Setting boundaries between you and learners – the support side of the teacher’s role

When you are carrying out support, possibly with much of it on a one-to-one level, you are nurturing individual learners and you can be closely involved with their emotional well-being. Whilst this kind of support is undoubtedly what will make you most effective, it does come with a ‘health warning’. It opens you up to the danger of getting ‘too close’ to the issues and by implication, at times, the learners themselves. Also, it can mean that your role feels as though it is crossing over into the realms of the social worker or counsellor.  As one teacher said, ‘I have three roles in my classroom: teacher, parent and social worker. Sometimes, the actual teaching part is the least important of all’ (The Guardian, 2015, online). You may also be able to relate to this point from a head teacher, particularly if you have been in education for some time: ‘”We take away the barriers that are getting in the way of a child’s learning. A lot of the social-work stuff has been absorbed into the school day.”’ (Bloom, 2014, p 26).

The health warning is for both sides; in other words, for the good and protection of both the learner and yourself. On the learner side, recognising boundaries can avoid over-dependency when the aim is to provide comprehensive support but at the same time get the learner to take responsibility and to be independent. On your side, boundaries can help in ‘looking after yourself’ and being able to compartmentalise the personal and professional which can be crucial when faced with learners with varied, complex and challenging issues.

It is necessary then, for you to know where support begins and where it ends. This is not always easy to establish and there will sometimes be subtle judgements to make. In our experience, when excellent individual and holistic support, which deals with underlying issues takes place, it can raise another set of concerns which can become further problems if certain boundaries are not recognised.

The 4 Principal Boundary Types

1 – Expertise Boundary


You don’t have the expertise or training; other people in your institution are employed for these purposes.


Mental health

Specific example: A learner making suicide threats.


Specific example: A learner who has suffered a bereavement.


Specific example: A learner who you think may be the victim of sexual exploitation by things they have said to you.


Specific example: A learner who has had to leave home and seeks advice from you about what to do.

2 – Temporal (time) Boundaries


You, as a resource for your learners, are not a limitless resource; equality and fairness to all your learners needs maintaining.


Specific example: A learner with complex individual needs who could take up an increasing and excessive amount of your time.

3 – Behavioural Boundaries


Your responsibility is to influence learner behaviour but you are not able to control learner behaviour; there is the structure of a disciplinary process behind you.


Poor learner behaviour.

Specific examples:

  • Repeated ‘low level’ disruptive behaviour from a learner over a period of time without any sign of improvement.
  • A learner who displays violent behaviour.

4 – Peer Boundaries


The promotion of respect and professionalism amongst your learners.


A learner who does not recognise and apply boundaries with their peers.

Specific example: A learner disrespecting the views of a peer or peers through repeated mocking and what may be deemed ‘bullying’ (both verbal and through social media).

The key point and, indeed, the over-arching rationale for setting boundaries, is for the learner to take responsibility and to be independent. It is easy for support to slip unnoticed into becoming ‘doing everything for the learner’. However, the key purpose of good boundary setting is actually its opposite. Gomez et al (2004, p 483) state that ‘the caring work of teaching is premised upon having a reciprocal relationship between students and teachers’. We need to remember this reciprocity and that it’s a ‘two-way’ relationship.


Bloom, A. (2014) Sometimes You Just Want to Cry. Times Educational Supplement, No. 5114: 24-28.

Gomez, M. L, Allen, A. and Clinton, K. (2004) Cultural Models of Care in Teaching: A Case Study of One Pre-service Secondary Teacher. Teaching and Teacher Education, 20: 473-488.

The Guardian (2015), Secret Teacher: I Feel Like More of a Social Worker Than a Teacher. [online] Available: [10 November 2015].

5 key characteristics of using solution-focused coaching with learners

There are many definitions of coaching but one of the most widely recognised is ‘coaching is unlocking a person’s potential to maximise their own performance. It is helping them to learn rather than teaching them’ (Whitmore, 2002).

The solution-focused approach to coaching is, as the title suggests, essentially trying to make greater progress with the learner by focusing on where they want to get to and understanding what skills and knowledge they need to get there, rather than spending excessive amounts of time exploring the problem or issue they may be facing.

One of the principal features of a solution-focused coaching approach, and one of the reasons why we advocate its use with learners through your teaching and personal tutor role, is that it can significantly reduce any inferiority learners feel about themselves or their current situation. Furthermore, in terms of emotional well-being, experience shows that this approach helps learners to think more optimistically, behave more confidently, as well as engage with their goals which become more self-generated.

The following 5 key characteristics help you focus the way you view and use solution-focused coaching in your day to day conversations with learners:

1. Positive change can occur

Solution-focused coaching works on the assumption that positive change can occur with your learners and that this change can happen quickly.

2. Clear goals and self-directed action

You should work with each learner to define specific goals, however, it’s worth noting a good coaching conversation doesn’t stop when it stops. Set a clear expectation that the learner must be self-directed and take the responsibility to implement actions to achieve their goals outside of the coaching conversations.

3. Develop solutions and focus on the future; not dwelling on problems within the past or present

Ensure you listen to any issues or problems to communicate empathy and develop rapport with your learners. However, swiftly move the conversation on to exploring future goals, past successes and what skills, knowledge and abilities they have.

4. Using the learner’s experience, expertise and resources

A solution-focused coach is an enabler and facilitator. There is a belief that the learner is likely to already have the answers and the ability to take themselves forward and as their teacher or personal tutor, it is your role to help them notice this.

When learners feel they have worked something out for themselves, there is a greater chance that they will ask themselves these questions in the future and coach themselves. The best coaches in some ways become invisible.

5. Reframing the learner’s perspective and help them to notice positives

Possibilities include reframing and helping them to notice:

– a distant possibility as a near possibility;

– a weakness as a strength;

– a problem as an opportunity.

The coaching conversations you have with learners will not always go perfectly or have the perfect outcome, but practising the techniques is key to understanding which you prefer and feel comfortable with and in which contexts you feel they are and aren’t appropriate.

They aren’t the ‘magic wand’ that will fix all of the issues you want to address or the areas you or your institution wish to improve. However, solution-focused coaching techniques are practical tools you can use to help remove barriers to learning and to stretch, challenge and motivate your learners in the many and varied situations in which you work with them.

Given the expectations placed on you to remove barriers to learning as well as motivate your learners to achieve their potential, if solution-focused coaching techniques were used, at appropriate times, by every member of staff who worked with learners, how helpful would that be to the learners and what benefits would there be for the educational institution?


Whitmore, J. (2002) Coaching for Performance: Growing People, Performance and Purpose. 3rd edition. London: Nicholas Brealey Publishing.

‘Supervision’ for teachers and personal tutors

You wouldn’t believe what’s going on with that student…I’ve no idea what to do.”

Heard yourself uttering something like this quite often to your colleagues?  What is the response?

Imagine this.  A colleague immediately stops what they’re doing, turns round to face you, looks you in the eye with a concentrated gaze and says, “I’m here to help, tell me all about it”.

When did that last happen?  Has it ever happened?

Of course, your colleagues aren’t being deliberately unhelpful.  At least one hopes that is the case!  The conflicting pressures on all of us make it difficult for us to drop our current activity to support a colleague.

Providing outstanding support comes with the bi-products of students opening up to you more, relying on you for emotional support, wanting even more support and thus exposing you to challenging, emotionally draining and potentially upsetting issues.  Combined with the whirlwind life of the trainee teacher, the question of how to cope before it all becomes overwhelming needs to be explored.

Long established in psychotherapy and counselling for example, supervision is less so in education.  Most definitions imply that supervision relies on a structure and certain rules.  There can be some differences within this, so maybe it is more useful to think of a framework of guidelines within which supervision sessions should be carried out.

A framework for supervision sessions

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The support side of the teacher role can feel like you’re more of a social worker than teacher. Given the demands on you in the face of serious and challenging issues with students who you want to support as best you can, if supervision sessions were built into your working routine, how helpful would it be?