Emotional Resilience: The Missing Ingredient - ASCD
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May 1, 2018

Emotional Resilience: The Missing Ingredient

Recognizing the power of emotions and cultivating emotional resilience can help schools retain teachers.

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I began my first year as an instructional coach feeling proud for having recruited Concepcion, a 7th grade science teacher, to our school. The previous spring, I'd sought out diverse candidates who reflected the demographics of our students, as Concepcion (a pseudonym) did, and was certain that her commitment, content knowledge, and passion for urban education would serve our students well. With my coaching to help her transition to our school, I was sure she'd thrive. Two months into the school year, however, Concepcion began talking about quitting. She cried through most of our coaching sessions. When I observed her teaching, she often seemed irrationally frustrated by her students, short tempered, and increasingly disengaged. She finished out the year, but then resigned.

My experience with Concepcion made me doubt my coaching skills and my assessment of teaching candidates. How could I have been so wrong about her? I wondered. As the search for new staff members began for the following year, I raised questions in our hiring committee meetings: What should we hire for—experience? Content knowledge? Cultural competence? What should coaching of new teachers focus on—classroom management? Instructional design? Or something else?

My answers to these questions surfaced that year working with Concepcion but took time to clarify. They boiled down to an understanding that we needed to hire for emotional intelligence; coach for emotional resilience; and recognize, value, and attend to emotions in a professional setting.

I now work with schools and districts across the U.S. on hiring, onboarding, developing, and retaining effective teachers. In a wide variety of schools, educators grapple with these questions: How do we identify teachers who can respond to the demands of the profession? How do we attract and retain diverse teachers and teachers who will fill shortages in high-need subjects? How do we not only retain effective teachers, but also help them continue to grow? Let's consider a conceptual framework that can help educators answer such questions and see how resilience (see the sidebar "What Is Emotional Resilience?") is part of that answer.

Identifying Areas to Strengthen

Mind the Gap is a framework I've developed that directs our attention to the space between a person's desired ability and current ability in accomplishing something (see fig. 1). This framework categorizes the gaps in a person's ability to do any particular thing into six groups: a skill gap, a knowledge gap, a will gap, a capacity gap, a cultural competency gap, and/or an emotional intelligence gap. The gaps are areas to be aware of and strive to develop.

Figure 1. Mind the Gap: Identifying Learning Needs


Note that in this framework, emotional intelligence and cultural competency are foundational to developing any other ability—including teaching. A new teacher may struggle with classroom management (a skill and knowledge set), but if his emotional intelligence gap is huge—if he doesn't have strategies to respond to his own frustration and sense of failure—it will be much harder to close his skill and knowledge gaps. This educator's instructional coach must know how to address his emotional experience of the challenge, in addition to—and perhaps before—addressing his technical skills.

Gaps are often entwined and can mask each other. I've often thought a teacher had a will gap, but it turned out to be a skill and emotional intelligence gap in disguise. It's much easier to say you don't want to do something than it is to say you don't know how to do it. A teacher may say, "I just can't talk to that student's mother—she screams at me," when below this apparent lack of willingness is emotional discomfort with conflict and an underdeveloped communication skill set. But fear of embarrassment or shame may prevent a teacher from saying, "I don't know how to talk to his mother," leaving others to interpret this as a lack of will.

When I first began coaching, I didn't recognize how often the teachers I worked with needed me to pay attention to their emotions or to focus on emotions as I coached them. And even when I did have this awareness, I didn't know what to do. When I'd meet with Concepcion, she'd cry and say things like, "I don't understand why [a student] hates me! She looks at me with venom in her eyes," or "I just can't deal with their disrespect! I never would've talked to a teacher that way." I noticed her tears and felt empathetic, but I responded only with practical suggestions for classroom management. My coaching was technical. I didn't acknowledge the emotions—beyond passing the box of tissues—I didn't guide Concepcion to unpack her feelings, and I didn't help her build skills to respond to these emotions. Had I done those things, we might have retained this new science teacher who had a significant skill and knowledge set.

The challenges Concepcion faced during her first year at our school are common to new teachers—perhaps to all teachers. Simply stated, she was under a lot of stress. She was overwhelmed by the amount of work, felt pulled in too many directions, and struggled to build positive relationships with students. Although Concepcion came from a background in some ways similar to that of our students, there were enough differences to create significant cultural competency gaps. With the right coaching, mentoring, and team support, we could've better helped her manage her stress, target areas for growth, and—crucially—build her resilience.

Sleuthing Out Emotional Intelligence When Hiring

Before we consider how to cultivate emotional intelligence, let's consider the hiring process. Everyone can grow in the foundational areas shown in the Mind the Gap framework, but building emotional intelligence and resilience can take longer and be more complex than building pedagogical knowledge and skill. A school year may not be enough time for a teacher with scant emotional resilience to strengthen this area. So how can we identify emotional intelligence and resilience in prospective teachers? There's much we could explore on this topic, but let's focus on two indicators hiring committees should look for: Experiences with challenges and methods for dealing with stress.

When looking for candidates with emotional resilience, it's important to ask questions about setbacks and challenges that candidate has experienced, and how they've dealt with those experiences. I often encourage administrators to hire the candidates who have struggled and who can talk about what they learned through those struggles. Many candidates who sailed through high school, college, and young adulthood are unprepared for the demands of teaching. Perhaps hiring the straight-A student or the top performer isn't always the wisest choice.

To judge the broader domain of emotional intelligence in a candidate, during interviews listen for self-awareness, appropriate vulnerability, empathy for others, and self-management strategies. The key is to ask questions that might provide an opportunity to hear these reflections and then evaluate the responses. Consider three responses to an often-asked question, How do you deal with stress?

  • Candidate 1: I've been really working on this because I know how stress affects my health. I am diligent about getting exercise, and I run five miles, six days a week. I'm training for a marathon and that keeps me motivated. I also make sure to schedule fun things for the weekends, so I have things to look forward to.

  • Candidate 2: A glass of Cabernet in the evening sure helps!

  • Candidate 3: When I notice myself starting to get stressed about something, I stop and ask myself what's triggering me and if there's any other way I can see the situation. This helps me gain some perspective, and then usually the moment dissipates just enough so that I can get through it and come back to thinking about it later.

Which person will be more resilient? The first person has acceptable stress management strategies—exercise and fun events are useful. But marathon runners can also have perfectionist tendencies, which exasperate the stress of teaching. As for the second candidate, wine isn't a great coping tool, and sharing this strategy in a job interview reflects a lack of awareness of perceptions.

The third candidate will likely be most resilient. He or she has strategies to respond to stressors in the moment, to decrease the intensity of that experience, and to address the root cause of the stress—his or her interpretation of whatever is going on. That's the person who will be most likely to effectively respond to the constant barrage of stressors any teacher deals with, and therefore to build resilience in the face of challenge.

Two other questions can help you gain insight into someone's capacity for resilience: (1) How do you recharge? and (2) Name something you've intentionally stopped doing. Recharging is different from rest. Teaching is a cognitively demanding task, and your brain needs a break from high states of mental arousal—something that doesn't necessarily happen through sleep. Recharging comes from doing things like taking lunch away from your desk, perhaps with a colleague, and talking about a favorite TV show. Hobbies, physical activities, and work-free weekends are also ways to recharge. Listen for candidates' descriptions of how they recover from mentally taxing activities.

Research shows that resilient people also know when to step back and avoid overcommitting themselves. They draw boundaries around what they do and how they're treated. They recognize their limits. Asking a candidate to tell you about some activity or situation they've drawn back from or halted out of concern for their wellbeing can provide insight into how they've managed stress, their sense of what is physically and emotionally healthy, and where their limits lie. In job interviews that I've conducted over the years, this question has yielded the most interesting insights into how a person has cultivated their resilience.

Hiring for emotional intelligence requires that the hiring committee members have a particular skill and knowledge set around emotional intelligence—and value it. Emotional intelligence is an area in which we all have gaps—and something we can all continue to build and understand throughout our lives. But schools can and should hire people who have a foundation to build on.

Cultivating Emotional Intelligence in Teachers

Because even the most resilient person will face challenges as a new teacher, schools and organizations that support educators must allocate time and money to building resilience. This will entail boosting the capacity of support staff (coaches, mentors, department heads, and administrators) to build resilience in others; it's usually not something that's learned through professional programs.

Here are some concrete and structural ways schools and programs can build emotional intelligence in teachers, particularly new teachers:

  • Where residency programs or good cooperation between a teacher-prep program and local schools exist, program leaders should match pipeline teachers with mentors who have high emotional intelligence and resilience. When trying to determine which teachers are resilient, leaders might consider their observations about how teachers manage change, deal with challenging parents, or work through conflicts with coworkers. Good mentors know that sharing strategies for how to cope with everyday stressors is a priority. They talk to mentees about ways they cope and they model how they respond to challenges. For example, a mentor might help a novice develop multiple interpretations of student behavior so she doesn't leap to an action based on her first conclusion.

  • Effective teacher prep, mentoring, and new teacher coaching programs include instruction on how to recognize and respond to emotions, and—even more—appreciate emotions. Emotions can be a source of energy and inspiration; an emotion like sadness or frustration can help people gain clarity. When we accept and embrace emotions, we're more likely to easily navigate their waters.

  • Similarly, effective administrators cultivate and communicate an acceptance of emotions—that we have them, that they deserve a place in our work environments, that we can learn to appreciate and use them. They offer professional development tied to emotional resilience, starting with emotional literacy: learning to understand, name, and engage with emotions in healthy ways. Administrators also show the value of self-care. They model taking care of themselves (by not sending emails at 3:00 a.m. and by leaving school at reasonable hours, for instance), and give others permission to do so. When a staff member is visibly ill, they are encouraged (or mandated) to leave school and rest.

  • Mindfulness practices are indispensable and invaluable to educators' work. Mindfulness is the nonjudgmental cultivation of moment-to-moment awareness. You can drink tea mindfully or listen mindfully to someone else talk. Mindfulness helps us be present so that we can make clearheaded decisions—about how to respond to challenging students, for example—in the moment. Mindfulness helps us recognize, understand, and respond to emotions as it strengthens our ability to recognize what we're experiencing before we react.

Meditation is the most common way that mindfulness is developed. Preparation programs and schools might invite all staff to participate in mindfulness work and integrate it into coaching programs. Just as athletes stretch before engaging in rigorous physical activity, when those who are under high stress regularly practice mindfulness, it builds their ability to respond to external stressors.1

Attending to Burnout

I encourage administrators and coaches to be aware of the signs of burnout in teachers. The Maslach Burnout Inventory identifies three areas associated with burnout: emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and negative relation to personal accomplishment. In teachers, symptoms of emotional exhaustion include frustration, a lack of interest in teaching, a reluctance to try anything new, and blaming students or the institution for the lack of success. Depersonalization is marked by cynicism; poor attitudes toward students, colleagues, and the school itself; and growing isolation. Teachers on the road to burnout might not greet their colleagues, avoid sharing their classroom experiences, and neglect to socialize with colleagues. In terms of personal accomplishment, teachers on the edge don't set goals, seem uninterested in learning new things, and have low self-confidence.

Well-trained coaches need to know how to recognize these signs. It can be hard to spot teachers who are beginning to burn out, for the simple reason that they tend to hide their condition—or might not themselves be aware of what's wrong with them. Those supporting teachers need to know how to respond to symptoms of burnout, and prevent it, such as through building healthy, thriving staff communities. (Burnout isn't just about stress—it's also about loneliness and isolation.)

Highlighting Emotions Can Retain Teachers

To create a strong teacher pipeline that produces a teaching force of emotionally resilient educators, pre-service training must include attention to emotional intelligence. We must also consider emotional intelligence when hiring and, once a teacher is onboard, all parties must commit to cultivating emotional intelligence and resilience. When I think back to my experience hiring and coaching Concepcion, I regret that I wasn't aware of the symptoms of burnout—for she was clearly experiencing them. I wish I'd known how to address her emotions, validate them, and guide her in finding ways to respond to them. I regret not recognizing my own emotions in the process—my fear, insecurity, and sadness. I learned from these lessons, however, and my insights contributed to the development of my coaching model, in which coaches address and explore emotions as part of the process of developing pedagogy.

We don't need to lose as many teachers as we do in our stressful schools—they can be better prepared, we can look for seeds of resilience in hiring, and we can provide more support to manage the stress. Attending to emotional intelligence is the missing ingredient in reforming teacher preparation and development programs.

What Is Emotional Resilience?

Emotional resilience, a component of emotional intelligence, is the ability to bounce back after a setback and to thrive in the midst of challenges, not just survive. Emotional resilience rests upon strong emotional intelligence; to be resilient, you must recognize when you're having emotions, know what you're feeling, and have strategies to respond to and engage with the emotions. Emotional resilience is essential for everyone—life is inevitably stressful. For educators, who daily face a myriad of predictable and unpredictable challenges, it's an absolute necessity. The key thing to know about resilience is that while we all have an amount that we're born with, everyone can increase their ability to be resilient.

End Notes

1 The website www.mindfulschools.org is an indispensable resource for educators on mindfulness.

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