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  • Writer's pictureImmigrant Connections

English Learner (EL) Teachers & Setting Boundaries

This article is for English Learner (EL) teachers. Let me start by saying this article will likely be controversial! I, Laura Gardner of Immigrant Connections, am putting on my social work hat for you and hopefully it will be helpful.

Do you refer to the EL and immigrant students in your school as “your” students? Does everyone in your building (brick and mortar or virtual) come to you for every single need related to “your” ELs and their families? Congratulations! You’ve made yourself well-known….and are simultaneously bulldozing boundaries, heading towards burnout, and ultimately doing a disservice to the EL and immigrant students and families in your school.

Let’s back up a minute and outline some of these red flags. You know you are an EL teacher with boundary issues when:

  1. Everyone in your school comes to you for everything related to “your” ELs and their families, including calling home for any reason (whether you speak that family’s language or not), interpreting for other staff members, locating community resources, handling discipline situations, and so on.

  2. You pride yourself on taking care of ALL of “your” EL students/families’ issues or concerns.

  3. You find yourself not able to focus on your students’ instruction because you’re constantly getting pulled into any and all situations with “your” EL students or their families.

  4. You start to think that no one can solve “your” students’ and families’ problems as well as you can!

  5. You worry about what will happen if you leave your school or retire because who else will help “your” students?

  6. Your gut says “No, not again!” to a request from a colleague or parent but you say to yourself “One more time can’t hurt.”

  7. You realize that that you are afraid that your colleagues, students, or their families won’t like you or might be angry if you don’t meet all their expectations or solve all their problems.

  8. You catch yourself thinking, “It feels good to be needed.”

  9. You spend a lot of your time at home thinking about “your” EL students and families and their needs. You feel their sense of urgency as your own and feel guilty if you don’t help them with everything, no matter how many hours it takes.

  10. Your own relationships (family, friends, etc.) are suffering because of the time and emotional attention given to “your” students and families at school.

I know what you’re thinking: “I HAVE to do these things because no one else will!” This may be true, to some extent. To be sure, there are other factors that lead to your lack of boundaries. Administration is a big one. If your principal doesn’t have a lot of experience with working with ELs and immigrants or knowledge of best practices on engaging diverse families, they will likely inappropriately use you. It’s a tough spot to be in. In addition, if your district lacks an overall infrastructure for supporting EL and immigrant students and families, it will be much more difficult to focus on your role and keep healthy boundaries. For example, does your district have an interpretation/translation office or at least a contract with an OPI (over the phone interpretation) provider? A family engagement office that provides teachers with training on how to communicate and partner with families? Counselors and/or school social workers who have been trained on the needs of EL and immigrant students and families?

Another thought you’re probably having is: “You’re faulting me for caring?! Not to mention in a pandemic?!” I get it. We’re educators. We’re in this job because we care and I’m sure that most of us can identify with some of the items above. But without setting some boundaries, you will burn out, there’s no doubt about it. We know that teachers burn out at a higher rate than many other professions, not to mention that most studies on the topic were pre-pandemic. Much of the talk around self-care ends up being about trivial things like booking a massage, which is fine of course, but real self-care comes down to setting boundaries.

And you, my EL teacher colleagues, need to reflect on the role you play in this over-doing-it, lack-of-boundaries, martyr situation going on here. Whether you believe it or not, you have the power to set some boundaries and by saying “no” more, you will likely see other people and departments stepping up their game. A great article on this is How to Set Boundaries as a Teacher and Why it’s so Important (apologies for selecting an article with so many ads, but it’s good, so skip over them and read to the end). For those in helping professions, this journey of setting boundaries and self-care is hard! Be sure to enlist the help of a therapist, life coach, or whatever other support you need. Also, check to see if your school district has an Employee Assistance Program.

In addition, you may have noticed that I mentioned above how you could actually be doing a disservice to the EL and immigrant students and families in your school. How could that possibly be? By saying “no” to various things, how could EL students/families actually benefit?

Let’s take a look at a few examples:

1. Family engagement: You’ve often agreed to make phone calls home for the classroom teacher and others. By doing so, the parents of EL students have only one relationship with anyone in the school: you. Yet, it’s important for parents to have relationships with all of their child’s teachers!

  • Instead: With support from your administrators, train teachers on how to use whatever tools your district has in place (phone interpretation, TalkingPoints, etc.) so they can connect with parents themselves.

  • EL students/families benefit: EL families slowly begin to build relationships with their children’s teachers and can engage in partnerships more directly. EL students benefit because their parents are now more connected with their teacher and because you, their EL teacher, now have time to focus on their instruction.

  • You (EL teacher) benefit: You now have more time to focus on instruction and overall better boundaries so you don’t burn out.

2. Interpretation: You speak Spanish “well enough” and are regularly called on to help with language barriers between students/families and other educators at your school. Yet, you’ve never received any training on how to interpret, nor had your language abilities assessed.

  • Instead: Discuss with administrators that this is in violation of the federal governments’ 2015 guidance, kindly state that you will no longer be able to interpret in these situations, and clarify your role in the building. With their support and/or central office support, train teachers on how to use whatever tools for interpretation/translation your district has in place (phone interpretation, TalkingPoints, etc.)

  • EL students/families benefit: EL families will get an accurate interpretation, which they are legally entitled to. (This may not happen overnight, but by saying “no” to interpreting, the school and district will have to come up with an alternative plan.)

  • You (EL teacher) benefit: You now won’t be put in a risky situation that could lead to an OCR complaint. You will also have more time to focus on instruction and overall better boundaries so you don’t burn out.

3. Socio-emotional needs: The EL students and families in your school have a lot of socio-emotional needs. You regularly find yourself attempting to be their social worker, including helping them with some really delicate situations involving immigration, domestic violence, and more.

  • Instead: Consistently refer to your school counselor, social worker, or psychologist. If these individuals lack the skill sets to properly work with EL/immigrant students and families, you may point them in the right direction of any appropriate community resources you’re aware of. Then advocate with administrators for their professional development and the need for capacity building in this area.

  • EL students/families benefit: In some communities, there are resources that only a school counselor or social worker can access. For example, in communities that operate from a systems of care model or any kind of streamlined approach that relies on referrals from social workers. Ultimately, school counselors and social workers will be most knowledable about social service systems in the community and how to access them. Therefore, EL students and families will benefit by connecting with those who can most help them access those systems.

  • You (EL teacher) benefit: You won’t be held liable for how you responded to situations that weren’t in your wheelhouse, such as a suicidal student or parent or student/family in a domestic violence situation. In addition, you will also have more time to focus on instruction and overall better boundaries so you don’t burn out.

As a former central office administrator, I will leave you with this. Until you say “no” to some of these roles and responsibilities you’ve managed to acquire, nothing will ever change. No administrator will ever hire additional staff and/or provide current staff with additional professional development on working with EL students and families if you always take care of everything. Clarify your role, establish your boundaries, say “no” more often, and focus any extra time and energy on building the capacity of fellow educators and systems. It may take time for things to shift but this will ultimately help your EL students and families AND reduce your chances of burning out.

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