Self-Care: An Ethical Imperative for English as an Additional Language Teachers

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by Diana Jeffries

[This article was first printed in the Winter 2017 issue of TEAL News.]

Starting a new life in a new country while coping with the adversity of migration is for most new immigrants and refugees an overwhelming and challenging experience. New immigrants and refugees are compelled to come to Canada for a variety of reasons. Even though Canada is a multicultural society, newcomers still need to learn English or French so that they can participate in Canadian society as a whole.

We as teachers support many students as they continue to find their path and weave into Canada’s social fabric. However, we don’t only teach language but we also help our students to make community connections that supports social cohesion. We celebrate our students’ perseverance and resilience every day they show up in our classes to learn and engage with their new community. We become part of our students’ strength and support them with resources that build their capacity to learn in our multicultural classrooms. We play an important role in helping students acquire the much needed English or French language skills for work and social inclusion.

Although we as teachers have an opportunity and obligation to support our students as they are learning English, I have found in my own teaching practice for the past 14 years that there is often little attention given by teachers and their employers on how English as an additional language (EAL) teachers cope with stress. Teachers struggle with relationships with administrators, time pressures, excessive workloads, societal expectations, and feelings of isolation in the classroom (Hakanen, Bakker, & Schaufeli, 2005). In addition, there are added demands made on teachers, such as the expectation that teachers will continue with education and training, and at the same time there is a lack of new and diverse teaching and professional development opportunities from within EAL education programs. These stressors can lead to disillusionment and depression.

There needs to be further studies on the stressors that are experienced by the unique and complex teaching assignments done by EAL teachers. Education programs often highlight their ability to meet the needs of students but rarely factor in the needs of teachers. Therefore, until the private, non-profit, and public sectors of education all take action to better support the needs of EAL professionals, it is up to teachers to find ways of self-care. If teachers can’t find ways to recognize and manage their stress, they will continue to be susceptible to compassion fatigue and burnout. The emotional residue or strain of exposure to working with those suffering from the consequences of traumatic events. It differs from burn out, but can coexist. Compassion Fatigue can occur due to exposure on one case or can be due to “cumulative” level of trauma.

Many teachers are unaware of what compassion fatigue looks like. While it is commonly linked with other stressors, there are hallmark signs of compassion fatigue such as: avoidance, detachment, addiction, sadness and grief, changes in beliefs and expectations, and assumptions. There can be somatic or emotional complaints too and all of these symptoms can signal to a teachers the need to step back and examine their workplace health.

Burnout is considered to be an element of compassion fatigue and it has been defined as the psychological strain of working with difficult populations (McCann & Pearlmann, 1990). Burnout is also seen in the deterioration and depletion of care caused by excessive work related demands (Brady, Guy, Poelstra, & Brokaw, 1999).

Burnout and compassion fatigue can be experienced by any teacher, but for those teachers working with refugees that have experienced traumatic events, teachers can also suffer from vicarious trauma as a result of being exposed to the stories of trauma told by refugee students. Vicarious trauma is related to working with vulnerable populations that have suffered from pain and trauma, and that trauma is then vicariously experienced by the teacher. Vicarious trauma is often a concern for social workers and other health care providers, but arguably teachers can often experience it just as acutely. Those professionals more susceptible to vicarious trauma are those who are overworked, ignore healthy boundaries, have too high an expectation of their role as a teacher, are new to the profession or the particular classroom setting, and work with large numbers of people who have suffered from trauma.

Some of the impacts of compassion fatigue, burnout, or vicarious trauma on teachers include change in identity, world view, or even spiritual beliefs. While teachers are at risk of succumbing to these stressors, there are many things teachers can do to help manage it. There are protective factors that can help overcome these real obstacles to health and work as an EAL professional. The protective factors include: having a good social support, strong ethical principles of practice, continuing education, competence in teaching practice, and the ability to deliberately step back to minimize the impact on one’s health and wellbeing. If left unmanaged, symptoms of burnout, compassion fatigue, and vicarious trauma can have a destructive effect on professional and personal lives. These destructive effects can also including losing the ability to have a positive helping relationship with students.

Self-care, therefore, is an ethical imperative. Teachers have an obligation to students as well as to themselves, their colleagues, and their loved ones—not to be damaged by their work. One way of doing that is through understanding the ABC’s of self-care: Awareness, Balance, and Connection (Saakvitne & Pearlman, 1996).

Awareness refers to being attuned to one’s own needs, limits, and emotions. It includes self-reflection, debriefing, journaling, meditation, and other mindfulness-type activities. It is developing awareness of how your work as a teacher will affect your worldview and psychological well-being. It is the awareness of your own needs.

Balance refers to the strategies for enhancing life balance between work, play, and rest. Balance includes: time spent with non-work friends and family, creative outlets, and basic physical care such as exercise, nutrition, and sleep. It means taking time for leisure pursuits such as listening to music, reading for pleasure, or spending time in nature. It also means knowing one’s own limits, keeping boundaries, and recognizing that no teacher is alone in facing the stress of the workplace. Balance means maintaining realistic expectations of oneself at work and seeking out activities that foster a sense of control and optimism.

Connection refers to a connection with oneself, to others, and to something larger. These connection strategies include: developing a social network beyond the workplace, political activism that is attuned to your values, community involvement, and paying attention to spiritual needs.

The ABC’s of self-care are much easier to set up when there is a self-care plan in place. The plan may include:

  • Setting up goals such as taking a meditation workshop to build awareness of feelings at work.
  • Creating balance goals by building in reminders to take breaks and get out into nature every week.
  • Making connections a priority by spending more time in with friends and family away from work, or join a social group such as a choir or sports team.

For you as a teacher, developing a self-care plan is not only about minimizing the strain of working in a highly demanding profession, it is also about enhancing the positive aspects of your work. Most of us teachers can testify to the joy of participating in the development of another person’s education and growth and most teachers will meet the needs of students and the school administration, but in order to continue to maintain a high quality of education for others, self-care must become a priority for all. Self-care needs to be supported by employers. The continuous expectations and demands made by employers can be overwhelming for teachers, but if employers promote and encourage teachers to have a self-care plan then the work can still be done with care and compassion. EAL schools need strategies to design and promote supportive work sites, and employers must take responsibility for establishing a supportive and respectful environment where there is an understanding of the effects of working with vulnerable populations such as EAL students.

Making a self-care plan using the ABC’s (Assessment, Balance, and Connection) will alleviate the stressors caused by compassion fatigue, burnout, and vicarious trauma. In my classroom, I spend the first five minutes doing some deep breathing exercises and light stretches. This is not only for my students to pause and calm their nervous systems, but also for my own benefit. I also do my best to make time for my life outside of work, and I find the ritual of meditation helps me to stay conscious and present at work. My empathy and compassion for others makes my teaching practice effective and fulfilling, but I can only maintain my care for others if I have a self-care plan for myself. We must take good care of ourselves by monitoring how we react in stressful situations in our profession and know that it is the obligation we have to ourselves and our students to promote self-care so that we can maintain health and happiness in the EAL profession for years to come.

References

Boyle, G., Borg, M., Falzon, J., & Baglioni, A. (1995 March 01). A structural Model of the

Dimensions of Teacher Stress. Retrieved November 20, 2016 from PubMed:

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/7727267

Brady, J., Guy, J., Poelstra, P., & Brokaw, B. (1999) Vicarious traumatizatio, spirituality, and the

treatment of sexual abuse survivors. Professional Psychology, 30 386-393.

Hakanen, J.J., Bakker,AB, & Schaufeli, WB. (2005, Nov. 05). Burnout and Work engagement among teachers. Retrieved Nov. 20, 2016, from Journal of School Psychology http://curriculumstudies.pbworks.com/f/Burnout.pdf

McCann, L. & Pearlman, L (1990) Vicarious traumatization: a framework for understanding the

psychological effects of working with victims: Journal of Traumatic Stress, 3 (1) 131-149

Saaskvitne, KW & Pearlman KW (1996) Transforming the Pain. New York: Norton&Company

The American Institute of Stress. (2016, Nov. 20). Compassion Fatigue Definitions. Retrieved

from The American Institute of Stress: http//www.stress.org/military/for-practitionersleaders/compassion-fatigue

Biographical Information (From the Winter 2017 issue of the BC TEAL newsletter)

Diana Jeffries has been involved in the EAL sector for the past 15 years. She worked for ISS of BC in the LINC program and was an instructor for other settlement programs where she specialized in working with refugees and multi-barrier learners. She presently works at Pacific Immigrant Resource Society in the women’s refugee program and she is the Literacy and Language Support Supervisor for DiverCity. Diana has had a successful art career and has implemented art based learning into her classroom teaching practice. She has been a strong advocate for the rights of refugees in Canada and volunteer on the BCTEAL board as the Chair of Research and Inquiry.

This article is licensed under a

Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

Original reference information:

Jeffries, D.  (2017, Winter). Self-Care: An ethical imperative for English as an additional language teachers. TEAL News. Retrieved from https://www.bcteal.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/TEAL-News-Winter-2017.pdf

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