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An illustration of four teachers standing under an umbrella, one holds a plant in a pot, another holds a ball, and another holds files and a book.

Teacher Resilience, Put to the Test

In times of crisis, educators say “resilience” must mean more than bouncing back to the old ways. It asks for a leap into something better.

June 10, 2020

Leah Fabel

Leah Fabel

Prior to the outbreak of COVID-19, a movement to cultivate teacher resilience was gathering strength in many schools and districts, often as a response to unsustainable levels of stress and attrition.

Teach For America regions including Kansas City, Las Vegas, the Greater Delta, Houston, and Idaho joined the work, coaching corps members to thrive in and out of classrooms. Now, as the virus and its fallout push communities deeper into crisis, stealing lives and disrupting livelihoods, the work is not only prescient but essential to schools reopening successfully.

Hillary Blunt (Kansas City ’14) is a teacher coach for Teach For America Kansas City, where she helps lead the region’s work on corps member wellness and resilience. “We’re spending a lot of time right now with corps members talking through emotions—sadness, loneliness, frustration, anxiety,” she said in April. “Then developing awareness around those emotions so that when we get to the end of this, they’ll have already processed them and will be ready to be there for kids.”

Doing that emotional work—so often disregarded when time is short and there are fires to put out—is critical, say Blunt and others. Not because personal wellness alone is enough, but because it lays the foundation for the deeper potential of resilience: the chance, amid destruction, to build something better.

“We have such a tremendous opportunity right now to explore the possibilities for education, to rethink our priorities for kids and adults.”

Elena Aguilar

To be resilient, at its root, means to rebound. It is derived from the Latin word salire, which means to leap or to jump. It shares its root with “salient,” used beginning in the 1600s to describe the heartbeat of an embryo, which seems almost to leap into being. It is this understanding of resilience—as something more than bouncing back, as actually leaping into new life—that guides experts like Elena Aguilar (Bay Area ’95), author of Onward: Cultivating Emotional Resilience in Teachers.

In her book Aguilar names 12 habits of a resilient teacher, including knowing yourself and your purpose, understanding your emotions, and caring for your physical well-being.

But there’s another habit that she worries will be overlooked in schools’ understandable rush to recoup lost learning time: the practice of playing and creating. “Creativity and play unlock inner resources for dealing with stress, solving problems, and enjoying life,” she writes in Onward. “When we are creative, we are resourceful, and we problem-solve in new and original ways, which fuels our courage.” It’s “how we figure out new responses—I’m hesitant to say solutions—but responses to challenges or adversity.”

Aguilar, who worked in Oakland Unified Public Schools for 19 years before consulting, spends her days now walking the Bay Area’s green hills and logging on to video calls around the country. When schools shut down in Portland, Oregon, the district hired her to lead a six-week professional development course for more than 4,000 educators and staff members about cultivating resilient communities in times of crisis. (Her new book, Coaching for Equity, is due out in August.) The teachers, often sporting sweatpants and surrounded by the swirl of a hectic home life, were eager to participate, she says, as if they sensed the creative potential in resilience.

“We have such a tremendous opportunity right now to explore the possibilities for education, to rethink our priorities for kids and adults,” Aguilar says. Educators need to rethink patterns and habits and secure the autonomy to try out better systems. “The word ‘creative’ doesn’t even fully grasp it. If we want to transform education, we need to destroy the mental models that have gripped our conscious mind and our subconscious. Hopefully, that is a part of this creative process.”

“There's anxiety and stress right now in that our identities have been challenged. But there is also an inventiveness that comes of that.”

Mathew Portell

Mathew Portell is the principal of Nashville, Tennessee’s Fall-Hamilton Elementary. Several years ago, he started his school staff on a journey to becoming fully trained in trauma-informed teaching, able to recognize, understand, and respond appropriately to all types of traumas that students carry with them.  As the school dove into the work, Portell recognized that it wasn’t enough to focus on students’ resilience in the face of trauma—teachers needed support, too. Many had experienced their own traumatic events, and all had absorbed their students’ pain. Portell invited Danna Thomas (Baltimore ’11), founder of Happy Teacher Revolution, to help.

Thomas started Happy Teacher Revolution in 2014, in response to an overwhelming need she saw to support teachers’ mental health. It began as a set of grassroots teacher support circles in the Baltimore area and bloomed into a robust online training program for individual teachers and in-person work at schools and in districts nationwide. More than 300 teachers who have trained as “revolutionaries” now lead support circles at their schools. Fall-Hamilton was one of the first to start a schoolwide initiative.

In group sessions, teachers learned that resilience depends on what Thomas calls “work-life integration, not work-life balance.” They learned to build community around constructive responses to struggles. “It resembles a 12-step program,” Thomas says. “You’re given permission to be you and be enough.” Three teachers now lead monthly meetings and design schoolwide wellness initiatives, such as a “tap-out” system where teachers can quickly step out of their classroom during a stressful moment and another will step in.

The need has long been clear. In a 2017 study out of Penn State University, teachers tied with nurses for the highest stress rates among all occupations, with 46% reporting “high daily stress.” Research also shows that between 23% and 42% of teachers stop teaching within their first five years. In exit interviews they listed stress-related factors as key drivers of their departure.

The challenge is intensified for teachers of color, who often face stressors caused by racism, bias, and structural inequity. Two recent studies by The Education Trust found that Black and Latinx teachers are burdened with unpaid responsibilities and unfair expectations. Latinx teachers reported spending extra hours each week serving as translators, for example. Black teachers reported that they were often called on to manage disciplinary matters, devaluing their work as educators. Amid the COVID-19 crisis, Asian American teachers are facing decades-high levels of racism and violence. The burdens take a toll. A recent study by the U.S. Department of Education, using 2013 data, found that 85% of white teachers returned to the same school where they taught the year prior, compared to 79% of Latinx teachers and 78% of Black teachers.

“In a 2017 study, teachers tied with nurses for the highest stress rates among all occupations, with 46% reporting "high daily stress.”

Penn State University, "Teacher Stress and Health"

The demand for resilience is so clear among educators of color that it was chosen as the theme of Teach For America’s School Leaders of Color conference in February. Attendees dove into topics including decentering white supremacist culture, creating caring communities to guard against self-sabotage, and nurturing the leadership of all staff as a way to build a culture of trust and shared confidence.

Researchers have found that less-stressed teachers mean less-stressed kids, which will become particularly important when schools reopen. Portell, principal at Fall-Hamilton, says that “being a trauma-informed school, we understand that trauma will store, and it will come out” next school year. “Kids who never had stress responses or dysregulation before this are going to have symptoms when we return. And many educators are going to feel the same.”

Fall-Hamilton teachers’ work on resilience has given them a head start in dealing with the challenges posed by COVID-19, Portell says. It’s not “yoga and a cup of tea.” It’s the hard work to develop trusting relationships, build teacher autonomy, and support honest self-reflection in the service of growth and optimism. “Teaching is our identity—teaching, instruction, social-emotional learning,” he says. “There’s anxiety and stress right now in that our identities have been challenged. But there is also an inventiveness that comes of that.”

Fall-Hamilton teachers now are doubling down on deepening relationships with families and students, creating powerful connections over one-on-one reading time and listening to parents’ needs and hopes. Those connections are guiding how they plan for students’ return. “Imagine if every year we started off going to every neighborhood, doing home visits with every family,” Portell said. “It makes us see each other as human beings.”

That is the stuff of resilience, says Elena Aguilar. It’s creating something better for students. “There is a deep and profound connection between cultivating our resilience and our ability to transform schools and create equity,” she says. “This is going to be a long fight, and we need to have the energy to be in it to the end, and that is resilience.” 

Illustration by Tanya Shyika


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