How can we keep the best teachers in education, engaged in the work, and flourishing long-term? This is a core question of my work as a teacher and writer, and so I was grateful at a recent conference to learn from Wendy Zdeb, Executive Director of the Michigan Association for Secondary School Principals (MASSP). Wendy is a career educator: first as a teacher, then an administrator, and now in her role supporting administrators throughout my state. But Wendy is also someone paying close attention to the problem of teacher recruitment and attrition. She wants to know why so many teachers quit before the fifth year of their career and why fewer and fewer students are entering the field to replace them.
Here is a list of culprits that Wendy shared. Teachers are quitting faster and faster because of
- Poor new teacher induction programs and early career support
- Poor professional development
- For example, professional development that only adds to a teacher's to-do list and doesn't subtract
- Poor culture building
- Few career growth opportunities apart from administration or department/PLC leadership
- Exclusion from school or district decision-making
- A sense of not being appreciated
As Wendy shared in her session, though these conditions are common, they are not inevitable. We can all find ways to move the needle in our schools on the items above. Every adult in a building can work to habituate genuine encouragement. Any teacher can start an opt-in staff book club that studies great cultures and discusses takeaways. We can refrain from complaining and focus on improving.
Lots of agency. We're not helpless.
But the line of thinking I want to take now doesn't focus on actions we can take to improve conditions in our schools. I want to go one question before that.
Not what can we do to improve conditions at our schools, but instead, how do we become the kind of people who weather storms with aplomb, who promote the long-term flourishing of the people around them in good times and bad?
I want to look at the attitude that says, “I've always got agency. I'm never helpless.” I'm not talking about optimism — I'm talking about resilience — that quality that explains why some people can go through hell and be better and deeper people for it, whereas others experience the same bad times and it spins them into bitterness and despair for years.
As we'll see, resilience isn't just about how we respond to bad things — it's about how we focus, how we increase our performance, and how we manage our stress. The questions I'll answer in the words to come are
- What is resilience?
- Why does it matter?
- Can it be grown?
- If so, how?
(And a quick note. This series of articles is a byproduct of my recent research spring on time management. I'm making a course on time management because how we manage our time is how we manage our lives. [Update: Here it is.])
If you're curious about the sources I'll be referencing in the resilience series, here's a list:
- Dean Becker, president of Adaptiv Learning, in an explainer video
- Jim Collins, management researcher, in his classic bestseller Good to Great
- Diane Coutu, journalist and editor, in her article for Harvard Business Review titled “How Resilience Works”
- Peter Drucker, Austrian-born management philosopher, in his classic The Effective Executive: The Definitive Guide to Getting the Right Things Done
- Tim Ferriss, prominent self-experimenter and author of The 4-Hour Chef, and Seth Godin, prolific blogger and author of Tribes: We Need You to Lead Us, in their podcast conversation
- Tim Ferriss again, this time in conversation with LeBron James, three-time NBA champion, and Mike Mancias, LeBron's recovery specialist, in their podcast interview
- Auschwitz survivor-turned-therapist Viktor Frankl, in his classic Man's Search for Meaning
- Paul Jarvis, web developer and author, in his book Company of One (he gets the credit for aiming my radar toward resilience as a technical term)
- George Vaillant, Harvard life researcher, in his book Triumphs of Experience
What is resilience?
Dean Becker's job is to help people better understand the science of resilience. His years of reading and applying the research have led to a ready explanation of what resilience is. As Becker explains, resilience is…
- “the ability to stay in the moment… when the going gets tough”
- “the ability to stay focused when you're experiencing high levels of change and you're feeling stressed out”
- “not just about feeling less bad, but also about feeling more good”
- “a deep science”
- “using a toolkit”
- “practicing and mastering a set of schools that can help you think more accurately and flexibly about what's happening around us”
- “learning to live the serenity prayer”
That last part is helpful. The serenity prayer, written by American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr in 1934, was first popularized by Alcoholics Anonymous and is a common theme in twelve-step programs. It goes like this:
Lord, grant me
the serenity to accept the things that I can't change,
the courage to change the things I can, and
the wisdom to know the difference.
Hmm… to have a work life characterized by serenity, courage, and wisdom. That sounds helpful.
Why does resilience matter?
Teachers and administrators are constantly faced with crushing task lists, limited time, and the weight of young lives on their shoulders. For many of us, this pressure builds as we struggle to balance education with additional jobs we work or people at home we care for. When I ask new subscribers to tell me what the most frustrating thing about their job is, they most often tell me, “Dave, I don't have enough time.”
Too much to do. Not enough time to do it in.
And when I ask teachers with this struggle to list all the things they have to do, or feel expected to do, questions from the serenity prayer come to mind.
- How do we get the serenity to accept the things that we can't change? It's amazing how much time idealistic teachers can spend — and mind you, I'm part idealist, so that's not a dig — tilting at windmills.
- How do we get the courage to work on things that we can change? For example, cultivating motivation in students who come to us with apathy or hard home lives or skill deficits. It's much easier to take a child like this and pass them along, telling ourselves that there was nothing we could have done. But the science is clear that motivation is contextual. The five key beliefs aren't hard cement.
- How do we get the wisdom to know the difference? To see our lists not as other people would have us see them, but as they actually relate to long-term flourishing?
Well resilience, according to Becker, does those things. Cultivating resilience is like programming your mind around the parameters of the serenity prayer. It's an operating system upgrade that removes complexity instead of adding it.
Can resilience be grown?
Can we install this resilience operating system into ourselves, or is it more like hardware: something we're born with and can't change?
Thankfully, the longest longitudinal study of human development ever undertaken gives us strong cause for hope. George Vaillant, the director of Harvard Medical School's Study of Adult Development and author of Triumphs of Experience, studied 700+ adults during a 60-year period of their lives. He found that some people became significantly more resilient as their lives progressed. Of those who began the study as fairly unresilient, some developed resiliency skills as life went on.
So it's growable. Good. What skills comprise resilience, then, and how can we practice them?
I. Acceptance of reality
II. Maintaining a strong sense of purpose
III. Adapting when things change
Next time, we'll look at the first of these things.
UPDATE: Here's the whole series:
- Teacher Attrition, the Serenity Prayer, and the Resilient Inner Life
- How to Build Resilience, Part 1: Acceptance of Reality
- How to Build Resilience, Part 2: A Strong Sense of Purpose
- 500 Blog Posts: A Case Study in Resilience
- How to Build Resilience, Part 3: Adaptability
- A PS from much later: The Two Rules of Resilience