Education Opinion

Cultivating Emotional Resilience in Educators: Necessary Professional Development

By Elena Aguilar — March 12, 2015 5 min read
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For many years, I’ve been mulling over the idea of professional development on emotional resilience. What continuously comes up in my work is that our emotions play a big role in how effective we are in transforming our schools, and specifically, in our ability to bounce back after challenges. In February I presented on this topic to a wonderful group at the New Teacher Center’s Annual Symposium. Although I shared that this is the topic for my next book (once I’m finished with The Art of Coaching Teams) they were eager to get a hold of some of the information that I presented. I’m going to offer a few quick bites about what resilience is, and then why we need it. In future posts here and on Edutopia I’ll write about how we might cultivate it in teachers.

What Is Emotional Resilience?

Emotional resilience is essentially our ability to weather the storms in our lives. It’s basically how much spring we have in our step when experience something challenging. Think about some moments in your life - personal or professional - when something really difficult happened. How did you bounce back? What helped you bounce back?

Psychologists tell us that 50% of our resilience is in our genes--essentially, we’re born with a certain amount. Then 10% of our resilience is due to the circumstances we’re in, and 40% of our resilience can be attributed to our daily activities and habits. What’s key here is that we have control over about 50% of the spring in our step--we can develop our resilience.

Why Do We Need Emotional Resilience?

It’s time those of us working in staff support and development take this emotional resilience stuff seriously and consider PD on this topic. It’s something that teachers and all of us working in our education system deserve and need. Emotional resilience is a core skill and knowledge set that educators need to learn.

Here’s why I think it’s time we take this seriously. I’ll start with what I’ve seen in the Oakland Unified School District, in CA., where I worked for 19 years: 25% of new hires leave after one year; 50% leave after two years; and 75% are gone by five years. During my time working in this district, I saw thousands of effective teachers and leaders quit. These numbers are a bit higher than the national average--nationally, almost 50% of teachers quit before they’ve finished five years of teaching. But these numbers reflect those found in the majority schools and districts located in high poverty communities where high teacher turn over has a much greater negative impact on children. There’s lots of research on the impact that teacher turnover has on student success and we know that the retention of teachers leads to stability and growth, which are strong predictors of student achievement. If we want to see real changes in our schools we have to take up the issue of teacher retention.

I can also make this case for resilience PD from a financial stand point. It’s estimated that across the U.S. it costs some $2.2 billion annually to recruit and retrain teachers. Where else could we be spending these billions if we reduced these costs?

I think we all know that there’s a problem with teacher retention and that we need to do something about it, but if we want to do something about a problem we do need to take a moment and consider what the root cause of the problem might be--or at least surface some possible root causes.

On a survey about teacher turnover reported on in this article, “Top 5 Reasons Why Teacher Turnover is Rising,”the top reason cited for leaving a teaching job was “poor working conditions.” Another reason cited was burnout. Now, these surveys don’t specifically and explicitly call out stress, but we know that burnout is basically stress and poor working conditions could also encapsulate stress.

What’s so interesting to me is that low pay is not a top reason why people quit teaching. In Oakland, where salaries are terribly low, exit surveys with teacher report that only 3% of those who quit say that they’re quitting because of salary. I have been long concerned about teacher turn over in Oakland and I was so surprised when I heard this. We really struggle here in Oakland to pay teachers more--so if it isn’t salary, then what is it? And if it’s “working conditions” or “burn out” then can’t we do something about that?

Towards PD on Resilience

While in some areas, some schools are starting to offer Social and Emotional Learning to children, I have yet to see a school or district where this is taken up systematically, intentionally, and consistently with the grown ups working in that system. I’m really curious about what would happen if a school or even a district provided PD in how to build emotional resilience for its teachers and administrators. Daniel Goleman, the pioneering researcher and writer on emotional intelligence, tell us that the percentage of time people feel positive emotions at work turns out to be one of the strongest predictors of satisfaction, and therefore of how likely employees are to quit. Those of us who support staff can do something to cultivate positive emotions; we can also apply these lessons and built habits in our own lives so that we can feel more satisfied.

I actually think that Resilience PD is just as important as PD in curriculum or standards or instructional practices, if not more important. Because what good is all that PD on formative assessment or academic conversations if teachers are so stressed out that they’re sick all the time and going out on leave and quitting? Schools are stressful places, but we can learn to manage our stress and increase our resilience--resilience is learnable. Yes, we could go off and do this individually on our own, we can go to therapy and enroll in self-help courses, but I actually think it’s the responsibility of our educational institutions to provide this kind of learning space. Schools are stressful places. We just have to take care of the adults who come to work in our buildings, so that they meet the social, emotional, and academic learning needs that our children come to school with.

Stay tuned for more on this topic!

The opinions expressed in The Art of Coaching Teachers are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.