Building Resilience as a New Teacher
An early-career teacher shares strategies for responding with grace to three difficult issues new teachers may face.
Whether they involve angry words from a student, an assessment that results in an average grade of D, or collaboration with a colleague gone wrong, there are moments that knock early-career teachers like me flat.
In my short career, I’ve realized that in order to bounce back with grace, I needed strategies to cope with issues like these. Resilience is a necessity for a young teacher.
Roses and Thorns
When tension rises in a class—whether it stems from a conflict between students or miscommunication between the teacher and the class—the stress can be palpable. I use a strategy I call Roses and Thorns as both a preventative measure and a way to encourage productive conflict resolution and self-advocacy.
I have students begin by journaling their positive moments (“roses”) and negative ones (“thorns”) from the week.
After they write, I facilitate a discussion, beginning with the thorns. Students often share issues from other classes or their home life, or in-class challenges. I encourage their classmates to pose thoughtful questions, make empathetic comments, or offer solutions to manageable problems. I often make notes to check in on certain students or send appropriate emails to counselors or guardians. As students become more comfortable with these discussions, I take a backseat.
Sometimes I’m the one responsible for coming up with a solution, if the class feels that a concept was not thoroughly taught, or that I didn’t allow enough work time on a project. I listen to their concerns carefully, and prompt them to advocate for appropriate solutions. While I may not always be able to give them exactly what they ask for, I try to address their concerns and find a way to move forward.
When two students have an issue or a conflict, I generally try to foster independence by leaving it up to them to work it out. However, if it’s a question of student A feeling uncomfortable with something student B said, I’ll check in with A privately a few times to make sure that they feel safe and that they’re taking steps toward resolving things with B. Some problems call for a mediation session between me and the students or a school counselor and the students.
We always end with our roses—positive moments from the week, both in class and out. The sharing of triumphs of their competitive teams, an expected good grade, or the anticipation of a weekend road trip allows us to bounce back from the stress of the week and the challenges students have faced.
Last year, I graded a test only for it to result in a devastating D average across all of my sections, so something was wrong with either my instruction or the assessment, or the students’ approach to the test.
The first step was to pinpoint the problem—redoing the whole test would be inefficient for both my students and my grading routine, so locating the problem was crucial. The test had several components: multiple-choice questions, short-answer questions that required textual evidence, and a short analysis of a passage from our recent reading.
It turned out that students had struggled the most with the textual evidence section, so I reviewed my lesson plans on that skill, in preparation for reteaching it. Then I returned the test to my students, modeling healthy and productive problem solving. I revealed my disappointment, but didn’t blame myself or them—I simply explained that my expectations for the assessment had not been met and that we would redo it.
Using a mini-lesson format, I retaught the use of textual evidence and reiterated my expectations for the work. I was able to answer student questions during this time as well. The redo assessment showed me that they could now use the skill effectively.
Passionate educators are truly a gift to the profession. They drive innovation, but with creative minds come challenges in compromise. Square One, a strategy my school uses at both departmental and faculty meetings, is an excellent way to bounce back from heated discussions or arguments over the conference table.
We begin our meetings by composing goals for our collaborative time in order to be as productive as possible. The goals are simple, reasonable, and focused on student achievement. We display them at the front of the room for the entirety of the meeting. And at the end of each discussion, we return to square one: Which goals did we accomplish?
Square One is also a way to bounce back from teacher conflict: When the conversation becomes heated and we feel the tension rising, often one person will point out our goals and ask if the discussion is focused on them. If the answer is yes, this question has still served as a reminder to remain civil. However, if a teacher has been showboating or if two teachers are using the discussion to air out petty grievances, the question gives us a chance to let go and return to square one.
Resilience is a skill that we teachers must develop throughout our careers. We have the good fortune to do creative and inspiring academic work, but we also need to foster students’ social and emotional growth. When we model for them our ability to bounce back from even the most difficult challenges, we grow as a community together.