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April 27, 2022

The Resilient Educator / Good PD Includes Resilience Training

Creating the conditions for teachers to learn is essential.
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Professional Learning
Social-emotional learning
Good PD Includes Resilience Training
Credit: YRABOTA / iSTOCK
In the year before the pandemic, the principal of ­Starlight Elementary School (a pseudonym) felt like she was constantly battling teachers when it came to professional development. "They show up late," she told me, "and they are resistant, or they are physically there but I can tell they are checked out." The chaos and fatigue of COVID-19 only exasperated her challenges. "Now," the principal explained, "they say they can't handle anything else and just need to process what's going on. But we have to learn how to better meet the needs of our struggling readers—there are even more students who are struggling!"
"Here's what I'm hearing," I responded to this principal, who I'd been coaching. "Your teachers need PD that allows them to cultivate their resilience, as well as strengthen their teaching practice. Those two goals are not in contradiction to each other, and they're not that hard to achieve."
At this point, I shifted into a directive coaching stance, and offered the following strategies, which are expanded upon in my new book, coauthored with Lori Cohen, The PD Book: 7 Habits that Transform Professional Development (Jossey-Bass, 2022).
These strategies cultivate emotional resilience and create the conditions in which educators can learn.

Articulate the Purpose

Step one: be very, very clear on the purpose of the PD. How does the topic relate to the school's priorities, goals, and mission? Why is this topic needed now? When you're designing PD, make sure you can draw these connections and answer the question, "Why do we have to do this?" Whether they ask it or not, adult learners need the answer to this question articulated to be able to engage deeply.
Step two is to build buy-in around this purpose. There will always be competing priorities; there will always be some teachers who don't share your logic for why this topic should be explored now. As you plan the PD session, gather data (quantitative and qualitative) that justifies this PD and briefly share it with teachers.
When teachers feel like they are doing something that's aligned with the big-picture purpose, they will feel more energized and fulfilled, which fuels their resilience. Teachers want to meet the needs of children; they want to fulfill their school's mission. As a school leader, your role is to identify how a particular PD session will build everyone's skills, knowledge, and capacity to meet the mission—and make sure that teachers can see the direct line to that grand plan.

Provide Several Choice Points

Our resilience is depleted when we feel overwhelmed by forces outside of our control. When we feel like we have no agency, no power over the circumstances of our lives, our ability to manage challenges diminishes. During a 60-minute PD session, you can provide numerous points when teachers can make choices. That experience unconsciously affirms people's free will and decision-making abilities, which helps them feel better. This step can be subtle and small, such as offering a reflection prompt and saying, "You're welcome to just think about this if you want or jot down a few words. You'll be able to chat with a partner about it later if you'd like." You can also provide choices around groupings ("You can work with a pair or a trio," or "You can work with your grade level or content area") and activities ("If you want to read and discuss this topic, gather at that table, or if you'd rather talk about that topic, then convene over there.")
As a PD provider, you must be clear on where you're taking people (the objectives, learning targets, or goals for a session) and you need to know which pathways (structures and strategies) will get learners there. Then you need to figure out where you can release control and allow learners to participate in charting the path. This sense of agency will keep them engaged and fill their resilience reserves.

Incorporate Opportunities to Address Emotions

Human beings have emotions, and we don't leave them at the door when we get to school. But we can learn how to engage with them in healthy and appropriate ways at work. When providing PD, offering short (3–5 minute) opportunities for teachers to acknowledge and name their emotions, and to share them with others, can have a tremendous impact. Rather than checking out or stewing in frustration or drowning in grief, they can process surface emotions and then engage in the training. This can be done in the first portion of the session during a "check-in" by inviting teachers to think, write, and pair-share in response to any one of the following questions/prompts:
  • What's on your mind and heart right now?
  • Share a high and low from this week.
  • What do you need to acknowledge so that you can be fully present for this session?
  • How are you feeling right now?

When you’re designing PD, make sure you can answer the question, 'Why do we have to do this?'

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Elena Aguilar

The Core Emotions (available here) is an invaluable resource for building emotional literacy and boosting resilience. It's deceptively simple—a list of emotions categorized into eight groups—but it's a starting point for learning about and processing emotions. I often hand it to teachers and say, "Skim through this list and just say the words that reflect what's going on inside." When we learn to recognize our emotions, and when we share them with others, it's tremendously helpful—and our ­resilience is cultivated.
Throughout a PD session, there are many opportunities to insert a moment to recognize and acknowledge emotions. After an activity, ask, "How did that feel?" and invite a couple of responses. This allows teachers to note whatever they are feeling in the moment, and awareness-building contributes to resilience.
Finally, at the end of a session, provide opportunities for attendees to recognize the learning that occurred and the emotional impact of that learning. This simple exercise can be empowering and energizing.

A Win-Win Scenario

The principal of Starlight Elementary planned her next PD session on literacy intervention by incorporating the strategies noted here (and several others). She asked me to observe the session, which was held late on a Thursday afternoon. When it ended, teachers walked out of the library commenting about how rejuvenated they felt. "I'm often drained by PD, but this one felt like an infusion of energy," one veteran teacher said. Another teacher said, "I was dreading this—I'm just so tired I can't process more information. But I was surprised by how easy it was to engage." The principal sighed in relief.
Given the current circumstances in our world, and the overwhelming stress that teachers are under, every PD provider should consider ways to incorporate resilience-building strategies into PD sessions. It's really not that complicated, and the minutes spent on them will go a long way.

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