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  • Writer's pictureShera and Liz

Strengthening Our Co-Teaching Relationships by Caring for Ourselves and Each Other

Updated: Sep 7

If you’re reading this blog, you know how hard dual language teachers work and how demanding the job can be. During the pandemic, with the shifts to remote and hybrid instruction, it’s gotten even harder - a LOT harder. All teachers are experiencing far more stress this year, but for dual language teachers, there are additional challenges that other teachers don’t face. In some recent presentations at the Southern New England Regional Dual Language Conference and the annual conference of the California Association for Bilingual Education (CABE), we talked with dual language teachers about the stressors that they’ve been facing this year. Here are some of the answers they gave:

Can you relate????

If your situation is similar, some of your stressors are pandemic related while others are not, some are dual language specific while others are not, and some are related to co-teaching while others are not. Regardless of the sources of stress in your situation, there is no denying that we are all stressed and reaching our limits, so what can we do to alleviate some of it?

One good place to start is by taking an inventory of all the things that cause you stress. This exercise alone can be therapeutic -- just getting it out there and holding a space for acknowledging all of your sources of stress. When we did this activity with teachers at the conferences, we used Jamboard to brainstorm with sticky notes. You can do the same, or if you like the feel of the real thing, go ahead and write all of your stressors on paper sticky notes. Once you have this big, ugly list, take a moment to look it over and take a deep breath.

Now you can start to categorize your sources of stress, like we asked teachers in our workshops to do. First, what is in your control to change? For example, are there concrete activities on your list that you could readily do and cross them off? Are there other activities that really don’t need to do, or that you could delegate to someone else? In our table above, ‘ensuring the same routines between partner teachers so that students know what to expect’ could be one activity in this category. Dedicating some time in an upcoming planning meeting to come to consensus about simple, coordinated routines for transitions or centers, for example, could go a long way towards alleviating that stress. Next, what is in your control to advocate for? In other words, what are things that you yourself cannot change alone, but you could appeal to colleagues and school leadership to address over time? From our example, ‘pressure from demanding families’ could be tackled by reaching out for support from a veteran teacher, coach, parent liaison, or administrator to support you with communication with these families, or in implementing policies that create a buffer, such as a limited time window for email responses. Finally, what is beyond your control? The pandemic and many of its resulting shifts in teaching practices fall into this category. Here’s an example of what the three lists might look like:

Something really interesting happened when we asked teachers in our workshops to categorize the stressors like this. We got into breakout groups and asked each group to talk about the stressors that we had brainstormed together and to categorize them as within our control, within our ability to advocate for, or beyond our control. When we got back together, we realized that each group had categorized the stressors differently, and that some groups had considered many stressors beyond their control while others saw the same issues as being things that they could influence or change.

There’s not a right or wrong way to categorize your stressors, but it can be helpful to think about the extent to which you may have more power than you may think to make or at least advocate for changes that could reduce stress. This, in turn, leads to two fundamental shifts in thinking about self-care that we think are really relevant for dual language teachers right now: 1) self-care doesn’t mean binging on Netflix, chocolates, and bubble baths, but rather, living life moment by moment in a way that is sane and sustainable; and 2) self-care can’t take place in a vacuum - as the saying goes, ‘it takes a village.’ Let’s unpack these two ideas together.

First, as Aga Grabowski points out in her article Self-care as a mindset and a practice: Redefining an oft-misunderstood concept, self-care is a mindset that enables us to fully engage with the world rather than needing to escape from it. She goes on to explain that true self-care is: 1) intentional - recognizing that we need ongoing nurturing to fulfill our goals; 2) purposeful - aligned with our values; 3) mindful - focused on being rather than doing; and 4) compassionate - acknowledging human fallibility and vulnerability. Finally, she provides a simple approach for initiating self-care by suggesting that we ask ourselves two questions: 1) What do I need to thrive? and 2) How will I live to translate this need into action?

So let’s take this concept of self-care as a mindset and think about how it might look in the life of a dual language teacher. Looking back at our original chart of stressors, let’s imagine a teacher, Juana, who feels like the mental overload is just too much. All day, every day, Juana is taking in new information. She is tied to the computer all day, and she feels like it just never stops. It’s really interfering with her sleep because as soon as she lies down, her mind starts racing, trying to sort through all of the information she’s gotten throughout the day. She decides to focus on reducing mental stimulation as the one concrete step she can take. So her answer to the first question, What do I need to thrive? is this: “I need to find a way to limit mental stimulation, at least before bed.” Now it is time to tackle the second question: How will I live to translate that need into action? She uses SMART goals at school with her colleagues and students, so she decides to make a SMART goal for herself to clearly articulate her response to that question. “For a month, I will turn off all social media an hour before bedtime using an app like Offtime or BreakFree. I will write my top three priorities for the next day in my planner, and then I will read for pleasure before sleeping instead of working on my computer. This will help limit my mental overload by limiting stimulation at the end of the day.” At the end of the month, she’ll evaluate her experience with mental overload and decide whether or not her approach has been an effective approach for self-care in this area.

The same approach can be used to promote partnership-care and address stressors in your co-teaching relationship. True partnership-care is also intentional, purposeful, mindful, and compassionate, and can be guided by the same two questions. Take, for example, David and Raquel, long-time partners in a 50/50 Spanish-English dual language program. They get along and work reasonably well together, but they recognize that they don’t navigate conflicts very effectively, and this is creating stress in their partnership. When they ask themselves the first question, What does our partnership need in order to thrive? Their response is this: “We need to have a strategy for having difficult conversations.” To move forward with developing a strategy, they first talk about their preferred modes of receiving difficult feedback, and realize that while David prefers to receive it in writing in advance so that he can think it over and cool down before talking about it, Raquel prefers to hear about it face to face so that she can process it immediately. Equipped with this important information and some ground rules that they’ve established to promote positive communication -- 1) Use I statements; 2) Focus on behaviors rather than characteristics; and 3) Assume good intention -- David and Raquel create the following SMART goal: "For this semester, we will allocate 5 minutes of each planning meeting for difficult conversations. If Raquel has concerns, she will write David an email at least a day before the meeting to give him an opportunity to process before the discussion. We will follow the ground rules in both oral and written communication.This goal will help us to strengthen our communication and improve conflict resolution.” At the end of the semester, they will reflect on how it has worked for them and make any changes as needed to enhance their conflict resolution.

The second important shift in thinking about self-care is that it’s necessary but insufficient for addressing stress. Rachael Moshman brought this important point to light in her Bored Teachers article Teachers Can’t Self-care Themselves Out of a Toxic Work Environment, in which she talks about all of the systemic issues that make teachers’ work stressful, chief among them being undervalued, overworked, and underpaid. Her article came out in February 2020, just a month prior to the onset of the pandemic in the U.S., and you know how much the stressors that she talks about have all been magnified since then! There are a lot of reasons for school leaders to take her ideas seriously and work to address them. First, the Guiding Principles for Dual Language Education addresses the importance of an affirming workplace environment (Strand 5, Principle 1, Key Point C: There is a positive workplace climate and all staff are valued and appropriately supported in carrying out their work). Recruiting and retaining dual language teachers is a challenging and time-consuming endeavor, and the continuity and expansion of dual language education is limited by the small number of qualified teachers. Second, teacher stress translates to student stress, which can have negative consequences for student performance. Thus, promoting a positive workplace environment supports teachers, supports students, and potentially enhances student outcomes.

One way to promote a positive workplace environment is to think beyond self-care to the concept of community care. Community care is a concept coined by Canadian community organizer Nakita Valerio, who described it as ‘people committed to leveraging their privilege to to be there for one other in various ways’ (Dainkeh, 2019). For dual language teachers, this concept should sound familiar, since it speaks to the third goal of sociocultural competence, undergirded by critical consciousness. In other words, promoting community care is something that should be part of the culture of all dual language programs, both in classrooms and school-wide, because it aligns with the major program goal of promoting sociocultural competence and recognizing and utilizing our various forms of privilege to support others in the workplace. In this way, partnership-care is an important component of community care, since partners spend a considerable amount of work time together.

We’d love to hear your thoughts about the ideas we’ve talked about here, as well as your own examples of self-care, partnership-care, and community care! Leave a comment below or head on over to our Facebook page Dual Language Tandem Teaching and start a conversation there!

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