As Above, So Below
When it comes to creating resilient students, educator resilience matters. To cultivate a school environment where students learn resilience, have grit, and are engaged in learning, we must also consider whether the adults in the school model those same behaviors.
Little ears and eyes hear and see everything. How many times do students witness an educator's response to having a bad day? How often do they notice when an adult handles a conflict well? Do students see examples every day of what it means to be a resilient adult? Educators can and should implicitly and explicitly teach these skills to students so that they have a chance to develop a high level of resilience and grit (Tough, 2012).
In several schools where I work as an instructional coach, we have taken on the challenge of creating a systemwide approach to supporting student resilience. These schools build on the work of Carol Dweck's Mindset (2006) and Daniel Coyle's The Talent Code (2009) to systematically teach all students strategies for being resilient and growth-minded. But as we began this work, we realized that our own mind-sets had to change to help students change theirs. My colleagues and I came to a consensus that modeling grit and teaching effective effort as an entire school would give us the best chance to make drastic, positive changes for our students. The next step was thinking about which of our behaviors, words, and practices fostered or hindered resilience.
First, we identified the fixed-minded statements that we say to students and to one another. Once we recognized the voice we used, we chose to speak differently. We used the book Mindset and resources from Mindset Works to shift our feedback and comments to language that promotes resilience. For example, "You may not be adept at this yet, but I am confident that with more practice, you can master it" and "Other students have struggled and mastered this; you can, too."
Next, we examined our interpersonal relationships as educators. To maintain the momentum of supporting student resilience, we needed to consider how our own responses and professional interactions might influence how students behave. If we share with students that we struggle just like them, and that life really never stops being a struggle, they can see that struggle is not unique to them. As Carol Dweck says, "Even geniuses work hard!" (2010)
Ultimately, all educators want students to think of challenges as exciting. It is in the stretch and struggle that we grow. How else can students learn those lessons, except from the adults in their lives? My colleagues and I used self-reflection to model how we take large challenges and break them down into something we can grapple with and persevere over. The biggest lesson here has been the message that we are worth it. A struggle does not mean that we are the wrong person for the task, skill, or experience. All it means is that we have an opportunity for growth, and we deserve to strive to be great at something. Go for it!
In the meta-analyses in his groundbreaking book Visible Learning, John Hattie identifies teacher-student relationships as having a staggeringly positive effect size of 0.72 (Hattie, 2009). When students see us as human beings, we can connect with them in ways that allow us to have a more positive influence on them in many realms (even algebra!). When students see us model the behaviors we ask them for, we build trust and open the door to sincere relationships. So above, so below: What happens at one level of our school is mirrored at all levels. When our school and district leaders model the behaviors that they ask us for, that builds trust and we want to work hard for them (even on accountability measures!).
So, what did we do? We addressed these questions: How do we respond to setbacks and talk about failures? Where can we improve? Would using language that Dweck recommends for students work on us, too? If so, what might the effect be?
The effect in these schools has been striking. While the educators teach lessons about resilience to students in grades K–12, it's also not unusual to hear the adults remind one another, "You have to remember your growth mind-set!" and "I need to use my resilient strategies" and "I will not give up!" Our students are those little ears and eyes who witness our responses to challenges and our choice to have grit, to persevere, and to grow.
What a grand lesson to them that resilience is not a natural talent that only some people have, but rather something that they can and should cultivate. What a grand lesson to ourselves that we continue to have an enormous influence over students and can affect them in such a positive way by being that role model that we know we can be.
Coyle, D. (2009). The talent code: Greatness isn't born. It's grown. Here's how. New York: Bantam Books.
Dweck, C. S. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York: Ballantine Books.
Dweck, C. S. (2010, September). Even geniuses work hard. Educational Leadership, 68(1), 16–20.
Hattie, J. (2008). Visible learning: A synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement. New York: Routledge.
Tough, P. (2012). How children succeed: Grit, curiosity, and the hidden power of character. New York: Mariner Books.
Emily Diehl is an instructional coach in Elk Grove Unified School District in California who supports K–12 educators. She also works as an education consultant for Mindset Works® and blogs at http://community.mindsetworks.com/newsletter.
ASCD Express, Vol. 8, No. 25. Copyright 2013 by ASCD. All rights reserved. Visit www.ascd.org/ascdexpress.