What is resilience for a teacher?
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In this article, senior lecturer, Steph Ainsworth, explores what it actually means to be a resilient new teacher.
There are many definitions out there relating to the idea of resilience, but in its everyday use, people tend to think about resilience as the ability to bounce back from an adverse event or set of circumstances. As we will see in the next article, things turn out to be a little more complicated than that, but for now, let’s stick with that idea and consider what ‘adverse circumstances’ teachers might face in their profession. In other words, why is that teachers need to develop resilience in order to thrive within their jobs?
What challenges do teachers face on a day to day basis?
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Take yourself back to your most recent school placement. What did you find most challenging? Do you remember specific events or characteristics of your placement experiences that you found particularly difficult? Why do you think that these aspects were especially challenging?
When we talk to students on our courses and teachers who are already qualified, there are certain challenges that tend to crop up more frequently than others. Behaviour management is often a tricky thing to master, especially at the early stages, but even very experienced teachers will be confronted with situations that they are not sure how best to respond to. I am sure you can probably all remember a time as a student teacher where you felt out of your depth, when trying to manage a particular student or group of students who were behaving in ways that you didn’t expect or feel prepared for. I can still remember, crying in my car after a particularly challenging day at my second placement school while completing my PGCE many years ago! The good news is that as you become more experienced, your repertoire of strategies broadens; you learn from the other teachers around you; and those situations where you feel out of your depth tend to become less frequent.
Workload is also something that comes up a lot when teachers talk about the challenges of the job. Teaching is an incredibly important and skilled job, which means that an awful lot of time and thought goes into every single lesson on a teacher’s weekly timetable. As you all know, the day does not finish when the bell goes and teachers often find it difficult to fit all their planning, assessment and administrative activities into a reasonable number of working hours each week. There is no easy answer to this issue, but the good news is that a commitment to reducing teacher workload is now being foregrounded within key government strategies within the UK and many other countries. For example, in England the latest schools inspection framework has an increased focus on workload reduction and the UK government published a ‘School workload reduction toolkit’ in 2018.
We have mentioned just two of the challenges of the job that teachers, and also the media, often talk about . One of the trickiest things about being a teacher is to juggle many (often competing) demands at the same time, but with experience teachers develop their resilience and find ways to manage this challenging (but also very rewarding!) role. In the comments section below we would like you to reflect on which aspects of being a teacher you have found most challenging so far in your experiences as a student teacher. What did you do to cope with these challenges?
What does the research say about teacher resilience?
We mentioned in the last article that people often think about resilience in terms of individuals bouncing back from a difficult event or set of circumstances, but recent research suggests that teacher resilience (and indeed resilience more generally) is much more complex. Rather than considering resilience as a characteristic which sits inside an individual, it is more useful to think of resilience as a process which operates across the individual and their environment. This is what we call a social-ecological approach to resilience.
From a social ecological perspective, teacher resilience is the process through which a number of protective factors – things that will help you to cope, and risk factors – things that make it harder for you to cope – interact. Some of these factors might relate to the individual teacher. For example if you have a high level of self-esteem, then you might find it easier to cope with a parent criticising the way that you are doing your job, than if your self-esteem has recently taken a knock (e.g. following a relationship break-up). Some of these factors might relate to the school environment. For example, if the leadership team within your school is very supportive, you might find it easier to cope with the demands of the job because you won’t feel afraid of making mistakes and will know that you have more experienced teachers to turn to for advice and support.
Which factors might have the biggest influence on teachers’ ability to thrive within the profession?
In a recent study1, conducted here at MMU, we sent out an online survey to 226 teachers, designed to explore the relative influence of a range of factors on teachers’ ability to thrive within the profession. The results suggest that environmental influences on teachers’ ability to thrive within the profession are just as important as individual factors. In other words, teachers’ scores on environmental factors such as workload and support from management had just as big an effect on their levels of wellbeing, job satisfaction and risk of burnout as individual factors such as emotional intelligence and self-care. The take home message of this study is that context matters. While it is important for teachers to do what they can to protect themselves from the demands of the job, to really ‘be resilient’ they need to work within a ‘resilient school’ which also acts to protect the teachers within it.
What individual factors might support teacher resilience?
The teachers who had the highest levels of wellbeing and job satisfaction and the lowest levels of burnout had relatively high levels of self-care, self-esteem, emotional intelligence and optimism. This suggests that teachers need to make self-care a priority, for example, by making sure that they get enough sleep, eat healthily and take regular exercise. Although you will probably have found from your placement experiences that this is easier said than done, our results show that this is really worth investing in. You might feel that you are doing the right thing by working long hours to ensure that your lessons are as good as they possibly can be, but as the old adage goes, you cannot pour from an empty cup!
Self-esteem was also found to be important, but how do we make sure that our self-esteem remains healthy? First of all, I think it is important to recognise some of the everyday threats to self-esteem we might encounter so that we are prepared for them and can understand the reasons why we feel deflated from time to time. In Denis Lawrence’s Teaching with Confidence2, he identifies some common threats to teachers’ self-esteem including difficult parents, school inspections, lack of positive feedback and coping with challenging behaviour. While these threats cannot easily be avoided, just understanding how such factors might be affecting our mood and recognising that feelings are transient, is sometimes half the battle. We can also create little events throughout our working week designed to lift our self-esteem, e.g. thinking of three things that have gone well on the way home from work every week, phoning a parent every Friday to tell them something positive about their child. This second activity, found in Jim’s Smith’s The Lazy Teacher’s Handbook3 is likely to make the parent and their child feel good, while also making you feel good about the difference that you are making to children’s lives. The mental health charity Mind also make some useful suggestions for boosting your self-esteem here.
Emotional intelligence was found to be a strong predictor of how happy and well teachers feel, but what does it mean and how can we become more ‘emotionally intelligent’? There are lots of different definitions out there for emotional intelligence but the basic idea is that to be emotionally intelligent you need to be aware of your emotions (and others’), be able to express your emotions effectively and also be able to control them where necessary. Emotional intelligence also includes being able to form strong empathetic relationships with people. I am sure you are already aware that relationships are essential to successful teaching – they have also been found to be absolutely central to the development of resilience. If you invest in your relationships with your students and colleagues, you are much more likely to thrive in the profession.
What environmental factors might support teacher resilience?
The three environmental factors which had the most influence on teacher wellbeing, job satisfaction, and risk of burnout were support from management, workload and school culture. It then follows, of course, that the particular school you choose to work in could have a big impact on how you experience your role as a teacher. If you have yet to find your first teaching job, make sure that you see the interview process as being an opportunity to for you to appraise the school, not just them appraising you!
It can be hard to get a full sense of this just from visiting a school/attending an interview, but try to get a feel for how supportive you think the management team would be. Do they seem open, welcoming and flexible? Try to find out a bit about how the school supports new teachers. What are the mentoring procedures? Are there any opportunities for continuing professional development? If you already have a job and you find that you are not feeling as supported as you would have hoped, try to be open with your mentor or line manager about the kinds of support that would help you to thrive within your role. And if all else fails, don’t be afraid to try another school. I know of lots of teachers who were unhappy in one school, but then moved to another school and were much happier.
Similarly, try to find a school that takes the commitment to reducing workload seriously. Familiarise yourself with various ideas that are out there for reducing unnecessary workload within schools, such as the workload toolkit mentioned in the previous article. Think about new ways of doing things that might cut down on time spent working outside of the school day. As you become more established within your school, you might then be able to make suggestions to help the school as a whole change some of its practices, e.g. by exploring new ways to provide feedback that don’t involve hours spent marking books.
School culture emerged as another very important factor. One thing that has really stood out to me when I have visited lots of schools as part of my teacher educator role is that not all schools are the same. Schools have atmospheres which you can feel as you step inside them. If you are still exploring options for your first job, take note of your first impressions. If a school doesn’t ‘feel’ right, you might want to consider looking at other schools. If you are already in a school and you feel that the atmosphere/culture is not quite what you hoped, remember that cultures can change and that you could be a catalyst for that change. Try to be positive and friendly. If there is not much of a socialising culture within your school, maybe you could be the one that gets things going by suggesting social events such as going out for tea on pay day, or bringing in cakes every Friday. Again, though, do not be afraid to move elsewhere if you feel that the culture of a school is not for you. It is important to feel comfortable in your place of work.
So to summarise, recent research suggests that both individual and environmental factors affect teacher resilience. To maximise your chances of feeling happy and well within your role take good care of yourself, be positive, take note of your feelings and others’, invest in strong relationships and choose your school carefully! Try to find a school with (or work with your existing school to create) a culture which takes workload reduction seriously, where people are friendly and positive and where people feel well supported by the leadership team.
As an optional follow-up activity after you have completed the course, you might want to sign up to the BRiTE website: Building Resilience in Teacher Education, which has a full programme of activities for students who are entering the teaching profession.
- Ainsworth, S. & Oldfield, J. Quantifying teacher resilience: Context Matters. Teaching and Teacher Education. 2019;82:117-128.
- Lawrence, D. Teaching with Confidence: A Guide to Enhancing Teacher Self-Esteem. Thousand Oaks: Paul Chapman;1999
- Smith, J. & Gilbert, I. The Really Lazy Teacher handbook. Camarthen: Crown House;2010
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