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Resilience: Building strong individuals or encouraging acceptance of the unacceptable?

In a recent article by Emma Kell, she mentioned a positive outcome gleaned by one teacher in this era of controversy, and let’s face it, anguish and pure anger, was how their resilience had developed. Lovely to hear, considering that resilience is a current buzzword in education. We must teach children to be resilient, so it’s great if teachers are equally not giving in.

But I do have serious issues with this discourse. What does the word mean? The definition I have here is ‘the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties’. Is that really the focus of schooling? And can you teach resilience? Should we be creating difficulties from which children must ‘recover’? Or should we focus instead on setting exciting challenges to which our students want to apply focus, learning and skill to try and overcome. What I’m asking is whether the choice of the word ‘resilience’ rather than ‘determination’ for example, is actually a means of shifting the coping mechanism for stress onto the inflicted and away from the inflictor?

I have a wonderful memory of a whole school inset with a psychologist at my school. It was a Wednesday evening, three days down but two more to get through, plan for, mark the books for, but we were brought into the hall for an hour and a half to discuss our happiness. We were told that teachers were at the bottom of the list for happiness, just beaten to the very bottom by social care workers, whilst head teachers were (this was a few years ago) near the top. The reasons, she explained, were the levels of autonomy experienced in the different roles.


And how were we to manage this lack of voice and power in our roles? How were we to become happier in our working lives? Well, there was a bowl on the table, within which was a collection of strawberries and chocolates. These had been noted at the very start of the session but as fingers reached in their direction, we were instructed not to touch them. You could feel the happiness level plummet further down the scale. But they were a prop in this performance, and only at the end were we allowed to take them. We hungrily started to wrestle the wrappers off the chocolates (definitely the preferred choice at 5.30pm on a Wednesday evening), but again we were halted. This time we were instructed to slowly unwrap the ball of chocolate, hear the plastic, feel the untwisting, savour the moment of imminent pleasure, before being allowed to actually eat the chocolate!

So, what was this about? We were to slow down and savour moments. We were to make the time in our days to stop and not worry and ultimately strengthen ourselves for the next round of marking, planning, differentiating, teaching, data entering, detentions, phone calls home, parent meetings and so on and so on and so on. But I’m sure I wasn’t alone in questioning this: if we allow ourselves those five or ten minutes to savour that unwrapping, haven’t we just made our working days a little longer with an even later finish?

And it’s not just the teachers, of course. My children both returned home during the first week of term this year with amygdala bottles. This consists of a recycled plastic bottle filled with water and glitter. This was new to me. They enlightened me: ‘If we feel stressed, we shake it and watch the glitter.’ A mindful act. I’m not anti-mindfulness but I do wonder if we shouldn’t be questioning the need for a six and an eight old’s need for stress relief at school.

I don’t really believe this encourages resilience. I think it encourages acceptance of ‘difficulties’. More can be thrown at you; whether it’s a teacher being introduced to yet another initiative, or a student preparing for yet another test, you will tell yourself it’s your responsibility to be resilient. Surely this word suggests there is something inherently wrong with the system. Should teachers and students have to be prepared to ‘overcome difficulties’ on a regular basis?

Let’s face it, being resilient day in, day out is exhausting and damaging to our mental health. That was definitely my experience as I was signed off for stress for most of 2017, and couldn’t stop apologising for my failure and for letting everyone down. I had been classed in the ‘strong woman’ category due to my maternal status and managerial role. But as I slipped off this pedestal, I felt I was letting down students, colleagues and womanhood. It’s taken me time to accept that I am not a failure, although I’m fully aware I should have had a long and successful career. Unwrapping a chocolate slowly didn’t save me from this. What might have helped would have been the ability to go and pick my children up at 4.30pm sometimes, not 6pm, and run about in the local park with them. What might have helped would have been not to have experienced the guilt at bedtime when I would tell them to hurry up as I had so much work to do. What might have helped would have been the expectation that this is not a ‘vocation’, but a job that yes, I love and I am good at, and skilled at, and no one can chuck that word in my direction to make me feel I can be expected to work all hours with worsening pay and conditions.

On my Masters course I took a module on Education and Conflict, One visiting tutor was concerned about the use of the word ‘resilience’ in the context of refugee children in transit, living in camps, and suffering daily stress and insecurity. Giving them the ‘Resilient’ title means people in vulnerable spaces are expected to overcome these incredible difficulties. Over the years I have met children who have slept on roadsides on their quest to get to England; children who have seen the Taliban execute family members; as well as children dealing with the trauma of witnessing one parent murder the other; those who are homeless, living in hostels; those who find the classroom context so incredibly challenging because they have special educational needs. They are indeed resilient but they are also struggling and dealing with unhappiness, stress and trauma. I taught adults for a refugee charity recently, and, again, their level of resilience was formidable. One woman talked about living in Mosul. She has a university degree and worked in a good office job for twenty years. Then the Iraq War took place. Both she and her husband lost their jobs. He found work on the markets whilst she didn’t work. Life was difficult, unsafe and survival became the purpose of their existence. Then ISIS arrived and they ran. She now lives in London, aged 57 years and is training to be a baker, while her children prepare to start university here. Two things she said stick with me: ‘Life is here now, we have to look forward,’ and ‘If they wanted the oil, just take the oil, don’t kill the people.’ She personifies resilience but she also comes with her story of trauma, loss and devastation.

So true resilience comes from dealing with true difficulties. The above examples are really about the need for resilience. No staring at an amygdala bottle or slow reveal of a chocolate was going to have any impact in the reality of overcoming life-threatening difficulties. The need for resilience is all about terrible policy decisions made by people who are never going to experience the resulting difficulties. It is always for the inflicted to manage, to cope, to survive. This word really shouldn’t be at the heart of schooling in the UK, but it seems school at the moment has become a race to the top academically, but a race to the bottom when it comes to happiness. You have ticked the resilient box if your mental health hasn’t crumbled.

Teachers shouldn’t need to be resilient to do their jobs well. No more than in any other part of their lives anyway. They need to feel inspired. They need to feel they are academics with time to research, read and develop as professionals. They need to feel valued and capable. They should not feel guilty when they don’t work on a Sunday morning or one weekday evening. They should not be competing for who’s had the least sleep and the shortest lunch break. Oh, and students should not need to stare at floating glitter to get through their days.

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