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In December, 2020 I heard from many teachers who reported how stressed and burnt out they felt. One of my fellow NJTESOL/NJBE Executive Board members, LeighAnn Matthews, wrote on her Facebook page,
I consider myself a pretty positive and upbeat person. I don’t complain. But I am tired. I’m exhausted. Burnt out. The weight of worrying and keeping track of literally 100s of English learners is catching up with me. What’s going on at home? Why aren’t the students coming to school? Are they OK? What do they need?
These are unprecedented times. Most of you have had to adopt changes in your teaching environments, moving from face-to-face instruction to virtual or hybrid environments. Families of your English learners (ELs) might be in crisis as parents lose their jobs or need to stay home to help their children with their schooling. Your responsibilities have probably grown during the pandemic. Your district may rely on you to translate notices to the parents of your students. They may expect you to troubleshoot difficulties that your ELs have in academic classes. You may feel fatigued and overwhelmed. Most teachers reported that they found it easier to set boundaries when teaching in-person than they did in a virtual classroom.
Laura Gardner, founder of Immigrant Connections, wrote an excellent blog entitled “English Learner Teachers and Setting Boundaries” that began with an image of these words: It’s okay to say no. In her list of red flags that signal teachers of ELs with boundary issues, Laura talks about those teachers who feel that they can’t say “no” when everyone in their school comes to them for all issues related to ELs and their families. Teachers feel it is their job to solve all their ELs’ problems. I know because I recognize myself on Laura’s list from when I worked in an inner city school.
Here are some suggestions that EL teachers have made that help them set boundaries:
1. Think About the English Learners in Your Class as “Our Students” Rather Than “Your Students”
One teacher from the #ellchat, Alaina Goodvin, expressed her thoughts on this topic by reporting
I think ego plays a big role. I find teaching to be a continual practice in letting go of ego. It’s not about me fixing, solving, saving…it’s about working within a bigger system for the good of all. Trust others can do it.
Prioritize what you need to do each day. Consider what is really in your wheelhouse and do what gives you joy. Pass some of the concerns about ELs and their families to your school social worker, psychologist, or the appropriate school administrator.
2. Use Self-Care Strategies Throughout the School Day
Leave your building or virtual classroom and take a walk. Listen to music, meditate, or simply take some deep breaths. Many teachers reported that sharing their concerns with colleagues really helped them from burning out. Another suggested Angela Watson’s Truth for Teachers podcast, which covers a variety of teacher-related topics.
3. Limit Time Spent Working Beyond the School Day
Teachers have reported that the two behaviors that have helped them the most is to not bring work home from school and to dedicate weekends to their families. This includes limiting the amount of time you spend on the phone at night on school-related topics. I know this is really difficult. Your ELs and their families have so many pandemic-related difficulties. However, we can’t take care of our ELs if we don’t take care of ourselves.
4. Try Positive Self-Talk
Instead of focusing on all the difficulties you face when teaching during the pandemic, think about the positive things that have happened during your school day. Try to find a small event each day that is a reason to celebrate. It can be a small victory, such as a lesson that worked really well or a student that came to virtual class after being absent for a long time. Share these celebrations with your colleagues and students.
5. Set Boundaries and Keep Them
Teachers need to learn to say “no.” If you’re working from home, it’s easy to blur the lines between work and family. Plan breaks, lunch, and the time you’re going to end your school day. Stick to those boundaries. During a recent #ellchat on the topic of teacher self-care and setting boundaries, Leigh Ann Matthews posted, “It’s amazing how refreshed I felt this morning going back to school. I completely disconnected over the break and it was much needed.” Leigh Ann also reported that she no longer takes work home from school.