Perhaps this has now become a cliché, but it’s worth reiterating that the jobs that today’s children will be doing when they’re adults haven’t even been invented yet. Meanwhile, successive governments making decisions about the direction and priorities in education seem to obstinately bury their heads in the sand and pretend that we can keep educating children like we did in the 19th century. As we can’t predict the future in a rapidly-changing world, wouldn’t it be more helpful if we ensured children are resilient, mentally-agile and able to navigate life and all its complexities, no matter what the future holds?
You may know Jaz Ampaw-Farr from her famous TEDxNorwichED talk ‘The power of everyday heroes’ - or perhaps from when she was fired from The Apprentice for a particularly daring move. Jaz is a teacher who has taken her survival of childhood abuse, including sexual assault, and has become an unstoppable force of resilience, positivity and passion.
It could perhaps be tempting to fall into a trap of repetitive teaching and learning; using tried and tested strategies that we know have helped students to be successful in the past. Whilst this has its positives, and often offers reassurance, the beauty of being in this profession is the organic nature that is teaching and learning. You’ve got to love how new topics, skills and emerging student needs can create opportunities to adapt or rethink the resources or strategies that we use.
There are several words that I don’t feel get the usage in day-to-day conversation they deserve – ‘determination’, ‘empathy’, ‘bravery’, for instance. However, the word that perhaps evokes the most powerful ‘do I have that?’ feeling is ‘resilience’.
Until our resilience is tested, we never really give it a lot of thought, we just merrily continue through life without actually knowing whether or not we indeed possess it. So what happens if our mettle is tested if we don’t have resilience?
Let’s rewind several years, to when my resilience was truly tested to the max, and I failed - miserably! Ill health - a cancer diagnosis, totally out-of-the-blue - led me to enter an abyss of physical and mental pain, a downward spiral that led me into a chasm of hopelessness and despair. And I don’t say that lightly - I was very psychologically fragile for quite some of time.
Consequently I ascertained that I indeed didn’t have ownership of any resilience, I had nothing to fight with, nothing to correlate this gargantuan event too, and I continued to plummet.
It was suggested by a medical professional that I needed some psychological support: I needed therapy. So following a referral to the psycho-oncologists at our local cancer centre, and a telling short fortnight wait, I began the start of my recovery, and finding my resilience. It did not happen overnight. There were many frustrating therapy sessions (both for me and my wonderful therapist), but perseverance - on both our parts - ensured that a way forward was discovered, I was able to keep going, and I began to dare to dream that I could step out of the quagmire that I had been wading through for what seemed like forever.“I was excited at the prospect of creating a new life.”
Now armed with resilience, I persisted with therapy, not only enabling me to feel free from the boggy river I found myself in, but to step out onto the sunny river bank at the other side. I had the fight back; close family and friends had resigned themselves to the fact that they would never see the ‘old me’, and so had I. But suddenly, as the clouds parted and I could see the sun and the stars again, not only did I see and feel aspects of ‘my previous life’, but I was excited at the prospect of creating a new one – my ‘new normal’ as I called it. What this consisted of is a positive mindset, an appreciation of each and every moment I was in, acceptance of what had happened and not reflecting on my own past with sombreness or the future with trepidation, but with hope and excitement, and of course resilience.
Possessing resilience in this form is undoubtedly life-changing; the ability to bounce back when something difficult is thrown our way, is an invaluable asset for any person, both old and young. Therefore, teaching our children about it now, during their formative years, can make an enormous difference to how they tackle the obstacles that life will undoubtedly thrown their way, as they advance their way to adulthood. I often wonder if my spirit and fortitude had been tested as a youngster, that I would have coped better.
Reasons for children to develop resilience throughout each school year are shown in the difficulties they may encounter, not only in their childhood, through adolescence and on into being an adult:
Developing a child’s resilience from Day One enables them to be braver, more adaptable, live with curiosity and will ensure that they can advance through life in an independent, motivated and optimistic fashion. They will have the tools to strengthen relationships that will make certain that they forever feel they have somewhere to turn – which is imperative for building resilience.
If we imagine resilience is like a muscle, the more you use it, the stronger it will become. We as adults need to guide pupils to not let the little issues define their day, week or even their lives.
Throughout the school year, we must encourage them to find solutions to problems, and not to let the problems ‘take hold’, which in turn can lead to weakening their ‘muscle'. If a child does not recognise this, it can lead to a child’s mood beginning to decline, and consequently to them feeling negative which can negate the resilience they may have begun to build up. By utilising positive self-talk - ‘I can do that’, ‘I will make this situation better’ “We must encourage pupils to find solutions to problems.”
and so on - can prevent a child seeing a situation as an insurmountable problem, and will begin to flex their resilient ‘muscle’.
Once a child has established that using resilience every day is a crucial part of living with a positive mindset, they must then endeavour to continue to sustain it. There are many methods that teachers should encourage and develop, in themselves and in pupils:
With these in mind, if we stop using the resilience muscle, in time it will become weaker and will surrender to heavy weight. Therefore, children need to tackle problems throughout the school year; not avoid, not shy away, not let issues grind them down, but to face them head on, find their own solutions in order to develop this important aspect of their personality make-up.
Now, having built my resilience over the past years, I now have the ability not only to help myself, but to help others around me too. I recognise that sometimes, on my stronger days, that I almost feel like I have a surplus of resilience and determination – an ‘I can fight the world today’ kind of feeling. It’s at that point where I can pass my strength on to others. It’s not always easy, because on some days I certainly enter a deficit of resilience – then I can feel weak and defenceless, but I can tap into my ‘reserves’ and fight right back.
So of course when my resilience does get tested, I take all those strategies that I have developed over time, and use them to bounce back - although I like to call it ‘bouncing forward’! That is the great importance of possessing resilience – it can stay with you forever, but you must use it whenever you can, build upon it, be aware that you are using it, find your own solutions, communicate well, develop self-compassion and go and enjoy life like never before. I do, and when I sit and reflect, I can’t believe how far I have come, and for that I am incredibly grateful and still – to this day, I am full of fight, determination and of course – resilience.
How will you develop resilience in yourself and pupils throughout the year?
Have you ever wondered why some teachers seem to get less stressed than others?
Maybe they have better behaved students or they just work in a 'nicer' school. Both answers are plausible. However, a much more likely explanation is that your stress-free colleagues are more resilient than you.
Resilience is what makes the difference between success and failure, and also between stress and serenity. It’s crucial for your wellbeing and performance.
By growing your own level of resilience you will find you have more energy and enthusiasm to help your students achieve more too! Here are a few simple strategies:
A resilient learner is not one that plugs away, writing everything down and not seeming to mind if they continue to get the same grade. Neither, obviously, is a resilient learner the pupil that sits in the class impervious to any form of learning going on around them.
Resilience for me is about the acts of reflection and action that follow a challenge. Both teachers and pupils face constant challenges through their school careers and resilience is something that we both need if we are going to survive with a degree of happiness and success. I am not writing this, you understand, because it is a characteristic Ofsted would like to see, but because resilience in learning should be an aim for its own sake.