George Lucas Educational Foundation
Professional Learning

How Educators Can Manage Stress and Build Resilience

September 23, 2015

I want to introduce a strategy to cultivate emotional resilience by asking you to recall the movie, The Wizard of Oz. Remember the scene where Dorothy awakens in the land of Oz and everything is in color? I would like to offer you a strategy that might result in the same perspective shift in your classroom.

This was what happened to me after applying this strategy during a hard year. After teaching elementary children for a number of years, I became a middle school teacher at a new school. I needed to quickly acquire a massive new skill set. The stakes were high, and I was often exhausted. Midway through this year, I began a teacher inquiry project around my students' attitudes towards reading. Where I had previously noticed little growth in my students' skill set or attitudes, I quickly became aware of micro-moments of constant growth and positive change. As I listened to my students and observed them, I was stunned by the abundance of hope. It had been there all along. I knew it; I just hadn't noticed it.

A Resilience-Building Skill

Noticing the micro-moments of hope, growth, beauty, and inspiration is a key resilience-building skill. There are moments every single day, thousands of them (I'm sure of it!) that affirm that students are learning, persevering, and building community with each other. One of our jobs is to notice these, to name them, and to highlight them.

This is essential because the noticing means we will feel better. And this is important, very, very important. The work of teaching and leading in schools is very, very hard. Every day, we need massive doses of hope and inspiration. We need to counter the discouraging so-called data we see and hear every day.

Some of the discouraging data is real in the sense that there's a lot to be done in our education system so that we can meet the needs of our students. But we also need to contend with our brain, and our brains are wired to notice the things that aren't working. Our brains are like Teflon for positive thoughts, and for negative thoughts, our brains are like Velcro. This is the way they are wired -- a by-product of our evolution as a species.

The good news about our brains is that we can rewire them. We can train them to notice the positive.

Try This Exercise

So how do you rewire your brain? How do you use this strategy to increase your well-being and boost your resilience?

Starting tomorrow, imagine switching on a scanner in your mind that will be on all day and will highlight every moment of success, hope, growth, beauty, awe, and inspiration. It will be on as you walk into your building and classroom, as students arrive, as you greet them, and so on. Spend a minute making sure your mind's scanner is on before you leave home.

During the day, as your mind notices these hopeful moments, your job is to pay attention for just a couple seconds and register the observation. You might say something to yourself like: "Lupe smiled at me as she walked in;" "Demonte has his pencil out;" "Jack offered Joaquin a snack;" or, "I feel grateful to work with these kids." Notice the moments, and name what you see and feel.

Give yourself bonus points if you write some of these observations down -- either during the day or at the end. A word or phrase that captures them is enough. Try this for a week, and notice how you feel.

The hardest part of this practice is to remember to do it. Consider writing reminder notes and posting them around your room: "Notice the growth." You can set an alarm on your phone to go off every hour to prompt you to find something that's going well. You might also narrow your focus each day. For example, one day, set an intention to notice successes with one specific student, or perhaps a challenging period. Another day, try noticing moments of joy or calm. You can focus on finding those moments during lunch or recess. Narrowing your focus can help.

Enter into this experiment with the wonder that Dorothy had when she landed in Oz, with excitement and curiosity. Noticing the moments when your students are learning, when you're feeling good about teaching, or when you feel connected to others will boost your resilience. Just try it.

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