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Self-Care for Writing Teachers

by Betsy Gilliland |

The COVID-19 pandemic seems to have played tricks on my sense of time, and, with that, my usual self-care routines. I feel like each academic term is moving faster than the previous one. While I can still prepare my daily classes, I’m falling behind with providing feedback and grading my students’ written work. In talking with colleagues around the world, it sounds like I’m not alone, either. This month, I want to share some strategies for writing teachers who are also feeling overwhelmed in their work.

Shift the Work of Learning to Students

This first set of suggestions focuses on ways we can revise our curriculum to take the burden off ourselves for providing all the input. I’ve written previously about some ways to plan lessons that support students toward independence in their writing. One of my favorite approaches is genre study, which guides students through a process of text analysis that expands their understanding of the language and structure of specific genres. (Here are some genre-based lessons from NCTE and a description of Andrew-Vaughn and Fleischer’s Unfamiliar Genre Project.) Through genre study, students also develop the metalanguage for talking about texts and the strategies for analyzing texts on their own.

Building a unit around the writing process can also take the burden off the teacher. Instead of having to respond to all aspects of a long final paper, we can provide informal input throughout the process, starting before students have even committed to a topic. At each step of the process, we can monitor where students are struggling and intervene before they go too far in the wrong direction with a project. Peer response and self-response are valuable ways to reduce the burden on teachers as well; the key is to scaffold the process and set students up to give each other useful feedback rather than just waste time.

We can point students to support for their writing from beyond the classroom. Introduce students to external resources, like a campus tutoring or writing center where they can talk about their texts with trained tutors. During a tutoring session, students can ask questions about their understanding of an assignment and get feedback on drafts at any stage of the process. Depending on students’ age and maturity, they might also benefit from learning about electronic resources they can use to get automated feedback, such as Grammarly or the spelling and grammar checks built into Google Docs.

Managing Feedback Processes

Inviting students to play a meaningful role in assessment can further improve what students write and consequently reduce the need for teachers to give extensive but repetitive feedback. In introducing an assignment, we can collaboratively work with our students to create the rubric. The process of negotiating a rubric gives students a deeper understanding of what they should do (and not do) in writing their texts, reducing the number of questions they ask and the amount of commenting we have to do to point them in the right direction. Portfolios, in which students select what is most meaningful about their work and tell you what they have learned from it, also lessen the emotionally draining busy work of writing comments that students will then ignore.

When you respond to students’ writing, consider focused (instead of comprehensive) feedback. Choose a few key points and ignore other things you see in students’ writing. Points you might consider include:

  • Learning objectives for the unit
  • Language covered or emphasized in class
  • Essential aspects of the genre
  • Areas of most importance for each student

Writing conferences can also be used to reduce the amount of time you spend writing comments on students’ papers. A conference can last anywhere from 30 seconds (for a brief check-in during class time on a single point) to 15–20 minutes or longer. Have students audio record (or Zoom record) their conference for reference while they are revising their work. Students should write down revisions and corrections while in the conference so they don’t forget. If you don’t have time to hold conferences with students, screen recording your spoken comments while reading through their papers can serve as a proxy, saving you the need to write your feedback.

While most conferences occur in the middle of the writing process, it is also possible to hold assessment conferences after students have submitted their final draft. I have found it to be a time-saver to read the text and talk through my comments with a student rather than marking their paper in advance, although you need to have clear grading criteria established so you can be consistent across students. Another approach I have used when trying to turn around papers quickly is to do holistic grading—very fast review of each paper, providing a single numeric score based on a rubric—followed by optional conferences for students who want to get more feedback on their texts. This works best when the whole course is focused on a particular genre, especially one in preparation for a test (such as a TOEFL prep course). The students who want to know more will sign up for conferences, and the ones who just want a score can get their grade while they still remember the task.

Overall Self-Care

While the above suggestions have been intended specifically for writing teachers, all teachers need to practice self-care in order to avoid burnout and stay healthy. No matter what level or subject we teach, we need to make time in our schedules for ourselves. If you are scheduling one-to-one student conferences, be sure to create breaks in between sessions to get up, walk around, drink some tea, or take a walk. Whether lesson planning or writing comments on students’ essays, treat the work as a series of tasks and pace yourself, doing a chunk of the work and then shifting to a different task. Stop working at a designated quitting time, even if you aren’t finished, and return to it the next day. Set several small goals (e.g., comment on five or 10 papers rather than the whole stack) and reward yourself for accomplishing each of those goals.

Working on our own to plan lessons and grade papers can become isolating and exhausting. We can also be better teachers by networking and socializing with colleagues both at our own workplace and in a larger professional community. As Laura Baecher highlights, this networking no longer needs to be confined to in-person events, either, but can happen just as productively through social media.

Please take care of yourselves, writing teachers, so that you can continue to give your students the careful teaching and support you want to offer.

About the author

Betsy Gilliland

Betsy Gilliland is an associate professor in the Department of Second Language Studies at the University of Hawaiʻi Mānoa, where she teaches courses on second language writing, teacher research, and qualitative research methods to undergraduate and graduate students. Co-editor of the Journal of Response to Writing, she was chair of the TESOL Second Language Writing Interest Section (2019-2020) and has published in TESOL Journal, Journal of Second Language Writing, and ELT Journal, among others. She was a Fulbright Scholar at the Universidad de Atacama (Chile) in 2018.

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