Looking after our teachers - Resilience in uncertain times

Andrew Fuller

Over the past month, teachers have been heroic as they have ‘pivoted’ (to employ the popular term) their entire educational offerings. An enormous effort. BUT – the wear and tear is starting to show. Some are suffering virtual exhaustion, others of us are at risk of becoming ‘zoombies’. 

If there ever was any doubt that teachers are among our country’s frontline workers, it is now dispelled. 

We need to care better for all of our teachers. They curate our future. 

Research shows there are 3 big factors that reliably create the resilience that help people through tough times and they have nothing to do with gratitude or empathy or mindfulness (all good things to have, mind you, but I can’t find any research that links them with resilience). 

If we look at how people who have thrived after serious hardships – holocaust, pandemics, concentration camps, kidnappings, prolonged neglect and deprivation – three factors stand out as helping them through: re-adjust, re-align and re-invent. 

Re-adjust 

It takes time to re-adjust to major changes and it requires looking reality fair and square in the eye. It really is what it is. These really are crazy times. 

This is not some glossed up, optimistic version of, ‘everything will be all right by next week/term/year’. A positive mindset that is not supported by an appreciation of reality does not serve people well. Typically, optimists who make these sorts of predictions, fall apart when the timeframe they set doesn’t eventuate. 

Life really is tough in these times and none of us knows exactly how long this will last. 

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While it is tempting to be like an ostrich and put our heads in the sand, it is better to model yourself on the meerkat – upright, aware, observing and orienting. 

Ask yourself, ‘Do I truly understand and accept the reality of the situation? Does my school?’ Do this by keeping informed by high-quality sources and ignoring the endless barrage of conjecture that surges in times like these. 

Some of your colleagues will slip into denial, don’t join them. Some may be unwisely reckless while others take a doom and gloom perspective. Respect that everyone has their own triggers and will respond in different ways to these times. 

For those who feel less preoccupied by the busy ‘to-do’ list of work, there can be a backwash of unprocessed emotions. Some may experience vivid and unsettling dreams. Others may find small past incidents that seemed trivial at the time re-emerge as issues. Helping people to process their feelings is helpful for their long-term resilience. 

Rather than asking people how they are feeling about these times, it is often better to ask them to tell you what they think is the best and the worst part of it for them? 

This is about processing, not correction. You are not likely to change their viewpoint so don’t waste your time trying. 

Denial may feel like it is fun and relaxing but in the long term will not serve you well. The best way to cope with this is still, not to get the virus. 

One form of denial involves ‘platitudes of gratitude’ such as, ‘isn’t it wonderful we can all be at home and have virtual dinner parties?’ While there are opportunities to be found in adverse times, glibly overlooking the challenges of these times will lessen your ability to adapt to changes as they become necessary. 

Facing reality is gruelling work and re-adjusting your life is emotionally wrenching. Expect to feel exhaustedExpect to have some good days but also accept that we will all have some tough days. 

In times of disconnection, we need to work harder to create belonging. Reach out to people. Increase your reach. If you typically connect with a small group, consider broadening your circle of contacts. Think about who might be feeling especially disconnected or alone and give them a call. 

Re-align 

At these times some people throw their arms in the air and cry, ‘Why me?’ It is much more powerful to regard yourself as a participant in recovery rather than a victim of circumstance. 

Victims become helpless, lose hope and feel higher levels of despair and anxiety. Resilient people return to the process of creating a great life for themselves and the people around them. 

Re-align yourself with your core values as well as with the things that boost your immune system and nourish your life. Sleep, diet, rest, healthy food, fun and contributing to the people who are important to you are all essential ingredients. 

Build a bridge from the current hardships to a better future. Do meaningful activities that utilise your expertise. Find ways to make the most of increased time-in and less time-out. 

One way to do this is to conduct a ‘check-up from the neck-up’. As yourself, what have I neglected in my rush to deal with my job and with the world? What have I suppressed in me through that degree of busy-ness? Can I give myself the freedom to re-awaken those neglected parts of myself? 

Take the time to get to know your students even better. Happy teachers get along well with the people they spend most of their time with – their students. Discover your students character strengths, learning strengths and interests. Ask them to share their thoughts about the best and worst aspects of this time. Ask them what sorts of support would be helpful for them. Deepening your connection to your students will increase your effectiveness and your job satisfaction. 

Deepening relationships does not mean rushing around taking care of everyone. If we feel we need to ‘fix’ others, we take on their burden and can rob them of an opportunity to take responsibility for themselves. This is a sure path to compassion fatigue and burnout. 

Linking with students in a positive way at this time can forge bonds for the future. Ask them also to tell you what’s great and what sucks about this time. (You’ll get to hear more about what sucks). Remember your aim is to connect and understand, not to fix. You don’t have to have the answers. It is enough to have the caring and the questions. 

Some of your students have been training for an online lifestyle for years and will adapt well. Others will be more needy. None of us has all the answers that we would like to have. Help where you can but don’t feel you can provide reassurance that you don’t feel you have yourself. 

Apply CPR to your own personal relationships – connect, protect and respect. In ‘The Revolutionary Art of Changing Your Heart’ I suggested two main ideas to develop this: Firstly, look at the people close to you and think ‘I am so lucky to have you in my life. 

Secondly, take on responsibility for creating better relationships by taking on a position that if you have a problem, we have a problem (and I have a role in helping fix it). 

Find the things that give your life meaning and do them. A role model we all have for this is Viktor Frankl who survived internment in concentration camps by finding meaning even when times seemed hopeless. It is often by contributing to others that we increase our happiness and the sense of meaning in our lives. 

There may be an opportunity to provide more powerful learning experiences. NAPLAN is suspended, assessments are less intensive and Year 12 exams are delayed. Consider how to use these freedoms to create meaningful work that you can really believe in. 

Re-invent 

Some of our most imaginative solutions had their origins in the toughest times in history. 

Life is an improvisational art. Resilience is the ability to flexibly respond to whatever life throws at you. 

While you will hear stories of great scientific insights occurring in times of isolation, don’t pressure yourself to be creative at the moment. 

Teachers have had a particularly rough time. They have worked incredibly hard, transforming education into online learning. Some have not had a proper break since the start of the academic year. Some will have been away from their usual workplaces and colleagues for an extended period. It may be that the schools they return to may not always resemble the schools they left. 

When teachers and their students do return to school, expect that everyone (staff, parents and students) will all need to go through the process of re-adjusting then re-aligning before re-inventing. 

Flexibility allows you to be inventive and creative. For teachers who fear the class time their students will lose this year, I have one question for you, ‘How much of your own schooling do you really remember?’ If your answer is 60% or more, you are doing better than most. Of the 13 years of school available to be completed, about 5 years is wiped from the memory banks. I would be the first to say there is much more to school than just knowledge recalled. Even so, 5 years! Deep breaths. Relax. 

By facing the reality of being in uncertain times, doing what is meaningful and takes cares of others and most importantly ourselves, we can go forward and together create an improved form of learning. 

For a moment, time travel into your future. Ask yourself, ‘How do I want to look back on these times?’ No doubt there will recollections of loss and sadness. Will you relate stories of deprivation, fear and hardships or will you tell a tale of renewal and re-invention? Take care and nourish your spirit. Think about what makes you come alive and go and do it. 

 

Andrew’s books include: Your Best Life At Any Age and Unlocking Your Child’s Genius