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As I celebrate Teacher Appreciation Week, I've been reflecting on what teachers contribute to students, schools, and the community at large. I've also been reflecting on what teachers can't contribute to students, schools, and the community at large. I am typically what some folks (like my husband) would call a "control freak," wanting to be "in charge" and controlling what goes on around me. My sisters would confirm that I've been bossy since childhood (ah, the joys of being first born!), and because of these traits of mine, I've become somewhat of an expert in determining what I can control and what I can't.
Figuring out what we can control and what we can't control is important to mental health. I can control how prepared I am for an emergency, but I can't control how extensively I am affected by that emergency. The recent tornadoes in my home state of Alabama show this. Many people hid out in their "places of safety" during the storms, which was the right thing to do, but the sheer power and magnitude of the storms made most preparations futile. Does that mean we should not go to places of safety for future storms? No. The lesser magnitude of future storms may make our planning and preparations crucial to our survival. We can only do what we can do and hope our preparations are enough to meet the power and magnitude of what we face.
Teachers face circumstances that vary in power and magnitude every day. Some of those circumstances can be faced with creativity and planning. Other circumstances can only be faced with patience and flexibility. Figuring out when you need to plan and when you need to be flexible can be the key to a healthier approach to teaching and learning. To me, there is one main circumstance teachers can control, and one main circumstance that they can't control.
Teachers can control what goes on each day in the classroom. Lesson planning is essential to a successful school day. Students need to be busy and engaged throughout the day in order for learning to happen. The work students do needs to be all things to all students - interesting, important, and appropriately challenging. A well planned lesson can address both learning needs and potential discipline problems that may arise.
Teachers can't control what students bring into the classroom each day. Even the most well planned lesson can be sabotaged by students who are belligerent and defiant. The real question then becomes why the student is belligerent and defiant. To me, this is where teaching and learning become truly complicated. Each student is bringing a different issue to the classroom each day, and how much those issues affect their learning (and your teaching) determines what remedies you might try. Some students are upset with parents or friends. Others may be dealing with poverty or abuse or substance abuse at home. Still others may be upset with you or another teacher in the building about their grades or the amount of work you assign. And yet others just may be insecure or immature and want attention at inappropriate times.
The task of teachers in these instances is not to "fix" what's wrong with the students, which is what you can't control, but to create an environment in which these issues become minimized, which is what you can control. You cannot make a student's home life better or correct immaturity (at least in the short term!). But you can create a classroom environment that is safe, structured, flexible, and engaging so students can leave their personal issues at the door and work on the tasks at hand while they are with you. You can leave your own personal issues at the door as well, not bringing to your classroom your home issues or insecurities or personal biases. You can explain students' behavior as the result of situations they are in rather than personal flaws they cannot change.
Some teachers work in environments in which poverty, abuse, illiteracy, and behavior problems abound. In these environments, it may seem as though no amount of planning or creativity will ameliorate the issues students bring into the classroom. In fact, teachers in these environments often feel like those folks who lost everything in the storms. They prepared, they planned, they did all the right things, but in the end, it was all for nothing. They only escaped with their lives, and in many cases, some didn't even escape with that. Teachers in high-risk schools often feel beaten up by the storms of their circumstances. They may learn to be helpless in these environments, which can lead to their lack of motivation to do the creative planning necessary to make learning happen successfully.
Other teachers work in environments in which students are generally well prepared for learning, but who at times may be immature or uninterested in learning. In these environments, instead of feeling helpless and defeated, teachers typically feel pretty confident about what they do and how they do it. These teachers tend to plan well and are creative with most of their lessons. Most of their students are compliant and even thriving under their tutelage. But these teachers can be blind to the reasons why some students are not successful. They may hold so tightly to their procedures and plans that they cannot imagine why some students aren't engaged or even enthralled by their teaching. These teachers need more patience and flexibility than planning and creativity. These teachers are like those who weather less severe storms. They plan and prepare and protect themselves from the winds and rain, and they usually escape with little to no damage. But some damage can happen, and instead of raging against the existence of storms, we simply clean up the mess and consider how we can avoid the types of damage we faced in the future.
Resilience is not cultivated in an environment free of conflict and adversity. Ultimately, resilient teaching is not about being in a school that is without problems or working with students who are without problems. These schools and students do not exist anyway. Resilient teaching is about preparing for the best while expecting the worst. Resilient teaching is about creativity and planning, patience and flexibility all at the same time.
So to all the teachers who exemplify resilient teaching every day, kudos to you! Let's do all we can to help both our students and our colleagues be more resilient every day.