I thought it seemed timely to think about beginning teacher resilience this week as you grapple with how to manage the many demands of being a teacher!
There is a lot of negative press around about teaching at the moment and how tough it is and I am not sure how helpful that is! Of course, it isn’t easy to become a teacher and learning to teach is very complex but (and I hope you would agree!) it is also hugely enjoyable and rewarding and it is important at the end of a day you hold on to this, retaining your beliefs, values and enthusiasm!
A key factor in whether a beginning teacher is able to manage the complexities and the tensions they sometimes face (and enjoy their experiences) is their resilience during these points in their journey.
But, what do we mean by resilience?
Up until now you may have thought of resilience as something you either have or have not got, or something you must develop all by yourself. The word resilience comes from the Latin word ‘resalire’ which means ‘springing back’- this doesn’t seem particularly helpful in relation to teaching as it adds to the idea that you have to be tough and cope with difficult moments by instantly bouncing back and soldiering on.
This way of thinking about resilience and coping can seem very scary …. and feed negative and unhelpful thoughts:
‘Everyone else seems to be coping – why can they do it and I can’t? Why am I the only one finding this hard?’
‘I have to get this sorted all by myself and not tell anyone what I am struggling with because they will judge me and think I can’t cope’
‘I can’t share what is happening outside of school with anyone as they will think I am trying to find excuses or seek special treatment’
In 2006, Professor Chris Day and colleagues undertook a large scale exploration of teachers’ work, life and effectiveness and what factors affected this. One element of what the project found that I think is particular relevant to beginning teachers is the idea that if different aspects of your identity are in balance it is much easier to be effective than when they are not.
Day et al explored teachers’ identity defining this as:
‘The way we make sense of ourselves to ourselves and the image of ourselves which we present to others’ (p 144).
They suggested that ‘identity itself is a composite consisting of interactions between personal, professional and situational factors. Each composite identity is made up of sub or competing identities’ (p149). They suggested these sub identities are: professional identity, situated identity, personal identity.
In relation to your situation, I think a way you might think of these is:
1) Professional identity – understanding what constitutes a good teacher and feeling confident about your ability as a teacher.
2) Situated identity – how you feel in your current placement, your relationships with staff and pupils and the support and feedback you are receiving.
3) Personal identity – this is based with life outside of school and the roles you play in this area of your life (partner, friend, son, daughter, parent, carer, etc).
The project argued that ‘each dimension of identity is subject to a number of positive and negative influences. It is the degree of dominance which these influences have on each dimension of identity and the way teachers manage them which determine the relative stability or instability of teachers’ composite identities and whether these are positive or negative’ (p149). Through an exploration of case studies of teachers, the project identified that if these different identities were in equilibrium then a teacher is likely to feel stable and effective. Where one or two sub-identities are dominant, or where all three are in conflict, a teacher is likely to be vulnerable.
If you consider your situation this year, I think thinking about these different domains of your identity can really help you stand back and appreciate why things are so challenging:
Of course your professional identity is dominant at the moment – you are developing as a teacher, you have lots of questions and probably very few answers!
Of course your situated identity is a key concern – how you are getting on with pupils and school colleagues is a massive part of your day to day existence at the moment. We also know that, just as you are getting to grips with this, it will be coming to an end and you will have to start again after Christmas!
In terms of personal identity and life outside of school, this is bound to be affected by the course. You will have less time to spend with those you care about, you will be distracted at times, maybe tired and grumpy?! It is no surprise this might result in tensions at times.
With so much happening in relation to all aspects of your identity it is not surprising there are moments when you feel conflicted or vulnerable.
Why am I sharing this? I am not offering you answers at this point (sorry!), just trying to help you take a step back and accept that it makes sense if things are difficult and hard work at times. Gradually, as the year goes on, there should be more balance and just knowing that how you are feeling is normal, and there are reasons why you are feeling like you do, might be of help.
A lot has been written about the resilience of trainee teachers, and those in the early years of their career, and what you will, hopefully, find particularly comforting about many of those who write (for example Rosie Le Cornu or Qing Gu) is that they do not suggest resilience is something that is innate. Instead they talk about the need for a culture that supports beginning teachers to develop resilience and that we have to work together to enable you to become confident and develop in this area.
So, what do you do if you are going through a point where you feel a little overwhelmed?
Don’t be surprised! You have worked really hard since September and are on the go all the time – be kind to yourself and accept that it is ok to have a wobbly moment!
Tell us! Talk to your tutor about how you are feeling and allow us to offer you a ‘space’ where you can talk through what is going on in your head without being judged. You will find, through such discussions, you are able to make sense of what is happening and plan strategies to move forward.
Returning to Day et al’s work, it is worth thinking a moment about your personal identity and life outside of the course. Often people think this is not relevant and, if something is happening external to teaching, they need to keep this quiet and ‘not let it affect the course’.
I would like to really encourage you to think differently about this – take that step back and ask yourself whether it is reasonable to expect someone to cope with something difficult in their personal life and it have no impact on their teaching?
Over the years I have talked to so many students who have had to deal with very difficult issues outside of the course and, every time, the key to success has been to share this with a few appropriate colleagues at the University and in school. This is not so we can feel sorry for you or treat you differently. It is: so we can understand if you have an off day; so we can watch your back if we need to and give you a safe space to have a moment if that would help; it is so we can offer you different way of thinking when needed and enable you to be resilient and manage your conflicting circumstances effectively.
Basically it is so we can be kind, in exactly the way anyone in a caring profession like teaching should be expected to be!
Whilst the main point I want to make this week is one of talking to others, asking for help and advice when you need it, and working collectively to manage the ups and downs of a teacher training year, I want to finish by drawing your attention to a resource that might be useful. The BRiTE online resources were created by colleagues in Australia and are specifically designed to build resilience in beginning teachers. There are five areas that are considered and there are some online resources you can explore within each area. You can dip in and out as you like and there is the chance to ‘pin’ key ideas onto a personal board for you to look at, and be inspired by, at later points in time.
If you are interested follow the link below and see what you think: https://www.brite.edu.au/
Last year students who used these resources found them really helpful over the duration of the year.
Have a happy weekend!