Listen to my interview with Elena Aguilar (transcript):
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When talking about a profession that loses 50 percent of its workforce in the first five years of their careers, it would be an understatement to say teaching is challenging. It traps us in small rooms with an unpredictable assortment of personalities, energies, and needs. It forces us to make hundreds of small, exhausting decisions every day. And over and over again, it puts us in predicaments that test our confidence, wear out our patience, and break our hearts. You can learn all the techniques, plan outstanding lessons, and set up a water-tight classroom management system, but to do this work and stick with it long enough to get good at it, you need a level of emotional resilience most other jobs will never require.
And at this particular moment in history, teaching may be harder than ever. Systems have been put in place that make the work seem almost impossible, and the powers that be seem to be rooting against our success. A lot can be done to change that, to make the challenges of teaching more satisfying and less…soul-sucking, but on most days it can seem like those changes are pretty far outside of our sphere of influence. Finding the courage and energy to push for change despite how hard it is? That requires resilience, too.
And our teacher training never prepares us, never teaches us exactly how to develop that resilience. In fact, in my own training, the topic of my emotional state as a teacher never came up once.
The good news is that we now have a resource that focuses entirely on the topic of teacher resilience. In her book, Onward: Cultivating Emotional Resilience in Teachers, instructional coach Elena Aguilar walks us through twelve habits that teachers can develop to strengthen their emotional resilience. The book and its companion workbook are organized around a year-long calendar; Aguilar recommends that teachers work through the book slowly.
“The workbook has over 365 exercises, many of which you’ll probably want to repeat more than once,” she says. “Ideally people will be engaging in this learning with friends and colleagues so that they can have the kinds of conversations that will make this learning really sink in and stick.”
Let’s take a peek at the 12 habits now. My hope is that in getting a better understanding of the factors that contribute to emotional resilience, you’ll see areas that you can improve for yourself, and this in turn will allow you to not only stick with this incredibly important work, but find new ways to effect change, inspire others, and thrive.
12 Habits that Build Resilience
In the book, Aguilar explains how developing each of these habits contributes to resilience. She recommends focusing on a different habit each month, taking the whole month to learn about, reflect on, and develop practices that strengthen that habit. Below each habit is the month Aguilar suggests as an ideal time to focus on it: This is based on a typical American school calendar, where the school year starts around August/September and ends around May/June. If your calendar is different, you may want to make adjustments accordingly.
1. Know Yourself
Suggested month: June
Taking the time to reflect on and get clear about your values, your preferences, your skills and aptitudes, and your sociopolitical identity can help you develop a strong sense of purpose. This makes you more likely to respond to difficult situations in ways that are consistent with that purpose. “Being really anchored in your purpose,” Aguilar explains, “being really clear about what you want to be doing in life, helps you deal with challenges and setbacks.”
2. Understand Emotions
Suggested month: July
Emotions “can be tremendous resources and sources of energy,” Aguilar says. They key is figuring out “how to have healthier relationships with them, how to understand them, name them, accept them, and then work with them.” During this month, Aguilar has teachers examine the way emotions influence our thinking (and vice-versa) and how to work with them, instead of against them.
She’s especially interested in how we deal with anger. “There have been times when I’ve acted from anger, and it hasn’t been productive,” she says. “And there are other times when I figured out how to use my anger as a fuel and as energy, how to act from a place of kindness and compassion, but not suppress my anger.”
3. Tell Empowering Stories
Suggested month: August
“The space where we can have the greatest impact on our resilience is between a thing that happens and how we interpret and make sense of that thing,” Aguilar says. That interpretation takes the form of a story we tell ourselves.
“So for example, a student rolls her eyes at you. That’s the thing that happens,” she says. “How you make sense of and interpret that event is precisely the point where either your resilience can be drained or filled, because you could interpret her eye rolling as This student doesn’t respect me, or you can interpret that event as, This is very typical behavior from 12-year-olds, and I’m going to move on to the next part of the lesson. In that moment, if we can hone our ability to expand that space between what happens and how we respond and how we interpret it, we have so much more power then to cultivate our resilience.”
4. Build Community
Suggested month: September
If we develop habits that nurture relationships with our colleagues, students, parents, and administrators, we strengthen our resilience. “There’s actually medical research saying that isolation is more dangerous to your physical health than smoking,” Aguilar says. “Teaching can be such a lonely experience, and I think anything that we can do to begin cementing those connections will just help us so much when things get rough.” The beginning of a school year is an ideal time to start, and by putting relationship-building habits in place early, that community can be a source of strength all year long.
5. Be Here Now
Suggested month: October
“Learning how to be in the present moment without judging it can help us to experience acceptance. It helps us to have clear-headedness so that we can make choices in our responses.” Developing habits of mindfulness, where we focus on what is happening right now without judgment, can help us to circumvent a “triggered” reaction to daily challenges and instead respond calmly and thoughtfully. Daily meditation or even brief moments of focusing on our breath can help us hit that “pause button” and bring ourselves to that place of calm.
6. Take Care of Yourself
Suggested month: November
“It’s really hard to build community or to cultivate compassion or be a learner—some of the other habits—when you’re just sick, when you’re worn out,” Aguilar says. So this month, she recommends focusing on the habits of physical self-care, digging into the reasons why teachers so often fall short in this area. “I think people know what to do,” she says. “We know we should be eating more leafy greens and exercising more and so on, but why is it so hard?” Uncovering those reasons can help with developing habits that work.
7. Focus on the Bright Spots
Suggested month: December
During this month, Aguilar guides teachers to practice giving more attention to what is working, rather than what’s not. “Our brains have a negativity bias,” she explains, “so everything that is challenging, that is potentially a threat, appears really vividly and clearly to us, because of the way our brains are wired, and so one of the skills that we need to hone is the ability to see all the things that are going well or even just okay.”
In the classroom, for example, we can prompt ourselves to regularly notice students who are paying attention and on-task, rather than giving all our attention to the few students who aren’t. By developing this habit, we increase our sense of empowerment, which in turn builds greater resilience.
8. Cultivate Compassion
Suggested month: January
When we practice compassionate thinking for others and ourselves, we become better equipped to handle difficult situations. “Cultivating compassion, broadening our perspective on how we see a situation, helps us to empathize with others, to see the long view, to take ourselves out of the drama of the moment,” Aguilar says. So when students misbehave, a colleague is short with us, or a parent challenges one of our decisions, being in the habit of viewing these situations through the lens of compassion can help you not take that behavior personally, which leads to smarter, less reactive decision-making.
9. Be a Learner
Suggested month: February
“Resilient people are curious,” Aguilar says. “Resilient people experience a challenge and turn around and say, Wow. That was really hard. That pushed me to my limits. What can I learn from that? Just that question alone immediately propels you into a place of being able to build your resilience.” So this month, teachers are encouraged to reflect on who they are as learners, to better understand the stages of the learning process, and to practice seeing challenges as invitations to curiosity.
10. Play and Create
Suggested month: March
One tool for building resilience that is easy to overlook is the habit of play. “I think it’s a human right to be creative, to create, enjoy, and appreciate art,” Aguilar says. “Playing and creating can unlock inner resources for dealing with stress, for solving problems…it can help us see different things and find different approaches to tackle challenges.” This month—which may hit right around spring break—teachers are encouraged to build regular periods of play and creation into their daily lives.
11. Ride the Waves of Change
Suggested month: April
The end of the school year inevitably brings all kinds of changes; some of these can completely throw us off track if we’re not prepared for them. Aguilar recommends teachers spend this month looking at “how we can harness our energies to manage those changes and also direct our energy to the places that we can make the biggest difference.” This practice includes slowing down, facing and dealing with fear, and mindfully evaluating situations to determine which responses will have the most impact.
12. Celebrate and Appreciate
Suggested month: May
As the school year winds down, we have lots of opportunities to celebrate our own accomplishments and those of our students and colleagues. This month, teachers are encouraged to develop daily habits of gratitude and to carry those habits throughout the year. “Even in the hardest moments,” she says, “if we can shift into a stance of appreciation, we can build our resilience.”
Build the Habits Over a Year
The best way to make all 12 of these habits stick is to work through them slowly, over the course of a year. Even better, do it with a group of committed colleagues.
To support you in that journey, Elena Aguilar is offering several resources:
- The Onward Workbook is the companion to the book and contains 365 daily exercises aligned with the monthly habits.
- The Onward website at onwardthebook.com offers downloadable mediations, printables, a self-assessment and related blog posts and videos.
- The Onward Facebook page will offer private groups for each of the 12 habits, so you can study and practice that habit within a larger community.