Overcoming Adversity In Teaching: Exploring Resilience Within

Posted by Jonathan Llewelyn - Last updated on March 27, 2023

The increased demands on teachers, which are normally considered to drain resources and threaten wellbeing, have left 77% of teachers experiencing symptoms of poor mental health due to their workload, according to the teacher wellbeing index of 2021.


The myriad of challenges faced by teachers has only been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, in both their personal and professional lives, requiring significant adaptability, creativity, and resilience. Adapting to new ways of teaching, to motivate and manage students and their behaviour, can be nothing short of emotionally taxing, leading to compassion fatigue, or secondary trauma (Day & Hong, 2016). A recent report from the EEF highlights the necessity to motivate staff and offers three mechanisms required to do so: setting and agreeing on goals, presenting information from a credible source, and providing affirmation and reinforcement after progress. Without decent provisions in place to motivate teachers it’s unlikely they would be able to improve or develop their skills, so dedicating time to ensure staff motivation is addressed and improved is a key factor to addressing wellbeing. Maintaining and cultivating relationships with students, as teaching is very much a relational act, in such strained circumstances can often leave educators feeling incompetent, as well as physically and emotionally drained (Romero et al., 2018). 

With such a clear correlation between teacher wellbeing and student outcomes, it’s disappointing that -generally- there is a distinct lack of support for teaching staff when it comes to their welfare and health. For teachers to be able to effectively teach their students, especially during stressful and traumatic periods, they must first and foremost focus on their own resilience before they can focus on promoting resilience in their students (Day & Hong, 2016; Romero et al., 2018). Anyone who’s flown on an aeroplane will be familiar with the drill for a sudden drop in pressure: an oxygen mask will fall from the ceiling panel and passengers are instructed to secure their own masks before assisting others around them. We may be tempted to help those around us, for fear they may not be capable without aid. However, in order to assist others, we must first take care of ourselves and make sure our needs are met - ensuring we have enough oxygen to persevere. The topic of resilience is also of key importance when discussing the issue of teacher attrition, understanding and determining what factors sustain teachers and allow them to navigate through and overcome challenges is key, especially with over half (54%) of teachers considering leaving the sector in the past two years due to pressures on their mental health.


Understanding teacher resilience

Resilience doesn’t just refer to your ability to ‘bounce back’ when experiencing adversity, but also your personal capacity for positive adaptation while experiencing challenging circumstances (Wald J, Taylor S, Asmundson GJG, et al., 2006). There is a known metaphor comparing resilience to a rubber band: people, much like rubber bands, come in different shapes and sizes and go through different experiences and challenges. The rubber band’s ability to stretch further or shorter, all depends on these different factors - with everyday use, under normal circumstances, the rubber band won’t break. However, under extreme circumstances, or high levels of stress, they can become weak and break down. Understanding the characteristics of a resilient teacher better prepares us for understanding what influences a teachers’ capacity for resilience. In the below model we can see a four-dimensional framework of teacher resilience that identifies resilience as a “multi-dimensional phenomenon which is subject to fluctuation” (Day, 2017). The four major influences that directly impact a teacher’s capacity for resilience help us better comprehend that resilience isn’t static, but rather a dynamic trait, with many different impacting and influencing factors. 


Within schools, there is a definite need for support, and a requirement for SLTs and leaders to ‘enhance collective efficacy and shared beliefs of professional control, influence and responsibility’ (Day & Gu, 2014). The combination of an ever-changing curriculum, different social factors, and student requirements mean that maintaining a level of resilience requires constant attention and work - as well as the ability to draw upon personal and professional resources (Day, 2012). 

So we get to a point where we must ask ourselves: What is there that teachers and educators can do to try and combat all of the challenges they face in the modern world? A teacher’s capacity for resilience is very much a dynamic trait, and it’s this latent capacity that allows each and every teacher to develop and work on their own resilience - but the question is how? First and foremost one must identify the individual factors that are vital in developing resilience. 


Connecting in meaningful ways

Research has found that seeking help from others can help improve teacher resilience by facilitating problem-solving, as well as effective decision-making (Duffield & O'Hare, 2020). Unfortunately, seeking help can induce feelings of vulnerability or lead to feelings of weakness or failure. As cliché as it may be, asking for help is often the hardest part. This can be dealt with by making sure that asking for help is normalised - we should be quick to cultivate compassion and patience. Senior leaders can facilitate this by modelling and encouraging this behaviour. Promoting and encouraging peer relationships within the workplace is something else that can have positive effects on an educator's sense of belonging. The lack of physical proximity that teachers often deal with for a number of reasons, such as busy schedules, have only been exacerbated as of late due to global events. This means alternative methods of staying connected with colleagues should be explored and considered: the flexibility that digital solutions offer can prove invaluable in maintaining connections. Using technology to create safe spaces online can help nurture these relationships. Digital platforms can be used as ‘virtual staffrooms’ and allow teachers to communicate and check-in with one another. Peer-to-peer reviewing encourages the building of small networks of individuals who can contact each other in times of need. 

Many reflective models and reflective theories emphasise the importance of perspective-taking (e.g. Todd & Galinsky, 2014). This is because imagining the thoughts and perspectives of others can help us better understand the experience and help us plan better actions in the future, such as asking ourselves "What would someone who excels at this do?" Reflecting with others gives you the opportunity to get their perspective on the situation. They may know things you don't, which can help you gain a deeper understanding. Reflecting with others provides many benefits to the reflection process. One thing others may be better at than us is asking challenging questions. 

For current IRIS Connect users, a brilliant way to maintain current connections, as well as potentially develop new ones, is through creating a group in your account. Acting as a powerful collaborative tool, Groups enable you to share knowledge, experience, practice and theory with both your colleagues from within your organisation, as well as others in the wider IRIS Connect community. You can find out more about the different ways you can utilise Groups here.


Self-care is understandably a huge part of developing resilience. There are ways one is able to provide their emotional/psychological state with the same level of care as if it were any other part of their body. If you had physically injured yourself, you’d do everything you can to aid a quick recovery. The same is true for our resilience. We certainly don’t have to remind you of the importance of physical self-care, such as getting enough sleep or drinking enough water, all of which influence one's resilience capacity - so recognising your individual physical needs and identifying what specifically works for you, is crucial in preventing emotional burnout. 

As well as physical self-care, it’s equally as necessary to identify what routes work with regard to emotional self-care. Being able to recognise your vulnerabilities and what leads to you feeling overwhelmed will allow you to set limits and establish a routine that works for you. Through identifying stressful events you are able to understand and recognise the different things that contributed to the situation, which then enables you to avoid repeating these in the future or at least view them from a different perspective, should they occur again. 



Self-reflection is another simple but powerful practice that can benefit both your professional and personal life. 

The benefits of inward reflection have been known for millennia, with even the ancient Greeks inscribing the maxim “Know thyself” onto the forecourt of the Temple of Apollo long before Descartes sunk his teeth into the world of introspection. When practised appropriately, the psychological benefits of self-reflection can be seen in many aspects of one's life. In today’s world, with countless distractions and pressures, self-reflection is often put to the sidelines and forgotten about - but this shouldn’t be the case.

Think back to the last time you took a moment to have some time where you could truly be alone with your thoughts in a way that was constructive. Engaging with your inner thoughts and reflecting can truly be recognised as a learning process. While also encouraging the individual to explore and examine their own attitudes and beliefs, it holds ties to goal-setting theory (GST; Lock & Latham, 2013), which is based on the concept of setting specific and measurable goals to be more effective. When we begin to look inwards and develop a better understanding of ourselves, we can approach our feelings, thoughts and emotions from a more nonsubjective perspective - allowing questioning of the self to start occurring in a productive manner. Reflection can be and should be a major component of effective ongoing continuing professional development (CPD).

Regardless of what type of reflective model you adopt, from Rolfe, Freshwater and Jasper’s “So what?” (2001) model to Kolb’s model based on experiential learning (1984), critical exploration of different topics will act as a way to improve certain areas of focus. Through self-reflection, one is able to actively improve areas of their teaching practice, improving the overall quality of teaching, the learning experience and student outcomes. With technology like IRIS Connect, it’s easier than ever to record lessons and develop a new understanding of learner behaviours that may previously have been missed. Pinpointing specific areas of teaching that require improvement, or those areas that have been successful, is incredibly beneficial in understanding what it is you’re doing and exactly why you are doing it. So we’re not misunderstood - the potential beneficial impact of self-reflection is just as evident in one's personal life, too. These skills and methods can be transferred into many different scenarios - especially in a world where there is often increasing amounts being piled onto ever-shrinking plates. Being able to reflect upon any aspect of your life allows you to identify and determine how it is you can evolve and develop specific abilities in order to progress your professional development.

Enjoy reading these tips? Discover more  benefits of being a reflective teacher: Click here

The other benefits of self-reflection, such as creating a student-centred learning environment, keeping lessons current and relevant, and increasing confidence, all hold some power in the journey to building and developing resilience. Self-reflection and self-insight have been found to be positively correlated with resilience (Cowden & Meyer-Weitz; 2016). Focusing on drawing coping insights from any form of self-reflection can indeed provide ways in which one can handle stressors and lead to developing and strengthening capacities for resilience (Crane, Searle, Kangas, & Nwiran, 2018). 

Overall, the entire self-reflective process has been proven to strengthen one's resilience through a series of ways, most notably through the development and increased insight into their current capacities, what limits these capacities and seeking out alternative approaches to overcome and increase these limitations. Self-reflection should be practised continuously, as there is always room for self-improvement and the journey, as daunting as it may seem, is never done. Continuous improvement can be assisted through recording teaching practices, which allows easy monitoring of progression and enables realistic benchmarks and goals to be set. 


Key Takeaway

The adverse circumstances that teachers face on a day-to-day basis can be emotionally draining and taxing, despite feeling rewarding for many teachers, at the same time. For those looking to enhance and strengthen their resilience, connecting with others and regular self-reflection can be powerful tools. Educators should be both supported and encouraged to develop insight into their current capacity for resilience and what the limitations of these capacities are; doing so can inspire them to identify alternative approaches to future stressors while improving individual coping mechanisms. Studies have shown that a higher level of resilience within a teacher can generate positive outcomes for students, while also minimising their stress/burnout and improving “their commitment, job satisfaction, wellbeing, instructional quality, work enjoyment, motivation, professional identity, retention, agency, self-efficacy, and so forth” (Wang & Derakhshan, 2021).

If you are looking for inspirational resources to boost your everyday happiness, also take a look at our wellbeing guide, with over 10 health and wellbeing resources for teachers, developed by life coaches, scientists and thought-leaders. Download your free guide here

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