Hi all! I hope that you are all having a relaxing Sunday that doesn’t involve worrying about school on Monday. I hope you are unplugged, relaxing, or playing out there with the people that you love. I have been doing some of that as well and I am planning to do some more of it this afternoon, but first, I wanted to get these thoughts recorded before they escape into the business of the week ahead.
This weekend Adrienne and I had the opportunity to present for the third year at CCFLT, our statewide language teacher spring conference. It’s always great to share and connect with other teachers, but honestly, presenting still makes me nervous. Good for me, Adrienne is very methodical and organized and we usually sit down two or three times before we give a presentation to make sure that it we have everything ready that we want to say, including at least one run-through. This year, we were presenting information we had presented before about burnout and what to do with mixed classes (heritage and L2 learners), so we figured that for once, we had practiced enough. But let me tell you, I did not feel that way when I stood up in front of a conference room full of colleagues and peers. No amount of practice ever seems like enough. Luckily, I made it through and the words started to flow, but as soon as I sat down, my mind started spinning with all of the things that I meant to say, but didn’t. Then I thought, “Wait! We have a blog!” and my mind started spinning a mile a minute with all of the things I could tell you, dear readers, that I didn’t get to say at CCFLT.
The bulk of my regret came after my portion of our presentation on burnout for heritage teachers. In my section, I talk about shifts in mindset that have helped keep heritage teaching sustainable for me. There were some things that I had to wrap my mind around that eventually helped to make this kind of teaching easier for me that I was really excited to share. What I realized when I sat down at CCFLT, is that I didn’t bring those ideas around full-circle. I was transparent about how those changes in mindset have made my life easier and in turn, how they kept me in the game. Without those connections, those mindset shifts just sound like feel-good fluff, and I think they are much more than that. So my goal in this post is to complete the circle and explain, exactly how my understandings changed and how those changes have kept me from burning out.
The first of these mindset shifts has been related to relationships. Obviously, we know that building relationships with our students is important. It’s hard to learn from someone if we don’t think that they care about us. But I had to change the way that I approached my relationships with students in my heritage classes. When I first started teaching, I thought that all I needed to do to build relationships was be nice to kids. When I started teaching heritage classes, I learned to be much more intentional. As a white woman, I can’t just expect to walk into a classroom full of Latinx students and expect them to trust me just because I am nice to them. I have to be warm and approachable, yes, but I also have to be aware and respectful. I am stepping into a space that is not my own. I am a guest in this language and its culture, and I need to be a good one. This requires a lot more vulnerability on my part than I was used to showing with my students. It requires a lot of honest, frank conversations with students starting on day one.
On day one, one of the first things we talk about is how I am not a native Spanish speaker. We talk about how having me for a teacher will be different from having a teacher who is a native speaker. We talk about what happens when I mess up the language, or say something that doesn’t make sense or is even offensive culturally. It is my job to learn and listen and know my students and their backgrounds well enough to avoid these landmines, but they will happen. I am going to screw up. I cringe to think of the time that I snapped my fingers at a student in my class to try to get her to hurry up and get started on her work. This was a student that I thought I had a pretty good relationship with, and she bristled at me in a way that I had never seen. Thank goodness, we had enough of a connection for her to tell me that culturally, snapping your fingers at someone is highly offensive. I honestly just didn’t know. Did my lack of ill intentions make up for the impact of my actions? Absolutely not. I apologized, thanked her, and we moved on and I’ve never snapped my fingers at a kid again. Before I learned to view my role in the heritage classroom as guest instead of expert, those kinds of situations blew up in my face and damaged my relationships with students. Instead, now, when I screw up, it can be an opportunity for me to strengthen that relationship instead.
Which brings me back to my point – strong relationships with students will keep you from burning out. When you have a strong relationship with students, you will have less discipline issues and the ones you do have will be resolved much more quickly and painlessly. And we all know that discipline issues are a huge factor in burnout. Having strong relationships with students makes you to look forward to seeing your students every day, and gives you the energy to keep going. It also establishes those connections that extend after the student has left your classroom or your school. Hearing about the success of our former students is something we live for as teachers. Seeing students succeed is why we do what we do. We all need that in order to keep from burning out.
Before I move on from relationships, I want to highlight something extremely important that Kimberly Sánchez Cawthorne said to me after our presentation. Kimberly told me that one of the things missing from our presentation was the emotional burnout that can come from teaching heritage classes. Many times, our students come into our classrooms carrying heavy burdens. Immigration and all the trauma it can bring with it affect many of our students’ lives in ways that I will never be able to understand as someone who has not had to live that experience. Even if we haven’t lived it, their stories weigh heavy on our hearts. Imagine how that burden multiplies for teachers if they have lived or been touched by immigration. Our Latinx teachers often become a refuge for our students, whether they have lived the same experiences or not. Sometimes they may be students’ only resource within a school. I am hoping Kimberly will present and write on this topic in the future to truly give a voice to that unique perspective. (You can find her on Instagram at kimsanchezcawthorne.) I just wanted to make sure that I honored her comments here.
The next mindset shift that kept me from burning out was to give myself permission to make mistakes. I think that a lot of us feel a lot of pressure when we start teaching heritage classes. I know for me, even though I was confident in my Spanish, I was afraid of making mistakes or sounding like the gringa that I am. I was also nervous because I knew my students needed literacy skills, but I didn’t know how to teach them. I believed in heritage classes and I wanted to do the best for my students, but every day I felt like I was failing. Then, at the end of that first year, I looked back and saw some successes. Most of the students who took the first level wanted to go on to the second level. They liked being together and speaking Spanish and felt at home in my room. The next year, I knew some things needed to change, but mindset had shifted. I was looking for progress rather than perfection. It allowed me to stay in the game for the next year and another year. It brought me back to heritage classes my third year teaching at PHS.
The year that we made the jump to using the writers workshop from Units of Study, we were trying to fit it within what we were already doing with our curriculum. Maybe a month into school, we realized that was a mistake. We should have just followed the curriculum from the beginning in the sequence it was written. Adrienne and the literacy coordinator from our district talked me into scrapping what I had and going back to the beginning of the curriculum. And you know what happened? Nothing. Not a single queja when we jumped tracks and started something new. And then they started writing more than they ever had. It was like magic. Then this year, instead of feeling burnt out, I felt excited to try again, this time from the beginning of the year and it’s going well. I think being able to accept that mistake is what made all the difference.
Hopefully we can also help to transfer that mindset to our students. So many heritage students come into our classes feeling like their Spanish isn’t good enough. Unfortunately, sometimes, they get that from us. Sometimes we come into a heritage class with preconceived notions of what students should know and be able to do with the language. Can we set that aside? Can we let go of our own expectations and shift our minds to a place that accepts and celebrates the language that our students bring with them into the classroom? Can we move towards progress instead of perfection? Constantly pushing students toward an impossible standard of monolingual-like language can feel like an uphill battle and lead straight to burnout. Let’s give everyone a little grace and value progress over perfection.
The last mindset shift that helped me avoid burnout was to narrow my focus. Deciding what to focus on in a heritage class can be overwhelming. We may feel like we need to work on reading skills, writing skills, spelling, accents, and academic language while also helping students connect to their identities and feel confident in their language skills. That is a tall order and that list isn’t even exhaustive. It would make anyone burn out. Narrowing your focus can do wonders to save your teacher brain power. It helps you make decisions faster. You can ask yourself, “Does this align with my focus?” If the answer is no, you can let it go. Narrowing your focus can help to mitigate the feelings of overwhelm that drive many teachers to burn out.
Whew. Now I feel like my thoughts are complete. I’m sure I will re-read this at some point and think of even more things that are missing. As always, this blog is an ongoing conversation. If any of you are planning on participating in Comprehensible Online, you can watch our full presentation on preventing burnout as well as four other sessions related to heritage learners, not to mention all of the other great content the other presenters are providing. If you’re interested in finding out more, you can register here and get $25 off when use either of our codes Marybeth19 or Adrienne19. Also, if you want access to the handouts from our CCFLT presentations and a bonus freebie, click here to join our mailing list and have them delivered automatically to your inbox.
I hope you have been filling your cup this weekend with all of the things and people that recharge your batteries and keep you from burning out.
– Mary Beth