The Introduction to ‘Teacher Resilience’

03 Oct 2020

This is the introduction to my new book ‘Teacher Resilience: Managing stress and anxiety to thrive in the classroom’.  It is available to pre-order now, and will be out via John Catt Educational at the start of November.

Anxious anecdote

“Bryanna, can I have some more focus from you, please?” David was aware of the note of pleading in his voice. There was certainly none of the “assertive calm” that the tutors on his training year had claimed was the key to managing “classroom climate”.

With impeccable timing, Bryanna delivered a spectacular eye roll – one that was very clear to the rest of the class. The disdain was even more evident in her sarcastic reply: “I don’t know. Can you?”

Predictably, the class broke into exaggerated hoots of laughter. All eyes were on David: how would he react?

Twenty minutes later, the class had left and David’s forehead was plastered to his desk. “They all hate me,” he thought. “I’m useless. What’s the point? They are never going to learn anything. I can’t go on.”

We have all been there. Forever ingrained in our memories are our own versions of the head-on-the-desk moment. We have all felt the burning shame; the sense that we are utterly inadequate and teaching is just too challenging to persevere with. We have all met our own versions of Bryanna.

Painfully, and often reluctantly, most of us eventually lift our heads off the desk. Then, in an emotional transition that could win an Oscar, we smile and welcome the next group of young people into our rooms. Our self-esteem has taken another hammer blow, but we pick ourselves up, take a deep breath and keep going.

It is no exaggeration to suggest that this capacity to rise, both physically and metaphorically, is fairly unique to the teaching profession. If ever there was a job that required superhuman physical, psychological and emotional reserves, it is teaching. This test of endurance, which challenges us on so many different fronts, is a significant factor in why retention rates in teaching can appear so depressing. It also goes some way towards explaining why the rate of teachers leaving the profession in the first five years is so high, at somewhere between a third and half in the UK over the past 10 years.

Teacher burnout is common. As we all know, the demands placed on teachers’ mental health are significant. We are all too conscious of how unpredictable a day in teaching can be – and the emotional impact of this on individuals. In this book, I will argue that it is the elusive and under-explored quality of resilience that is the secret ingredient all teachers need in order to thrive in our profession. To teach effectively and to sustain a long career in education, resilience is required in abundance. Why, then, is resilience not discussed more often in conversations about teaching?

Teacher stress

I have taught for 12 years, in schools from London to Newcastle to Edinburgh. I have sat in countless CPD sessions. I have invested considerable time in academic educational research to doctorate level, and in reading far too many books on education. Yet I have never had any explicit training on resilience, nor have I found myself equipped with practical strategies to ensure I can take ownership of my emotions in the classroom.

Instead of exploring teacher resilience, the conversation is fixed on the headline topics of teacher stress and teacher burnout. Discussions about wellbeing are skewed towards what it is not, rather than how to achieve it. Long hours, excessive accountability and poor retention figures are shouted from the rooftops, but this has the effect of putting more teachers off the profession, rather than illuminating ways in which we can make it more sustainable on an individual level.

It is an interesting snapshot of a culture that often swings towards the negative, rather than being solution-focused. A quick search on the most obvious indicator of societal interest, Google, reveals even further the disparity between explorations of teacher stress and teacher resilience. Googling the term “teacher stress” generates a rather terrifying 346,000,000 results. “Teacher resilience”, on the other hand, turns up 50,500,000 results. On its own, this seems a sizeable number, but even with my lack of mathematical skill I can see just how big the disparity is (295,500,000 – I googled it).

Research has shown that some school environments are doing much better than others when it comes to fostering resilience in their staff and in the young people they teach. There is, therefore, a moral imperative for us to look at best practice and examine this vital question in depth: how can we build resilience in the teacher workforce?

The definition

We should start at the beginning: what exactly is this elusive quality of resilience? A journey through the etymology of “resilience” provides some justification for the suggestion that it should be more prominent in discussions of teacher wellbeing. The word stems from the Latin resiliens, present participle of resilire, meaning “to rebound, recoil”. The root “re-” means “back” and salire means “to jump.”

In the 1640s, resilient was used to describe “springing back”. The meaning “elasticity” dates from 1824, while the use of resiliency to describe “power of recovery” dates from 1857. Springing back, being elastic, recovery: these all strike me as fairly important in the hierarchy of teacher skills. Today, “resilience” is often used in terms of adapting in the face of adversity – bouncing back, persevering and coping. It relates to how we adapt to stressful situations and experiences in order to protect ourselves from further stress.

The qualities

Some lucky individuals appear to glide through their work with young people; they are visions of tranquility who smile and embrace all challenges. Others (me) might give the impression of serenity, but beneath the calm surface there is not only a furious cacophony of paddling, but also a Metallica-style heavy metal concert of fear, worry and concern.

People who are resilient do, of course, experience feelings of stress and anxiety, but they are not governed by them. Instead, they have at their core the following five qualities:

  1. Perspective. For those who are resilient, difficulties are not something to be afraid of; nor do they paralyse and lead to inertia. Instead, there is a healthy level of detachment and a belief that challenges allow opportunities for growth.

  2. Commitment. A resilient outlook means you are committed to the goals and projects that you want to see through; resilience bestows the qualities of perseverance and determination. What young people in schools need, now more than ever, is a sense that we are with them for the long haul – that we will value and cherish them for a sustained period of time. Such a commitment is the foundation of positive relationships in schools.

  3. Control. People who rate themselves high in resilience tend to focus their energies on the things over which they have control – this is essential in education, where there are so many factors that we cannot control. This kind of mindset is crucial in developing self-efficacy and confidence. It comes with a recognition that the past cannot be changed, but the future is yet to be written.

  4. Optimism. Higher levels of resilience help to work against feelings of pessimism, which can be overwhelming. A healthy optimism can create buoyant and positive teachers – teachers that young people want to spend time with and learn from.

  5. Compassion. Resilience enables you to step outside the internal narrative and consider how other people might be feeling. Building positive relationships and helping others are key to thriving in any environment.

Resilience is not a fixed quality set in stone from a tender age. Rather, research has shown that it can be developed over time: an encouraging piece of information for those of us who sometimes find life in the classroom difficult. In this book, we will examine how we can learn the skills necessary for a resilient mindset, the actions we can take to foster resilience, and how a resilient practitioner might approach the many challenges that we face in the classroom. From parental engagement to differentiation, no pressure point for teacher stress and anxiety will go unexplored.

The wellbeing debate

In schools, “wellbeing” has become an almost hackneyed term, and in many ways it has lost its power. You can see the scepticism that arises in staff when “wellbeing training” takes place. We have all had to sit through wellbeing activities or days that are, at best, a distraction that is of little use and, at worst, a superficial oversimplification.

Rather than achieving “wellbeing”, the aim of this book is to help teachers find eudaimonia, a delightful Greek term that expresses the capacity for human flourishing. To flourish is a far more optimistic aim: to be in a position to teach and, indeed, learn as well as possible.

Taking ownership

A conversation about what we can do at an individual level to enable this flourishing is vital to make teaching a more sustainable and optimistic profession. Yes, systemic changes are necessary, and I will explore and argue for these. But, fundamentally, the aim of this book is to empower individual teachers who are trying to work out how best to function in schools.

We are, after all, active participants in managing our own health and wellbeing. To leave it down to organisational directives robs us of autonomy over our lives. Rather than accepting things as they are, we need to build the confidence to push back and say no, thus establishing boundaries for ourselves. This is a significant part of developing healthy and robust mindsets in schools. This is resilience in action.

Exploration of mental health and wellbeing is deeply personal and individual. This book is designed to support that exploration – to suggest healthy ways to cope with feelings of stress and the challenges of our profession. It is written with longevity in mind. Trying to attempt all the exercises and suggestions at once will only create more anxiety and stress. Instead, experimenting with the strategies over time will gradually help to build the resilience we all need to thrive in our classrooms.

Resilience in 2020

I started writing this book in January 2020, with the simple aim of reflecting on the best ways to manage stress and anxiety in education. I knew that resilience would be a part of that exploration, but instead it went on to form my central argument about how teachers can sustain themselves in this profession and be the best versions of themselves in the classroom.

As the Covid-19 pandemic tested us in ways that I could never have imagined as I first sat down to write, resilience came to seem even more significant. The necessity of being able to adapt, persevere and maintain optimism has been made painfully clear. Our understanding of personal resilience grew immeasurably during our experience of lockdown.

The time spent away from schools, and away from our core purpose, was a huge challenge, but one that offered time for reflection. As a profession, we have seen that we can do things differently in our schools. We now have an opportunity to look carefully at how teaching can be made more attractive; at how we can make sure talented teachers stay in the profession. We all get better with experience, and schools are so much richer for the experience and wisdom that long-serving teachers bring.

As I write, teachers are desperate to return to the classroom and serve out our purpose: to inspire and motivate young people. It is clearer to society just how essential we are and how challenging teaching is. I hope this book makes a modest contribution to a narrative that moves retention and sustainability in our profession forward; that urges teachers to take ownership and push back against toxic environments and ludicrous workplace practices.

Investing in and prioritising the development of our own personal resilience – and the skills that come with it – will build on the courage and conviction we have shown as a profession during the pandemic. Resilience will help us to thrive, reducing the anxieties and stress that can prevent us from supporting young people. It will sustain us in a challenging profession and help us to bring our best to the role that we love.

Serene summary

Resilience is the quality that allows us to be optimistic and positive about our work – and understanding how to develop that resilience is key to flourishing in the teaching profession. An awareness of the many benefits of resilience is an important starting point in seeking to build it in our professional lives.

 

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Jamie Thom

English teacher, host of @TES English teaching podcast. Author of 'Slow Teaching.' MEd in Practitioner Enquiry, doctorate student #StrathEdD. Runner.

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