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October 1, 2022
Vol. 80
No. 2
The Resilient Educator

Strategies to Help Educators Thrive This Fall

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Late fall is a time when many educators need nuanced support.

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Strategies to Help Educators Thrive This Fall
Credit: ANN IN THE UK / SHUTTERSTOCK
Angelica was a mid-career teacher I coached who began the 2021–22 school year in a new school, full of enthusiasm about what she planned to teach, excited by her role as a department chair, and holding high expectations for kids. She was an outstanding teacher who engaged and motivated her students, built strong relationships with colleagues, and aspired to be an administrator. In early November, she got a sinus infection that had her out of school for a week. Upon returning, she struggled—she had little energy when she taught, snapped at kids, and was unprepared for team meetings.
"This is not how I envisioned this fall," she told me. "And my kids aren't making any growth!"
I heard frustration, disappointment, and sadness—normal emotions, and ones commonly experienced as the initial weeks of the school year begin to fade.

From High Hopes to Exhaustion

Many educators begin the fall feeling energized and excited about a new year, new students, and maybe new programs. However, by late October or early November, fatigue sets in. The tiredness, I believe, is due to a few factors: the physical exhaustion of being back in the hectic routine of school for a few months (and sometimes the reduction of healthy habits like sufficient sleep, exercise, and good nutrition), disappointment about particular unmet hopes, and general frustration at what appears to be the limited impact of hard work.
If you're committed to helping the educators you serve build resilience and thrive, it's useful to consider specific resilience-building strategies at different times of the year. The chapters in my book Onward (Wiley, 2018) are aligned to the months of the year and the different phases educators go through at different times during the school year. This alignment ensures strategies can be more relevant to what's going on for educators. Three resilience-cultivating strategies are particularly effective as the start of the school year gives way to later fall.

Slow Down and Acknowledge Emotions

Recognizing and naming emotions can be incredibly powerful in boosting resilience. It requires that we slow down so we can tune in and get clear on what we're feeling and access words to describe emotions. The skills involved with recognizing and labeling emotions need to be developed in most of us. They're surprisingly hard and, unfortunately, most of us didn't get social-emotional learning as children in school. Resources like the Core Emotions (available on my website) and the emotion regulation tools created by Mark Brackett, among others, can help you categorize and label emotions. When we can name our emotions, we feel a sense of empowerment. We begin to recognize that our emotions are not "us," but physical and cognitive experiences that come and go. It can be a tremendous relief to simply recognize disappointment, and say something like, "I feel disappointed and a little sad."
Here's what this can sound like in a conversation with someone you support:
"I'm hearing a lot of emotions in what you're sharing. Skim through this sheet describing common key emotions and see if there are some words that describe what you're feeling."
After the person responds, follow up with something like, "Does that insight into what you're feeling help you understanding what's going on for you right now?"
It can be challenging for an educator to acknowledge disappointment at hopes not being met, or frustration at students' rate of learning, or the sadness of the end of summer (and less personal time). But doing so is a critical step to building resilience.

Identify Growth and Learning

In the beginning of the school year, it can feel hard to see the growth that students make. By the end of the year, that growth often feels tremendous and is easy to celebrate, but in late October, student learning may be less apparent—and teachers are eager to see evidence of their effort.
As a school leader or coach, you can cultivate a teacher's resilience by helping them identify indicators of student growth. Ensure they use various methods to gather formative assessment data so that they can see the impact of their hard work. Every piece of evidence of growth needs to be celebrated—even if a student is still far from mastering a standard or not all students have achieved the goals. Seeing every incremental piece of evidence of our own efficacy builds resilience. It helps us remember that we can be efficacious, even when it's slow going.

I heard frustration, disappointment, and sadness—normal emotions, and ones commonly experienced as the initial weeks of the school year begin to fade.

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Articulate Success Goals

At the start of the year, help those you coach articulate what success will look like—beyond something like standardized test results or reaching a certain level on a performance review. Doing a "good job" is a vague goal—and therefore unattainable.
Guide a teacher to identify what will make them feel successful that year—how they will evaluate their own work. For example, "I'll feel successful this year if on my final survey, at least 85 percent of students say they enjoyed studying history and found my class relevant to their lives." Or "I'll feel successful if I keep up my yoga classes, design and teach one new unit, and if all of my students move up at least one reading level." Being able to see the endpoint we aspire to reach builds resilience.

Lift Yourself, Too

While these strategies can help you to cultivate resilience in the educators you support, don't forget to engage in these yourself; boosting your own resilience will help you in turn support others. It's an overused cliché, but do put on your own oxygen mask first. So as this fall unfolds, pause and acknowledge your own emotions, identify the growth and learning that you've been facilitating for others, and name what success will look like for you this year.

Elena Aguilar is president of Bright Morning Consulting, a sought-after speaker and presenter, and author of many books, including The Art of Coaching (Jossey-Bass, 2013) and Coaching for Equity (Jossey-Bass, 2020).


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