During these past weeks of reflecting on resilience's three pillars, I've started to see a relationship between the three, how they really do act like the legs on a stool.
If you've got a deep sense of purpose but not an acceptance of unpleasant realities then you'll err toward unchecked idealism. Unchecked idealism happens when you see the beauty and power of teaching, but not the ugliness and frustration. This sets you up to become especially arrogant when you succeed or especially demoralized when you fail. I'd guess that unchecked idealism is a leading cause of teachers exiting the profession nationwide.
Rather than pretending, we need to accept that certain things are certain to happen.
But on the other hand, if we err in the other direction — low sense of purpose, abundant awareness of unpleasant reality — we end up cynical and bitter. It'll start with complaining about kids or administrators or colleagues, and it'll build up until you're counting the days until retirement. I'd guess that unchecked cynicism is a leading cause of teacher disengagement nationwide.
What we want to do, then, is cultivate both a deep sense of purpose and a deep acceptance of unpleasant reality. And that's difficult because they kind of clash with one another.
But our sense of purpose insists that we don't just complacently sit there and zenly pretend that all reality is unchangeable. The work is too important to accept that I don't have enough time to do the most important things. There are too many promises that a school implies to sit there and accept that not all kids can flourish someday.
And this is where the third leg on the stool comes in: we adapt, we act, we do something.
From our keen sense of the hardest realities of teaching and fueled by our deep and daily sense of purpose, we launch intelligent, informed experiments into how we might make the best of those realities. We do this for the sake of our students and for the sake of ourselves. Fueled by our deep and daily cultivated sense of purpose, we act as intelligently and powerfully as we can.
Some ideas from These 6 Things
These 6 Things is a book borne from a jarring collision: I want to teach as well as I can, as much as I can, every day. In short, I'm driven by a deep sense of purpose. And yet, I've also got nowhere near the time or attention or energy it takes to do all the things I feel expected to do. I'm unable to ignore the constraints of this job.
So years ago, I aimed my research and practice at a question: which work matters most?
The research questions led me to some surprising adaptations, including:
- Rather than gain a mediocre handle on dozens of instructional strategies for getting kids to talk, I use three: one for pairs, one for small groups, and one for the whole class. They are simple enough to teach in two minutes and robust enough to get better at for years on end. (See Chapter 7.)
- Rather than treat feedback and grading like things that I “have to do,” I treat them like things that serve certain purposes. In short, I grade with the end in mind. This has moved me from 120-students-per-year insanity to 120-students-per-year sustainability. (See Chapter 6.)
- Rather than use time- and money-intensive methods for connecting with students (e.g., the weekly group mentoring trips I used to take with kids when I taught in Baltimore), I use moments of genuine connection. And further, I know exactly what aspects of student motivation I'm hoping to adjust when I have these moments. The bonus, of course, is that I'm getting to connect with the actual humans who make this job so good. (See Chapter 2.)
Now I could go on with a longer list, but this is enough to demonstrate a few important points regarding the adaptable, action-oriented bent that I think resilience gives us.
First, none of them are perfect. Every single one is flawed. Google “problems with think-pair-share” and you'll see plenty of smart people arguing that this method isn't so great. Search “ways to connect with students” and you'll read about attending their sporting events and having lunch with them and celebrating their birthdays. It's not that these other ways or ideas are wrong. It's just that reality insists that I pick.
I intentionally aim at basic strategies so that I can gain world-class excellence in applying them. I use the same strategy for mudding drywall that my friend the drywall professional uses, but it takes me ten times the time to produce one tenth the outcome quality. He's a professional. I'm not. I'm working to be a professional at moments of genuine connection, pop-up debates, and the five key beliefs. Since I have so few strategies, I'm able to get better at them faster.
Here is the hardest cocktail of unpleasant realities to accept: my time and attention and energy are finite. As a 35-year-old man, these are realities I've learned to accept. And yet simultaneously, I remind myself each day — even when we're in the throes of state testing, even when I'm drowning in overwhelm, even when Students X, Y, and Z seem hopelessly untouchable — that the point is to promote the long-term flourishing of young people by teaching them to master my course material.
Next time: adapting to the realities of a digital world.
And by the way: I made a course to help us explore time management. The most common complaint I hear from colleagues — and experience in my own life — is that there's just not enough time. How do we become more resilient in the face of this reality? How do we adapt? Here's the course.
For more of Dave's writing on teacher resilience: