Let’s talk about teacher resilience
Juliana Tavares

Winter vacation has arrived and most teachers I know have been waiting for this well-deserved break for a while. In fact, some teachers I know have been counting the days since February. That’s right – since the beginning of the school year. What does that say about teaching these days? It says the obvious: being a teacher in our country is not for the weak. Truth is being a teacher is no joke in many places in the world. The problems might be a bit different, but it all comes down to the fact that working in a classroom with so many needs, personalities, and issues on a daily basis is a job for those who know how to be tough and resilient.

In the words of Elena Aguilar (see her video here), “resilience is the ability to experience a setback, and then spring farther along because of it”. In other words, resilient people know how to make a killing caipirinha after being given a few sour limes. They know how to make the best out of every situation.

Of course, enthusiasm and passion for what you do are among the top five features of successful and happy teachers. Without those, no one can thrive in any profession, but it is quite naïve to assume this is enough to get you through. I have seen many good, passionate professionals give up teaching because these attributes, though essential, may run out if you don’t cultivate them. Without resilience, it is not likely one can keep excelling at their job, especially, as Gu and Day (2013) have pointed out, in a context in “which roles have become diversified and intensified and workloads of teachers have increased” (p.22). The authors also mention the importance given by the government to performance tests and results, as well as the increasing demands teachers have to cope with. Does that sound familiar to you at all?

English teachers in Brazil have also had to deal with a great deal of neglect both in public and private schools. Although we have seen many changes in the past years, English is still considered a less important subject; many students, especially in public schools, still see it as something impossible to be learned in school, and therefore have little motivation to put any effort into it. Add the historical government disregard for education and complete lack of effort to improve wages and working conditions, and you have yourself an extremely challenging context.

That is why teaching is one of the jobs that receives the greatest benefits from resilience. Being emotionally resilient is an essential asset for teachers, but unfortunately is one we are not necessarily born with. Elena Aguilar is also the author of the book Onward – Cultivating Emotional Resilience in Educators, and she describes different ways we can learn how to be resilient and how we can exercise them throughout the year.

Among the lessons she teaches in her book, we can highlight the idea that we learn how to become resilient by cultivating our beliefs and our strength; we help one another build resilience by collaboration, listening, and support; and we keep this precious attribute by a continuous process of self-knowledge. The more we know ourselves, the more confidence and self-esteem we have. The more we understand our values and the reasons why we got into teaching, the more chances we have to keep on doing a great job despite the adversities.

Another crucial aspect of resilient teachers is the ability to understand, accept, and deal appropriately with their emotions. I think this is a particularly interesting one, not only because knowing how to acknowledge and expresses emotions can prevent burnout, but because it can also help us deal with our students’ emotions. Part of what we call 21st Century Education gives non-cognitive skills as much importance as any other subject. However, how are we to teach our students how to develop them if we don’t have that ability ourselves?

The author also talks about the importance of cultivating our own well-being in the process of building resilience. This seems obvious, but the number of teachers who take it for granted is striking. It can be the smallest things: taking a weekend away, reading for pleasure, watching a movie with a friend, getting a massage, or taking up a hobby: what really matters is doing it for you and enjoying every minute of it.

Finally, the most precious advice the book gave me was this: we build resilience not to be able to handle problems beyond our reach; we build resilience to be able to fight the problems, to demand action, and to keep doing a great job despite the problems we cannot solve alone. Some issues will never go away and some are beyond our control. But we must go on being happy with the profession we chose. We must be able to reinvent ourselves when we feel things are too tiring or heavy. That is what resilience is about. Have a wonderful break!


References:
http://www.onwardthebook.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/Habits-and-Dispositions.pdf
Gu, Q.; Day, C. Challenges to Teach Resilience. Conditions Count. Available at:
https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/01411926.2011.623152

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