Teachers: How to Reclaim Your Resilience During Challenging Times

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Teachers around the world are experiencing the most stressful time of their careers. According to the UN, the Covid-19 pandemic has caused the “largest disruption of education systems in history affecting nearly 1.6 billion learners globally”. Teachers are feeling mental and physical exhaustion like never before.

At the Circulus Institute, we have observed this firsthand. We’ve met with international educators who have been separated from their children for six months or longer, kept from returning to their home country, or isolated in a new country and unable to leave their homes. Teachers’ sense of wellbeing is at an all-time low.

The good news is that even in stressful times, teachers can learn to be more resilient. In the past two decades, researchers have found practical, proven strategies for helping teachers improve their own sense of wellbeing. The evidence proves that resilience is not a personality trait we have or don’t have. Instead, it is a set of skills we can learn. These skills help us to cope, adapt, and become stronger over time.

There are three key elements to building these skills.
  1. Sharing our stories. Decades of research into healing from traumatic events tell us that to reclaim our wellbeing we need to reconstruct our narrative–to make sense of our own strengths during extreme stress.
  2. Agency – Our ability to focus on what we can control and let go of what we cannot. Unfortunately, we have little to no control over school closings or openings. But what can we control? We can focus on smaller, more attainable goals such as the impact we can have today on our students’ learning, not next month or next quarter. We can also say “no” more often if it helps us reach that smaller goal.
  3. Self-compassion – the extent to which we can be as kind and forgiving toward ourselves as we are to others. Given crises, trauma, or any sort of struggle, our instinct is to be self-critical rather than forgiving of ourselves. A simple but powerful exercise we can do is to write a “note to self”. What would a loved one say or do to support us in our time of crisis? We ask educators to write this down and keep it somewhere close by. This is a way to lean towards self-compassion and to actively decide to treat ourselves with more care.

Why are agency and self-compassion so important? Because teachers with these traits are more likely to feel efficacious: confident they are doing their job well and positively impacting their students. Teachers without these traits are more likely to reach burn-out or worse to leave the profession entirely. When we’ve focused on agency and self-compassion in our professional development courses, participants reported feeling “stronger than I thought I was” by the end of the course. Furthermore, the majority of participants reported a “greater appreciation for the value of their life” by the end.

Three things you can do right now
  1. First, plan to create a resilient practice throughout your weekly life. These can be acts of self-care such as a walk in a park, meditating, listening to music, or talking to family and friends online. This is not self-indulgence; it will build your capacity to be a better teacher.
  2. Second, find or create a community in your school where you feel safe to share your stories with others and to listen to their stories with empathy. You will find you are less alone, more connected, and much more resilient than you think. 
  3. Finally, talk to your school administrators about how they can incorporate teacher and staff wellbeing practices. For example, could you institute “Self-care Fridays” where once a month there are no synchronous classes scheduled and teachers and students are given more flexibility in how they spend their day? Could meetings start with a few breaths and a check-in? Could the school day start a little later so that teachers who are parents can have more time with their kids in the morning and so that all community members can catch up on sleep?

Though this is the hardest time of our teaching and schooling careers, there is a wealth of data that shows that resilience can improve when educator wellbeing initiatives are put into place. One of the few positive outcomes of this school year is that we are beginning to see a stronger commitment by schools to prioritize educator wellbeing. This is great news.

With small acts, we believe that teachers can become more resilient and feel more efficacious. Nothing is more important for the long-term health and sustainability of our schools, and most importantly, our students.

Oxford International curriculum

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About the authors

Ellen Mahoney is the CEO and co-founder of The Circulus Institute. She runs Sea Change Mentoring, which helps international schools build Mentoring, Advisory and SEL programs. Her expertise in e-mentoring has been featured in The Elements of Effective Practice. She is a contributing author and is an affiliated consultant for the Council of international Schools.

Kristin Daniel is the President and co-founder of the Circulus Institute. As a long time educator, adult education expert, international speaker, and researcher, Kristin discovers ways for educator well-being and professional development to intersect. She earned her doctorate at George Washington University, focusing on teacher resilience and efficacy.

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