Resilience: retaining sight of goals in the face of adversity

Our ‘Outliers’ study sought to explain the success of twenty-five Teach First participants who had thrived in the most challenging schools. Every one of them was described as ‘resilient’: this post examines teacher resilience, exploring the trainees’ underlying determination to succeed and the actions which helped them persist from day to day.

Underpinning resilience: a determination to succeed

The study shows that in part, teachers’ resilience comes from an ability to retain sight of their goals in the face of adversity: to keep their ‘eyes on the prize’. Eight teachers emphasised the importance of seeing their struggles as part of a bigger picture: Kyle* spoke of “recognising that everything is a learning opportunity”, while Kyra realised that running her department during her training year represented an “amazing blank canvas”, having decided this she “just ran with it and absolutely loved it.” Conor talked about his determination to keep going: “although it’s been a struggle and at points I’ve absolutely hated it, I know that I’ve learned so much.” Another broad trend, which thirteen interviewees focused on, was a simpler sense of “light at the end of the tunnel”. As Marcy phrased it, awareness that “it isn’t permanent” was crucial. This is what allowed Adita to “work through the tough bit”. Trainees maintained momentum, in part, by keeping a sense of direction and of perspective.

These teachers also embraced the challenges they faced. Fifteen expressed a blunt refusal to give up, many explaining this as a character trait: “I hate failing at things”, Eleanor told us. In Diana’s words: “I don’t fail at things, this is arrogant, but I don’t and I wouldn’t have given up… no matter how hard it got I knew I would finish it.” Warner described himself as “stubborn”, while Silas, who had left a higher-paid job to join Teach First, felt he “had given up too much to quit.” Some went beyond this, appearing to delight in difficulty: for example, Cathy spoke of being “driven” by challenges. Sara’s mentor described her determination that she and her students should succeed.” Sara said of her hardest class: “I made them my challenge.” Teachers’ resilience came from recognising and embracing the challenges they faced.

One description of the trainees – which recurred in ten case studies – was ‘dedicated’. For example, Liza stated that it “wasn’t a resilience in that ‘I am going to survive this and be OK’, it’s that ‘I am going to survive this and uphold my high expectations.’” Likewise, Eleanor was described by a colleague as “really invested in what she was doing and has just got on with making the best of it. She isn’t interested in making excuses for the situation that she is in or what she’s not had because she’ll just go and find what she needs elsewhere.” This dedication was rooted in an underlying motivation, exemplified by Jack, who felt that his resilience was something that went hand in hand with the passion he felt for what he was doing: “When I went into Teach First that stubbornness came through because I know why I’m here and I know what I want to do with it. I want to become a really good teacher and help in the Teach First context.”

Day-to-day actions: persistence

Over half of the trainees were described by colleagues as ‘wiping the slate clean’ each day. A clean slate did not discount the day’s setbacks: teachers reflected on their successes and failures then, having identified possible changes, left their troubles behind rather than dwelling on them. At its simplest, this is captured by this description of Darren: “He just kept going, it was a ‘water off a duck’s back’ attitude.” Clean slates helped trainees soak up adversity and keep going. Diana’s colleague described her “resilience to keep coming back: when the kids were ‘You’re new, we’re gonna rip you,’ she was like ‘Well yeah, you can rip me, but I’m going to be back again tomorrow.’” This response can be combined powerfully with positive framing: Claire’s colleague talked about her having “the positivity to come back and say ‘tomorrow is a new day and… I’ll start from the beginning.” There was striking unanimity about the power of “drawing a line under each day” and holding true, as Marcy did, to every day being a “fresh start.” Continual improvement was implicit in this: Sara’s mentor described her ability to “pick herself up and say ‘that isn’t happening tomorrow and what do I need to do to ensure that that doesn’t happen.’” Wiping the slate clean incorporated both moving on and continual improvement.

It’s important to be “really realistic about things, because you don’t get disheartened when things don’t work out”, as Margot put it. Nine of the trainees said they came to accept they need not be perfect, or expect to solve all their students’ problems. Conor valued the perspective of his mentor who “used to make me realise that lowering my expectations was OK. You can’t make a great lesson out of every lesson.” Samantha spoke of the importance that: “Being able to do what’s required and not being a perfectionist is better, because you’d die from trying if you’re a perfectionist and luckily I’m not… Just being able to do everything to a standard that’s acceptable and good enough for your students and good enough for you, rather than going above and beyond and killing yourself trying.” This perspective appears to have helped the trainees accept and move beyond their struggles.

Alongside this, eleven of the teachers discussed the value of maintaining time and interests outside work. Cathy played sport, Darren went home at weekends, Adita reminded herself “there’s more to life!” Conor felt he was getting angry at school, and realised that he needed to change something: “I did two things, I started taking it a little bit less seriously and making more time to do the things I wanted in my own time… It probably made me teach a little bit better because I was less uptight.” It’s important, Diana said, that “you can come home and switch off at the end of the day.”

An underlying determination to succeed and day-to-day habits of persistence were critical to these teachers’ ability to thrive in challenging environments. This resilience was combined with their strong guiding purpose and excellent support.  Future posts will consider two other attributes they demonstrated: a pursuit of excellence and a focus on building relationships.

*All names have been changed.

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