Lessons in resilience for early career teachers

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“Why aren’t they just able to cope? They need to be more resilient.”

UK National lockdown in March 2020 threw all of us into a land of unknowns.  In education, carefully crafted spiralling curricula was suddenly disrupted and at every level new ways had to be found to fulfil our substantive, disciplinary and pedagogical purposes.  Additionally, many found themselves working in an environment, whether physical or emotional, which was far from fertile ground for teaching and learning.  The challenges have continued into this new academic year, as school colleagues find themselves under considerable pressure in carrying out their job in the most unusual of circumstances.  And into this situation walk our both our NQTs, forged in the fires of the a counterintuitively ‘theoretical’ end to a training year, and our new PGCE students acquiring their practice based understanding of teaching and learning in a highly irregular situation due to restrictions brought about because of public health imperatives. 

At every level people are being required to show resilience – the ability to overcome adversity and adapt to challenging situations. (Duffield and O’Hare, 2020).  Resilience is a word often encountered in education.  It is held up as a ‘gold standard’ characteristic, a key qualification for being able to stay the course and be successful.  This year, of all years, teachers have demonstrated that they possess an impressive level of resilience.  However, resilience is a highly contextual characteristic, it ebbs and flows depending on external and internal factors – physical or mental health, tiredness, reliability of relationships etc. It is also something which needs to be learned and fostered.

How then can we build meaningful and empathetic resilience in our beginning teachers? 

Beginning teachers are called upon to demonstrate resilience daily in their ability to accept and respond positively to constructive criticism from observers, bounce back quickly from challenging classroom experiences and manage what often feels like an unsustainable and competing workload.   To keep our early career teachers healthy and positive and prepared to embrace challenges, we need to make developing and nurturing their professional resilience as much of a priority as helping them meet the Teacher Standards.  So, how can we do this?

Model resilience explicitly

Covid has meant our work-lives and home-lives have suddenly collided in a manner hitherto unseen; the challenges of daily life encroached more easily into our professional spheres and persona.  Conversations with PGCE students during this period has revealed how positive this level of honesty and transparency about individual struggles has been for helping to build their own resilience. 

One PGCE student commented that when mentors and tutors are open about their own challenges, they “feel supported …[knowing] that we are all still learning, regardless of the amount of time spent in the profession”. 

Being open about struggles is only part of the lesson in resilience beginning teachers require.  Indeed as another PGCE student expressed:

“It is really reassuring that experienced teachers still struggle or make mistakes… when they’re a bit overwhelmed… What is really impactful is when they bounce back and shake it off, as it is modelling exactly what trainees should do too… I’ve noticed the best leaders are the ones who own their mistakes as it humanizes them, and moves us away from striving for perfection, which is unsustainable and unnecessary’.

Beginning teachers need their mentors and tutors to model how to keep the ‘show on the road’, to reflect and adapt – not to the detriment of health and well-being, but in a way which explicitly shows how solutions can be found to find a way through the challenges faced.

Encourage positive framing of experiences

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Facing an observer’s close critique of your planning and teaching, is something even the most experienced teacher finds daunting.  Imagine this lesson after lesson and day after day.  Yes, it is an important part of the process of learning to be a teacher, but the relentless cycle of feedback experienced by beginning teachers requires an incredible level of resilience.  Is it any great surprise then that beginning teachers often find it hard to focus on anything other than their areas for development and fail to recognise their progress? 

Beginning teachers need their mentors and tutors to help them contextualise their ‘feedback’, developing mechanisms for celebrating successes.  They need support to understand that the targets emanating from what they most frequently perceive as their ‘failure’ is in fact the very thing that is enabling them to make progress.  They need help to see the link between reflective conversations and learning opportunities; as one PGCE student commented: “[We need to be supported to] understand that ‘failure’ is often an important learning opportunity”.   Recognising the positives in our situation and focusing on doing more of what is working well, allows us to think and act more constructively when we face challenges and enhances our resilience accordingly (BRITE, 2014).  To enable these learning opportunities to have impact, mentors and tutors need to support beginning teachers to celebrate their successes, cheerleading for them when progress is made.   

Develop community and the opportunity to seek help

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All schools and universities have had to adapt to the requirements of a Covid-secure environment.  However, one aspect typifies them all, reduced opportunities for the usual social interaction that naturally occurs in the workplace.  Given the important role that ‘belonging’ and ‘connectedness’ plays in resilience building (Duffield & O’Hare, 2020), mentors and tutors of beginning teachers need to find ways to foster these communities.  People who are part of a supportive network feel more inclined to seek help, whether through the informal sounding board of peers or more formal professional and well-being related ‘catch ups’ with mentors.  A PGCE student commented that a critical aspect of their ability to be resilient in these unusual times came through their tutors efforts to “build a community, be [personally] present [and accessible] and encourage us to ‘go with the flow’… we rely on our community for support so we’re never isolated… Seeing my tutor and colleagues being resilient to the challenges we face encourages me to build up my skills of resilience too.”  Even a virtual staff-room or work-room is better than no work-room at all, and opportunities to create a more social virtual community are important ways of demonstrating ‘an interest in beginning teachers’ work and lives’ (Tomlinson et al., 2010) and therefore foster this sense of belonging.

A lesson for everyone?

Supporting our beginning teachers to grow their own professional resilience is an important part of a mentor and tutor’s role.  Resilience ebbs and flows.  Perhaps as mentors and tutors we could also do with this kind of support too?

Acknowledgements: With thanks to the students and former students who helped me reflect upon what building resilience might look like for them in these covid-19 times, and who gave permission for their comments to be used.

References:

BRiTE (2014-2020) Staying BRiTE, Promoting Resilience in Higher Education, https://www.brite.edu.au/ [accessed 20/10/2020]

Duffied, S. & O’Hare, D. (2020) Teacher resilience during coronavirus school closures, British Psychological Society. https://www.bps.org.uk/sites/www.bps.org.uk/files/Member%20Networks/Divisions/DECP/Teacher%20resilience%20during%20coronavirus%20school%20closures.pdf [accessed 20/10/2020]

Tomlinson, P.D., Hobson, A.J. and Malderez, A., (2010) Mentoring in Teacher Education, International Encyclopedia of Education (Third Edition), Elsevier. p.753.

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