Resilience is easily misunderstood in schools and for obvious reasons. Teachers feel pressure to process, and students feel pressure to perform. Resilience seems like the antidote for lack of engagement, laziness, and disillusionment that too often plagues our students. Yet looking at resilience as a “try harder” attitude in our students undermines its purpose and its power. Resilience is far more nuanced in how it’s cultivated and when it appears in our learners. Contrary to conventional thinking, it’s not the ability to avoid failure; rather, it’s the willingness to grow from it. Learning doesn’t happen without struggle. Resilience understands this and relies on it. Let’s look at how teachers can bring resilience into their classrooms.
Resilience is largely based on the ability to take risks. Think of it like building a muscle. Muscles don’t strengthen without breaking them down first. The strength comes from the repair. The same is true for students and learning. They can’t become more resilient if everything is easy or if failure is precluded. Yet in order to be willing to struggle and take risks, our students must trust that their failure isn’t going to be used against them, either through shame or grades assigned too early in the process. As teachers, we must do the hard work of creating trust with and among our students.
I’m not suggesting lots of ice breaker activities that too often create superficial community. Instead, it’s taking the time to teach students how to talk to each other, how to see each other and how to see themselves as part of the larger purpose of learning in the classroom.
School has somehow taught our students when the learning is easy, they’re smart and when the learning is tough, they aren’t. As teachers we must be vulnerable enough to show and talk about how we also struggle as learners. (And if we can’t find an example of this, then we probably have settled into too much of our own complacency.) Students aren’t going to trust the person they can’t relate to. In order for them to risk the struggle that always precedes resilience, they need to believe it’s a skill you can strengthen and acquire, not a magical gift that’s bestowed on some and not others.
Students need to know struggle is not a sign of weakness, it’s the signal that learning and growth are ahead if they’re willing to keep going.
Failure without Penalty
I have been in far too many meetings and conversations where a central misunderstanding about resilience is perpetuated. I often hear teachers describe resilience as the student who fails the test and then is willing to make correction or commits to trying harder next time by studying more or paying better attention in class. At the heart of this confusion is the belief that overcoming struggle comes at the end of a learning progression instead of being instrumental to its process. In other words, students must be able to fail without penalty. I don’t mean giving a quiz and then not grading it (although that could be a first step), but rather embracing a process of learning where every student may necessarily have to come up with their own hypothesis for the problem or their own topic for a paper. Learning to think is tough, and we’re not doing our students any favors by making that part easy for them. Instead, we can learn beside them, giving them time and space to try out ideas before they get too far into their processes.
If students feel like every time they make a mistake or that the stakes are too high, then they won’t take the risk. As teachers, we can elevate student processes when we say things like, “I just talked with Ivan and he told me about how he’s changing his idea. Ivan, can you tell us about your thinking?” Or maybe it’s in the course of a discussion and a student is way off, but as teachers we know that as soon as student feels shamed in front of their peers, we won’t hear that voice again. So we say something like, “I’m really curious about how you got to this point in your thinking. Walk us through it.”
Assessment, designing instruction and the feedback we give all impact whether or not we’re creating a space for resilience to grow and thrive.
If we want our students to be resilient, we must also put ourselves in the way of struggle. In fact, unless we understand what it means to struggle, we’ll most likely just assign tasks and tell students what to do. If we want to really teach, then we must understand how it feels to get stuck or confused or overwhelmed. If we want to teach, to differentiate, to personalize, to intervene, then we have to know what it feels like to struggle at the very thing we’re teaching.
You can give this a try by doing your own assignments, but with new problems or content you’re unfamiliar with. The goal is to feel the way your students feel when they’re doing the work you’re asking of them. Most importantly, shared struggle creates empathy and understanding, the necessary qualities for any space dedicated to building resilience.
Remember, it’s not our perfection, but our vulnerability, humility, and mistakes that do the best teaching.
Sarah Brown Wessling is a 23-year veteran of the high school English classroom. While a member of the faculty at Johnston High School in Johnston, Iowa she has taught courses ranging from at-risk to Advanced Placement and has served the department and district in a variety of leadership roles. Sarah is a National Board Certified Teacher since 2005 and in 2010 was selected as the National Teacher of the Year. In that capacity she worked as an ambassador for education, giving over 250 talks and workshops in 39 different states as well as internationally. Currently she maintains a hybrid teaching position which keeps her in the classroom and allows her to write, speak and work on teacher leadership initiatives around the country. She is an author of Supporting Students in a Time of Core Standards and maintains a blog with the column “Ask Sarah” at sarahbrownwessling.com.