Setting real boundaries in a virtual world

By Lynette Hay on July 6, 2021 in Digital fluency

There’s no denying that the ubiquitous nature of modern technology has opened up a whole new world of possibilities when it comes to accessing information.

Whether it be looking up the name of what you think might just have been a jellyfish that you accidentally stood on while taking a stroll on the beach, scanning through to find how many calories were in the chocolate bar you just had to see how much it will set your latest diet back, or even checking the balance of your AT HOP Card just before you’re about to catch your train, we all have become accustomed to having 24-hour access to answers of all life’s queries.

While this “open all hours” approach may be well and good when browsing webpages and interacting with internet bots, what happens when these same expectations spill over into teaching and learning space?

In one of my previous iterations as an Across School Lead Teacher for an Auckland-based Kāhui Ako, I often heard teachers recount stories of students emailing or messaging them late in the evening, in the wee hours of the morning, or during the weekend regarding school-related tasks. When it comes to this kind of behaviour, however, students are not the only transgressors. Fellow teachers have often lamented over the long hours they themselves have spent online doing “school stuff” and all this was happening even before we’d got a whiff of COVID-19.

I don’t think it would be too much of a stretch to say people’s worlds have been completely turned upside down by the presence of COVID-19. For many, the very structure of a “normal school day” provided a certain level of reassurance. Classroom routines, bell times, break times, room allocations as well as the presence of friends, colleagues, resources, or even onsite expertise all formed part of our daily norm. Now though, it seems, with alert level changes and lockdowns, we’ve been encouraged to accept that there is a “new normal”.

Home office setup at a desk

But what does this mean for teachers, learners (and their families) and how can we establish real boundaries to provide a level of safety and certainty in otherwise uncertain times?

Here are some tips to help establish boundaries:

1. Set your work/contact hours.

When it comes to planning out our time, this really is the easy part. Actioning the plan and sticking to it are often the greatest challenges – kind of like how we make a whole bunch of New Year’s resolutions, but never end up sticking to them.

Contrary to what some of your students may think, you are not available 24 hours a day for school related matters. Just as there is a school bell that signals the end of their contact time with you, there are a number of digital scheduling tools that can help you assign time to school related tasks and can be used to signal to others when you are available. While some of you may initially feel a sense of guilt over not being there for your students whenever they need help, your students will quickly come to understand, if not respect, your decision. It may also even encourage them to act in a similar manner with managing their time.


The urge to stay connected is fast becoming a significant issue for today’s society. A quick search of the web will reveal the extent to which many of us are becoming more aware of and concerned about our obsession with constantly checking our devices. While digital technology has afforded us more flexibility with when, where and how we work, it can present as a double-edged sword. For example, if you’re anything like me, you probably have your work email hooked up to your personal phone along with a number of other Learning Management Systems (LMS) you use with your students, which you’ve set up to alert you whenever something new comes in. The problem with this however is the lines between personal time and work time can become blurred, where there is very little or no distinction between work time and personal time.

Switch off, unplug, close the lid or walk away. Whatever you call it, just do it.

3. Allocate a space for work.

When we went into level four Lockdown last year, the first task I gave myself was to set aside a space in the house which would solely function as my “home office”. Having a small house, meant the only real estate available was a small corner of the spare room which approximately measured around 1m². Along with everything else that was already in the room, I managed to fit in a desk and chair. However, what I appreciated most about the space was that it had a door. This ensured that “work” was assigned a time and space (both physically and mentally), separate from the rest of the house. The simple act of leaving the room and closing the door behind me, made it easy for me to mentally switch off from work and be present with my family. A year on and four lockdowns later, I’m still able to “leave work” even when I’m stuck at home.

4. Seize the teachable moment!

Sharing the whats and the whys of setting boundaries with your students is a great way to explore digital citizenship and bring it to life. By sharing your reasons for setting times when you can be contacted and explaining the importance to your wellbeing of being able to “unplug”, you inevitably create a space where discussions around concepts such as digital safety and etiquette can take place. For example, instead of just saying to your students “Don’t contact me after 5pm” you could say “After five is my family time, but I’ll be happy to chat with you during our contact time tomorrow.”

Digital technologies continue to evolve, as do the ways in which we interact with them. However, as educators and adults, we need to remember that our tamariki need guidance and skills to successfully navigate the interface between the virtual spaces and the real world around them.

If you’d like more tips and support around managing communication expectations in a virtual world


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