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Resilience for Teachers

December 17, 2019

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Resilience became a buzzword in classrooms across the land in regards to students, but it really needs to be common among adults in conversations about our own personal emotional health. 

Don’t believe that? Well, here’s a little detail that may change your mind: the first ingredient for building resilience is stress. See that? You’re on your way!

Defining Resilience

Psychologists say resilience key to building and maintaining long-term mental health. It’s the thing that cultivates grit (another buzzword which describes an excellent tool for people of all ages).  Resilience can informally measure and determine how well you respond to stress, conflict, and adversity. 

The only way to really build your resilience is by mentally preparing for, then experiencing stress and difficulty. 

Here are some of the other things that help create and maintain resilience. 

Optimism

Optimism is not a blind, unrealistic belief that everything in the world is good and perfect. A healthy optimism is a more practical view, choosing to believe that the positive is possible. 

Optimism is most valuable to resilience when it’s applied to one’s own abilities and the skill set of the community they belong to. Believing that you can overcome difficulties, or grow from failure, or use the resources in your community’s collective toolbox gives you the strength to actually do the work of overcoming. Optimism is the energy of success, and in turn, success creates more optimism. 

In order to build resilience, you have to be willing to face challenges and view them as opportunities that provide the experiences necessary for growth and personal development.

The Refusal to Label Yourself a Victim

Difficulties happen to everyone, but when you’re going through a rough patch, it’s easy to place your focus on the difficulty rather than taking stock of your own strengths. At times, we create a mentality that we cannot possibly win, that the system is rigged, or that bad things will happen no matter how hard we work or what we do. 

In short, we place ourselves in a victim role and get comfortable with losing or being taken advantage of. We feel we are alone in our victimization, and everyone around us has some advantage to which we don’t have access.

To be clear, labeling oneself as a victim is not the same as experiencing emotions.

When tragedy, challenge, and problems arise, you WILL have strong emotions (if you don’t, you need to seek therapy ASAP because something is not right). You may feel frustration, anger, or sadness. You may grieve. 

These strong emotions don’t always go away immediately, either. You may feel this way for days, weeks, and sometimes even months (although if you feel your emotions are sticking around too long or aren’t in proper proportion to your difficulty, seek help - you may be dealing with depression and need some assistance working through it).

However, rather than settling in and determine that all of life is misery and heartache, resilient people feel their emotions, then pick themselves up and take responsibility for finding answers, using their strengths, creating solutions, and working on new ways to do things. 

Even when every last bit of what you’ve built turns to dust and crumbles away in the wind, a resilient person grieves with one eye open for something good, or at the very least something that can be built upon so they can work toward creating something new. 

The Ability to Regulate Emotions

Many people try their best to not feel. Negative emotions are very out of fashion these days, but experts say that is extremely unhealthy. Successful people feel those same emotions but are able to recognize things like anger and sadness, release them in a productive way, and then use the energy they create to fuel them in their work toward something positive.

Feeling strong emotions indicates humanity, not failure. Emotions are part of who we are, and they exist to protect us, just like fever and physical pain. When strong emotions are triggered frequently and quickly rise to the surface, they become an indication that something in the system is in need of attention.

If you ignore those feelings long enough, your system will create a new way to deal with triggers - either by shortening the fuse to your emotions or by making it very difficult to ever feel them at all.

When you recognize your emotions and allow yourself to just “sit” with them - feel your feelings and pay attention to what they are trying to alert you to - your emotions will become excellent indicators. You can start to rely on them more to let you know that things are not quite right. They are also much less likely to be incredibly demanding of your time and attention or to abandon you completely.

What Resilience is not

Resilience is not perfectionism. It’s owning the fact that we all have flaws and sometimes fail. It makes even those times valuable. Resilience is respecting failure as a valid, necessary part of learning. It is born from a growth mindset, not a set of rigid beliefs. 

It’s not pretending that failure is okay when it’s really upsetting, either. It’s not denying that discovering your flaws, especially when they are pointed out to you by someone else, can be painful. 

Failure can be incredibly painful. Resilience makes it okay to recognize that.

But grit is built when you appreciate the pain as something that’s helping you grow. It's an exercise for the soul. It’s not pleasant, and normal people don’t necessarily enjoy it, but it is beneficial.

Being a resilient educator means you don’t blame yourself for setbacks. You don’t beat yourself up over every loss. You don’t hold yourself responsible for things that are outside your control. Instead, you gather up all the information, take into account all of the factors, and start replacing flawed components of a plan with new ideas that may get you better results in the future.

Transforming the Abstract into a Helpful To-Do List

Feel your feelings. 

Write them out, tell them to a trusted colleague, explain them to your pet, or exercise through them. Any of these will work. Some people make mood trackers, coloring in squares or objects to keep track of what they feel and when. Other people call their mom, dad, sister, brother, or bestie to talk about things. Some work on mechanical things to take the pressure off until they are able to think through a situation.

Whatever you’re coping skill, be sure it’s healthy and not harmful, and use it frequently. 

Reframe your experiences. 

    Sometimes you need to take a different perspective. People who are able to do this are using a growth mindset. They are disappointed when they aren’t able to do something, but rather than assuming the failure is forever, they view it as “I can’t do that YET.”

    When faced with adversity, rather than catastrophizing, acknowledge the situation, feel your feelings, but don’t look at it as the end result. Change the experience from “This terrible thing happened.,” to “This terrible thing happened, and here’s how I will handle this,” or “...here’s the positive thing I can take from the experience.”

    People who can’t reframe tell themselves negative things over and over again. Your negative things may be, “I cannot do this,” or “These kids never listen to me,” before you even start trying or speaking to them. When you tell yourself you are going to be unsuccessful, you are most likely going to fulfill that 100% of the time.

    Write down your thoughts when something is going poorly. Are you telling yourself the same negative message over and over again? Just try changing it a little.

    Instead of saying “I cannot do this,” just say “I CAN do this.” Every time you’re tempted to tell yourself the negative “story”, replace it with the positive one. You will be amazed at how your brain responds. It’s a huge relief.

    When you open the door for possibility to sneak in just a little, your whole view can change. 

    Build your village. 

      Even introverts cannot survive alone. Find people you trust, talk to them, ask them for advice or encouragement, and offer them the same. It takes some vulnerability, but it is freeing.

      Remember that people are all kind of weird. They are all imperfect. Offer them grace in their imperfections, and find the good they can bring to the table. 

      Your village is going to look different from everyone else’s. That’s ok. Your people are not going to do things the exact same way as everyone else’s. You can still respect everyone. Your village may only be you and one other person. Don’t force it to expand, but be willing to open the ranks when someone new comes by who may be a good fit.

      Your village may gain and lose members yearly, or perhaps it will stay close to the same for your whole career. Accept things either way. People come into our lives and leave them naturally. Don’t hold on to someone when it’s their time to go, and don’t force someone to go when they need to stay. 

      Don’t make mountains out of molehills. 

      Just as resilience can be built, you can decrease your resilience by giving stressful situations too much importance. 

      Be careful not to terrorize yourself. If you are prone to excessive worry, choose to contain the time and energy you spend on that.  

      Have you ever asked someone if they are okay until they get mad and tell you they were okay until you started asking them if they were okay? Has anyone ever done that to you? 

      Some things are far less important than we make them out to be. Check your “temperature” gauges. Be sure that the things you think are mountains are not just tiny molehills that you are allowing your mind and body to react to. Don’t imagine an angry adult bear around every corner when what you’re really facing are happy, well-fed cubs.

      Limit your venting sessions. 

      Use a timer if you have to. 

      Talk until you start to feel your body get warmer, or your blood pressure rising, or like the room is getting smaller. Talk until you start to repeat yourself and rant. Talk until you’re mad enough to not be able to think of any more words and you just start making things up. 

      Then glance at your timer. How long did it take for your emotions to outwit your brain and cause you to physically react? Whatever your time limit is, start using that as your “negativity” time. Complain all you want for just under those few minutes. 

      When time’s up, DO NOT KEEP COMPLAINING, even if you don’t think you’re done.

      Then, move on to number 6. 

      Make a reasonable, realistic plan. 

      Even making a plan to think about how to make a plan, or what could work as steps in a plan, is more productive than continuing to complain yourself into a corner.

      Planning is incredibly empowering.

      You may not have any answers or know what to do, and that’s ok. Giving yourself some sort of parameter about how long you’ll think about ideas before asking for help, or even making the first step in the plan “1. Ask for help,” will work as the first step. 

      Once you’ve made a plan, follow through. It may not feel like your most brilliant idea, but you don’t always really know if something will work until you’ve tried it. Sometimes a failed plan is an excellent fertilizer for the seeds of a much better idea.

      You can’t change the fact that you’ve failed, or someone has thwarted what you thought was a very good idea, or that circumstances weren’t in your favor this time. You CAN reinvent yourself, wait for better timing, or find a new way that is thwart-proof. Trying again doesn’t mean you’ll have the same frustrating results again.

      It’s within your power to grow and change from that challenge. You can build your resilience. You can make your pain and trouble work to make you a better person. You know that it’s true because you see students doing it every day. 

        Here are some resources we used in writing this article and which do a great job at furthering the discussion on resilience. 

        https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/basics/resilience


        https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-resilience-2795059


        https://www.newyorker.com/science/maria-konnikova/the-secret-formula-for-resilience


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