Here’s the most important question for a school leader to ask as a new year starts: “How can I cultivate emotional resilience in teachers?” Resilience is the ability to bounce back after adversity, the ability to weather the storms in our lives. Like the meteorological events that will always roll across our terrains at predictable and unpredictable times, as long as we’re living, we’ll face expected and unexpected challenges. Change is the only thing we can count on, which means that we’ll always need to cultivate resilience.
Focusing on resilience as a goal also offers an opportunity to go beyond simply preventing burnout. Resilience is about not just surviving but thriving in life. And school leaders should be committed to creating the conditions in which educators can thrive. This might help retain teachers, and it may mean they’ll continue to be dedicated to growing their practice, cultivating warm and inviting classrooms, and volunteering to support and guide new teachers.
Here are five ways that principals can create the conditions in which resilience can flourish, helping educators (and kids) so they might thrive.
1. Accept emotions. Teaching is emotional labor. Human beings have emotions. When teachers demonstrate emotions, you don’t have to fix them. People often feel better when their emotions are simply acknowledged. You can say something simple like, “I can see that you’re feeling anxious,” or “I hear the frustration in your voice.” Make it OK to have feelings and OK to express them. Know that you may need to help people learn some ways to respond to and express their feelings in healthy ways. This speaks to your own emotional intelligence in that you can recognize other people’s feelings and manage your own feelings about their feelings. The emotional intelligence of a leader is a primary aspect of leadership, as Daniel Goleman discusses in his book Primal Leadership: Realizing the Power of Emotional Intelligence.
2. Prioritize improving relationships with students. When teacher burnout has been studied, student behavior has been the top complaint to which secondary teachers attributed their own burnout. We need to coach and guide teachers to reframe student behavior, to build relationships with kids, and to activate their empathy for students. Do this in simple ways in conversation, saying for example, “I hear that you felt disrespected when Cherrie rolled her eyes. Is there another way you could interpret her behavior? What do you think she might have been feeling?” A teacher who has poor management is a teacher who has weak relationships with students. Focus on what’s most within the teacher’s sphere of influence—his or her relationship with children.
3. Make it normal and acceptable to seek help. Teachers tend to keep their doubts and concerns about their practice from colleagues for fear of appearing vulnerable and inadequate. Create a climate in which asking questions, taking risks, making mistakes, and asking for advice is valued and appreciated. Model this yourself: Ask for advice, say you don’t know something, acknowledge the mistakes you’ve made, and share the risks you’re taking. And when you’re in a hard moment, ask yourself, “What can I learn from this challenge?” Simply asking that question can boost your resilience. Celebrate vulnerability, struggle, and growth. This is particularly relevant for new teachers, who need intensive inoculation in their first years of teaching from the stressors and challenges of the profession.
4. Build support structures between people. Some research indicates that support from a teacher’s peers or co-workers is the most important buffer against burnout. Then again, if you’ve ever had a fantastic, supportive network of colleagues, you don’t need this research to know that you not only managed the stress more easily but enjoyed work more. And remember: Joy should be our ultimate aim. School leaders, this research is liberating because it suggests that you don’t need to take care of everyone; you just need to build teams that can support each other, provide new teachers with coaches and mentors, and establish nets that teachers will fall into when they inevitably fall.
5. Foster a culture of appreciation. Here’s the top complaint teachers have about their principals: They don’t feel appreciated. Start the year by asking staff how they like to be appreciated and what they hope to be appreciated for, and ask for a few examples of things they did last year for which they wish they’d been acknowledged. Then make routine your appreciation of staff. And establish structures in meetings so that people can appreciate each other—and themselves. Know that you don’t have to do all the appreciating. In a healthy school culture, appreciation flows between teachers and children, parents and staff, staff and parents, and so on. It’s your job to get this culture going strong.
What might be possible this year if school leaders focused on boosting the resilience of staff? How might the experience of children change? How might your experience of leadership shift? I encourage you to consider boosting resilience as a focus for this new school year. It might also increase your own resilience.