Success is a beautiful beast. To feel valued and needed is a huge factor in professional wellbeing and something we strive to achieve. I, like many, have changed roles and schools every 2–3 years, in the search for something new and exciting, looking for opportunities to grow. With each move, I’ve made amazing friends and colleagues, worked tirelessly to pursue different career options, all in the name of powerful student learning. I laugh when friends describe me as a bit of a machine, always churning out work, blog posts, reflections, and sharing new learning. I suppose it’s fair to say that in the last six years, I’ve been relatively successful.
But, what about the mistakes? I do not use that term lightly. In my world, a mistake is unlike an error. It is something that cannot be corrected and simply must be owned. Some may even equate it to failure — a powerful motivator and learning tool in itself. A mistake, to me, feels very much like the end of the world, albeit briefly. I enter a period of turmoil and heightened emotion, unable to claw my way back out of the pit and losing all sight of rational thought. Clearly, that’s not a healthy reaction and one that’s led me to reflect deeply on strategies for resilience.
It’s widely felt that students now have far less resilience than previous generations. A quick Google search brings up dozens of scholarly articles and posts from across the globe. PBS News recently reported:
“Coupled with an increase in diagnosable psychiatric disorders is a reported decline in average student resilience, writes research psychologist Denise Cummins.”
Something very disturbing is happening on college campuses. A 2014 survey by the American College Health Association found that 94 percent of counseling center directors reported a steady increase in the number of college students with severe psychological problems, and 89 percent reported an increase in the number of students arriving on campus who were already taking prescription medication for anxiety or depression.
Coupled with an increase in diagnosable psychiatric disorders is a reported decline in average student resilience.” (Cummins 2016)
There is so much focus on the younger generation — and rightly so — that the professional generation that supports them is seemingly overlooked. Adult resilience seems to ebb and flow far more than it does in children. The constant pressure to succeed, and visible rewards in doing so, mean that many of us meet failure head on but often do not have enough ‘left in the tank’ to proactively do anything about it. And yet, we find ourselves surprised by the lack of resilience, asking ourselves, where did it go!
Searching for strategies to draw yourself up from the bottom of the cliff feels a little like sending the ambulance down after you’ve already fallen. Of course, I’m not suggesting we do not rescue those who have fallen hard. What I am suggesting is that we need to actively notice the signs and prepare people for failure, while simultaneously promoting success. In waiting until the point of crashing, are we allowing the damage to be done when we could have actively noticed it earlier and found strategies to support? Constantly focusing on the positive and success is a wonderful experience and can, in some situations, bring happiness and cohesion to a staff. However, the need to let the pendulum centre itself and find a balance between positive focus and coping with mistakes is a need I see in many schools and institutions visited.
The American Psychological Association has a range of strategies for developing resilience and building on the skills already in place. These are just as applicable to adults as they are to students. I’ve incorporated some of their main headers below and tried to retain an educational lens.
Knowing others share your struggle and accepting their help is key to mental wellbeing. As teachers, we isolate ourselves, focusing on student achievement and developing strong relationships with our learners. As leaders, we need to model the need for support and show students and whānau that it’s okay to seek help.
Avoid seeing crises as insurmountable problems
The old expression, ‘It’s not the end of the world’, just isn’t going to cut it here. Sometimes, it genuinely feels like it IS the end of the world. In this instance, the advice is simple. Breathe. Reflect. Share. Many with good intentions will dive headlong into the situation and attempt to help find a rational balance where there seemingly is none. As the person going through a crisis, the first step lies within. Breathe. Oxygenate the brain and decrease the heart rate. Let the adrenaline settle and, when ready, reflect and seek out someone to share with.
Accept that change is a part of living
I’ve written widely around change and resistance. It is, quite simply put, everywhere. Should the lacking of resilience manifest after a period of unsettlement and change, find time to return to your ‘Why’. The ‘How’ and ‘What’ remain adaptable as outcomes, while leadership and direction changes. Your ‘Why’ is a strong constant, and if powerful and well formed, will logically lead to reflection and redetermining.
Take decisive actions
By no means am I suggesting you must allow the irrational thoughts to dictate your immediate action. As you calm, find ways to own the challenge. If a mistake, apologise and mean it. We live in a world of semantics and often find ourselves on the end of apologies that, if unpacked properly, are not apologies at all. Anything that begins with ‘I’m sorry, but…’ just isn’t an apology. Likewise, ‘I’m sorry you feel that way…’ is quite the opposite to a genuine, heartfelt owning of a mistake.
If your resilience is challenged by a situation, take the time to breathe and strategise. Set clear goals to move forward and find both short and long-term steps to overcoming the difficulty. If it’s personal, find a way to talk. Avoid email and interpretable communication. Accept that, if other parties are not ready, then you have long-term steps to focus on while the dust settles. One thing remains constant, regardless of the situation — burying your head in the sand just isn’t going to help find a resolution.
Nurture a positive view of yourself and keep things in perspective.
We are not machines. Our humanness is what distinguishes us from the ones and zeros that make up the thinking of a computer. We have colour and beauty in our lives; sometimes it’s simply a case of opening our eyes. Nurturing a positive view is not a step to becoming arrogant. The more infallible we believe ourselves to be, the harder the fall becomes. Accept that it’s okay to make mistakes and find positive balances in family or outside of the classroom/institution. Find the things that make you smile and hold them close. A small mistake, despite often feeling insurmountable, needs to remain just that — small. Never underestimate the power of reflection and the strength of someone else’s perspective.
Reach out to those who can make a difference
Many of us find ourselves in a world where we are not our own masters. At times, it is the action of another that is the catalyst for turmoil. Autonomy is wonderful, but, we must not lose sight of the chain that enables us the freedom to both fail and succeed. Identifying those who control the situation, without seeking blame, is paramount to successfully move forward. Choosing some careful and honest words will highlight just how challenging a situation is when shared with someone who has the power to make a change on your behalf.
As we continue striding forward and into the unknown, many of those following do not realise the challenge a leader faces. In turn, the leader plasters on the smile and buries the challenges, both personal and professional, in the name of strong and stable leadership. And before we know it, it’s too late. The sleep has been lost, the irrational conversations have happened and we find ourselves lying at the bottom of a cliff, wondering when it all came crashing down. Hiding our struggles has a place. Not everyone needs to know or, indeed, cares about the trials and tribulations of our lives. Just remember those who do. If you’re hanging onto the edge or already halfway down, it isn’t too late to accept a rope — we simply have to remember to ask those we are closest to, to throw one down and hold on tight. And remember — if you choose the right person, they’ll never let go.
So, where did my resilience go? I don’t think it really went anywhere, it just took the support of an amazing friend and a little time to find it again.
Cummins, D. 2016 http://www.pbs.org/newshour/making-sense/student-resilience-time-low/
The Road to Resilience, retrieved from: http://www.apa.org/helpcenter/road-resilience.aspx (American Psychology Association)