In this article Tessa Woodward explores the idea of resilience as a feature of self-awareness.

In the introductory article in this series we looked at teacher educator self-awareness, what it is and why it is important in our work. I offered a couple of ideas for self-observation which is a starting point for self-awareness. In this article I will explore the idea of resilience as a feature of self-awareness.

What is resilience?

Resilience does not mean that we won’t experience difficulty in life. It doesn’t mean that, when undergoing difficulty, we will feel no distress. Difficulty and distress are likely in all our lives at some points. Resilience is rather our capacity to adapt to and recover well from potentially destabilising difficulties or threats.

Many different factors can put us at risk of setbacks in life. For example, harsh or neglectful parenting, violence in families, divorce, natural disaster, war, and poverty all expose us to adversity, are factors that rarely exist in isolation, and may be predictors of unfortunate outcomes, unless we show resilience to them.

We recognize resilience in others. We talk about people ‘bouncing back’ after setbacks, of ‘coming back stronger’ after illness or of being ‘a real survivor’ if they recover over time from trauma. We can take this resilience as meaning that the person who faced and endured the difficulty went on to achieve in their academic and work life, to enjoy close relationships, and to have a sense of internal well-being and purposefulness in life.

In our professional lives, although we do not expect trauma, we can surmise that possibly destabilizing difficulties might include lack of job security, low pay, long hours, an unhealthy work environment, health problems, overwork, large and unruly classes, lack of resources, unwanted changes in our job, racism or sexism, and criticism or conflict with managers or colleagues.

Why do we need to be resilient at work?

It is doubtful whether we teacher trainers, teacher educators and mentors face more adversity at work than teachers do. In fact, it may be that a little more status and a little more pay or say means that we are cushioned somewhat from the types of difficulty that beset classroom teachers. It could also be said though that being stuck in between the classroom and the head teacher’s office can be a slightly awkward place to reside. It brings a few stresses and strain of its own. We are neither fish nor fowl, neither completely in the full-time teacher community nor part of the management group in the boardroom! We may at times feel like a lightning rod attracting all the static in the atmosphere and struck by bolts from both sides or communities!

But whoever and wherever we are, we are likely to meet choppy waters at some points in our careers. If we are not resilient, then, after enduring these troublesome patches, we may find that our energy has drained away, our physical and emotional health has suffered, and we burn out pretty quickly.

What do studies of children and young adults report?

There have been many studies of resilience in human development among children and young people, over many decades. These consistently implicate a short list of protective factors often associated with better adaptation to situations of high risk or serious adversity. (Masten, 2014 page 148).

  • Effective caregiving
  • Close relationships with capable adults
  • Close friends
  • Intelligence and problem-solving skills
  • Self-control and playfulness
  • Motivation to adapt
  • Faith, hope, belief and a sense of perspective
  • Effective schools and neighbourhoods

What do studies of adults say about resilience?

There have been many studies of resilience in adults too. These show that resilience is ordinary, not extraordinary. We are all capable of it. We may imagine that some people are just born with the natural ability to deal with adversity due to their inherent characteristics of stoicism or optimism. And we might think that we do not have the resilience ‘gene’. Interestingly though, there is very little evidence in the research for an inherent personality trait of resilience or hardiness. It is not a trait that people either have or don’t have. It involves thoughts, actions and strategies that we can all learn and develop.

What strategies are available to us?

We all react to circumstances in different ways, so there will not be one right strategy that works for us all. But below are several to consider. Reading through them, we may become more aware of what our normal responses are to setbacks, what strategies we usually employ. We can then try out additional ones that may help us to get through trouble better and then to move on.

  • Forming and building good relationships
    Giving help to or receiving help from family, friends, colleagues, faith-based organisations, or other local or hobby groups means we have people we can talk to and listen to and who will give support.
  • Accepting that change happens
    Very few things stay the same for a long time. We need to accept this and expect change!
  • Avoiding or mitigating risk
    It is worth considering if we can actually get around a risk of adversity or mitigate its effects in some way.
  • Choosing our attitude
    We may not be able to change the fact that highly stressful events happen, but we can learn to choose our attitude to them and how we interpret and react to them.
  • Allowing emotion
    We can allow ourselves to feel strong emotions. We also need to recognize when it is time to stop dwelling on these so that we can think and focus.
  • Looking back
    It may be useful to think back to past times of stress at work and consider what helped us to get through it and move on. This may remind us of useful strategies and also give confidence that we can get through trouble again.
  • Form positive goals
    Instead of focusing on the bad and what we cannot do or change, we need to develop some small achievable goals that will help us to move forward day by day.
  • Take action
    Instead of denying we are in trouble, detaching from it or fretting, we can consider carefully what we can do and then take action. This will give us more of a feeling of control.
  • Look for the positive
    However unlikely it seems at first, there are, nearly always, positives, benefits, that come because of times of trouble. These might be, for example, that we gain more empathy with others going through the same thing, that a colleague has gone out of their way to help us, or that we have learned more about ourselves.
  • Keep things in perspective
    Whatever our problem might be, we can usually think of a greater problem that we are NOT facing at the moment! ‘Comparing up’ in this way can be helpful. So can imagining ourselves in the future, in the long term, when the trouble is passed. We need to think BIG and think LONG!
  • Take care of ourselves
    People often say on parting, ‘Take care!’. But how often do we actually follow the advice? We need to make sure we have some rest, some exercise and some fun and regularly do things we enjoy. And in this way, take care of ourselves.
  • Other strategies
    These might include reading accounts by others in a similar fix, writing a journal or blog, meditating, being with animals, being in a different sensory environment whether this is outside in the fresh air, in a sauna, a swimming pool or at a music venue! Maybe we can try to see the funny side of our predicament and tell others exaggerated stories of our panics? Or, it might be helpful to dream up a metaphor for our professional life, such as a whitewater raft trip down a river! This may help us to see that we will at different times in our career move through fast patches of current, slow pools, idle stretches and will certainly have to navigate our way round boulders and islands at some point. The river does move on though and so will we.

Further reading

‘Ordinary Magic Resilience in Development’ by Ann S Masten (2014) The Guilford Press

About the author

Tessa Woodward is an ELT consultant, teacher, and teacher trainer. She has trained teachers in Japan, Switzerland, the UK, USA, and in many European countries. She is the founder editor of The Teacher Trainer journal (Pilgrims), Past President and International Ambassador of IATEFL and founded the IATEFL Special Interest Group for Teacher Trainers (now the SIG T Ed/TT). She is the author of many books and articles for language teachers and teacher trainers. Tessa is also the founder of The Fair List.

The other articles in this series discuss ways for teacher educators to develop:

Research and insight

Browse fascinating case studies, research papers, publications and books by researchers and ELT experts from around the world.

See our publications, research and insight