain times, they are encouraged to develop necessary higher-order organizational skills. They are offered a model of realistic expectations on which to base their own expectation-setting. Even if you were a teacher who magically had the capacity to meet every student need, would you really want to? Doing so would rob your students of the chance to learn about their own capacities, which is, of course, why they come to college in the first place. Just as the “good enough” mother’s limits set the stage for the child’s own developing resilience, your limits as a teacher offer your students the stage on which they grow. Perfectionism cherishes false idols: the Beyoncé who can do it all in any given day. Being “good enough” cherishes us as we are: growing, changing, evolving beings in complex relations with other equally complex beings. It reminds us that our work, even when it is only “good enough,” is all that is needed for learning to occur.
Nowadays, I use technology to facilitate meetings-on-the-go when I can, and when I can’t, I just say no. I accept that this sometimes frustrates my students; I comfort myself with the knowledge that the occasional Rate My Professor complaint probably means I’m balancing caring for my students with caring for myself. Maybe Beyoncé really is perfect (though probably not), but I don’t have to be. What I am is good enough.
Erin Spampinato is a Ph.D. candidate in English and a contributing writer for Visible Pedagogy.