Skip to content Skip to navigation

Setting Boundaries

Tomorrow's Academic Careers

Message Number: 

However, in the classroom, the 80/20 ratio shifts to 90/10. In other words, when we are teaching, 90 percent of our headaches come from 10 percent of our students. Every semester there are a few needy, or defiant, or obnoxious, or pathetic, or complaining students who cause the vast majority of our problems.Prepare yourself in advance for these difficult students by preparing in advance.


The posting below provides some excellent advice on how to set boundaries with students. . It is by Mary McKinney, Ph.D. of Successful Academic Coaching. Please visit Mary's web site at for additional tenure track tips and dissertation writing strategies. email: Copyright ? 2000-07 Mary McKinney, Ph.D. - All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission.


Rick Reis

UP NEXT: Defending the Community College Equity Agenda (review)

Tomorrows Academic Careers


-------------------------------------------- 1,420 words --------------------------------------------

Setting Boundaries


Setting boundaries is a way of protecting yourself from the small percentage of students who will suck up your time and emotional energy.

The 90/10 Ratio of Troublesome Students

In most areas of life the 80/20 rule prevails. This rule reminds us that that 80 percent of life's hassles come from 20 percent of our problems.

However, in the classroom, the 80/20 ratio shifts to 90/10. In other words, when we are teaching, 90 percent of our headaches come from 10 percent of our students. Every semester there are a few needy, or defiant, or obnoxious, or pathetic, or complaining students who cause the vast majority of our problems.

Prepare yourself in advance for these difficult students by preparing in advance.

Setting Boundaries

1) Know when and how to refer students to other campus resources.

Be aware of all the helpful campus resources available for problem students. Keep cards with the phone numbers and locations of the resources to hand out when needed. Be ready to refer students who ask you to solve problems beyond your area of expertise or responsibility. These resources include: Counseling and Psychological Services; Health Services; Writing Centers; Academic Services; Learning Disabilities Centers; Deans and Department Chairs. Don't become your students' counselor or writing teacher.

2) Establish clear policies about how you handle email.

Have clear policies for yourself about when and how frequently you will respond to your students' email messages. You would not allow your students to call you at home at 11pm, would you? Then why do you open and respond to their emails late in the evening?

You are not required to be available to students 24/7!

I recommend waiting to read and respond to all student email messages until pre-set email "office hours" - and no more than 2 or 3 times per week. If you can refrain from reading their e-queries, great. If this restraint is impossible for you, then at least keep from answering the messages. Don't train your students to expect email replies from you within minutes or hours. Treat email more like your in-person office hours: a teaching responsibility that is scheduled for specific times of the week. Beware of emails that take a long time to reply to: if a student asks you a question that will take more than 3 minutes to write a response, reply by asking the student to come to your office hours. Decide on your policy regarding email in advance and outline it in the course syllabus. Go over your email policy in the first class and as needed over the course of the semester.

3) Set limits on how much of your time to devote to specific students.

All of us have had a few students who became regulars at our office hours, showing up each week with one problem or another. Let these students know that it is unfair to their peers to take so much of your time. Suggest that they find a way to deal with their problems more independently by: seeking out other campus resources; working with other students in the class; or withdrawing from the course. Check with other professors in your department to find out whether they have had problems with the same students - often, particular students become notorious because they wreak havoc in all of their classes. Find out how other professors have dealt with the person who is giving you problems, or how they have handled similar issues.

4) Establish clear and consistent policies on late papers and missed exams.

Talk with other professors in your department about how they handle late and missed assignments. Establish clear and specific policies and state it in your syllabus and early class lectures. Try to avoid becoming the judge of your students excuses. For example, you may want to set a policy that requires a note from health services if students miss exams or deadlines because of illness. If students know about this policy in advance, they can get the required doctor's note and you will never be asked to diagnose flu symptoms again. Beware of making your policies too rigid or punitive: each semester their will be excellent and honest students who face true life crises or serious illnesses and your policies need to account for legitimate excuses in a compassionate and reasonable way.

5) Learn respectful, professional ways of managing student incivilities.

Robert Boice, in his book Advice for New Faculty Members does an excellent job of talking about how to prevent and manage "student incivilities" such as late arrivals to class, obnoxious verbal challenges, etc.,. Many books about teaching give tips for keeping discussions for straying on unproductive tangents and for managing students who talk too much. Develop personal strategies for coping with these common difficulties.

No matter how rude a student is to you, always remain calm and respectful. Growing visibly angry in class will undermine your authority. Never be afraid to give yourself time to think about a situation. When a rude student makes a complaint or a demand in class, avoid giving an answer or making a decision in the heat of the moment. Let's say that several students loudly proclaim that your mid-term was unfair and that the class grade average should be raised significantly. Rather than making a hasty response that you may later regret, say that you'd like time to consider their request carefully. Then get back to the planned class content. Learn to gracefully cut off unproductive class discussions. Never put down or disparage your students. Sarcasm in the classroom will always get you in trouble.

6) Don't over-prepare.

Decide on how much time you should devote to class preparation, keeping in mind your other academic responsibilities and priorities. Then schedule specific hours for preparing lectures and try to keep within your budget. If you consistently find yourself "overspending your budget" for class prep time, then carefully assess the problem. Are you being a perfectionist? No class is ever perfect and no class is superb the first semester it is taught. Realize that you will do well to provide an adequate educational experience the first semester you teach a new class. It takes time to develop an optimum curriculum and teaching methods. Don't expect to be wonderful at first. Allow yourself to teach a "good enough" class.

7) Avoid trying to cover too much.

Most new teachers try to cover about twice as much material as they should. It is much more important to cover the essentials well than to try to squeeze in everything. There are several quick ways of deciding whether you are being over ambitious in the amount of content you hope to cover. If you consistently run overtime in your class lectures you are trying to cover too much. Students resent teachers who run late. Always try to end five minutes early. Leaving a few minutes at the end of class for questions is an easy way to increase your popularity. If you fall behind on your syllabus then you are trying to cover too much. Don't be afraid to revise your syllabus and cut out sections of material if you find yourself running behind. Go through your notes and cull all but the essential points.

8) Request student feedback on a regular basis.

Don't wait until the end of the semester to find out what your students think of you and your class. Instead of relying on final, official evaluation forms, sample your students opinions throughout the semester. There are many ways of getting feedback. Perhaps the easiest is to ask students to write one minute evaluations throughout the semester. Pause during the class, or reserve time at the end of a class, and ask your students to write about what they've learned, or what they think of the particular class, or what they think you are doing well, or how you might improve. There are many benefits of "taking the class temperature" on a regular basis. You'll get many great ideas for improving the course by asking your students for feedback. You'll become more popular because your students will feel like their needs are heard and considered. You'll catch dissatisfactions early and keep small problems from becoming large. You'll get a treasure chest of positive quotes from students that you can use in a teaching portfolio for your tenure review or a job application. You'll find out what the quiet students think - and not allow your course to be hijacked by the loud and demanding minority.